A BANDOLIER FOR MINNIE SUTHERLAND

Bandolier for Minnie Sutherland in CUAG exhibition To Be Continued: Troubling the Queer Archive

The recent death of Joyce Echaquan, a 37-year old Atikamekw woman, who streamed on Facebook Live the disgusting racist taunts hurled against her as she lay dying by hospital staff in the Province of Québec on September 28, 2020, shares an uncanny and disturbing similarity to the 1989 death of Minnie Sutherland in Ottawa. Ace’s recent work Bandolier for Minnie Sutherland presages the death of Joyce Echaquan, and now draws attention to the fact that after 31 years, Canada has still not addressed racism and systemic racism in this country.

The story of Minnie Sutherland, a 40-year old Cree woman from Kashechawan First Nation, is a tragic one. A victim of overt racism by the police, troubling stereotyping and medical neglect, she suffered for 11 days in a coma and eventually succumbed to a blood clot in the brain. Minnie had been hit by a car in the early hours of New Year’s Day 1989 on the Promenade du Portage in Gatineau (Hull) Québec, directly across the Ottawa River from the Nation’s Capital. She had suffered a skull fracture that lead to her untimely death. Hull Police failed to call an ambulance or file a police report that could have saved her life. Instead she was dragged and abandoned on a snowbank and left in the care of her cousin and three very concerned witnesses who had been celebrating New Year’s Eve at the nearby gay bar Le Pub.  A series of misdiagnoses and decisions based on racial stereotyping would eventually bring her to a parking lot a few hours later in Ottawa. The Ottawa Police and ambulance services also neglected to properly investigate and diagnose her condition that resulted in her eventual hospitalization and death. After an internal investigation of the Hull Police’s mishandling of the incident in the Coroner’s Inquest, four of the five jurors felt that racism was not a factor in the case and recommended multi-cultural sensitivity training on visible minorities.

Ace’s Bandolier for Minnie Sutherland is an honouring work and a homage to Minnie’s memory. Her story should never be forgotten. Unfortunately, she is one of too many in a long list of victims who have succumbed to either racism, homophobia, hate crimes, stereotyping, and neglect. The Bandolier for Minnie Sutherland is also a bookend to Ace’s earlier work, Bandolier for Alain Brosseau. Alain Brosseau was a young waiter at the Chateau Laurier who was walking home late at night and was brutally attacked and lost his life in the summer of that same year. On August 21, 1989, Alain Brosseau was mistakenly targeted as queer and was thrown off the Interprovincial Bridge onto the rocky shoreline of the Ottawa River by a gang of homophobic thugs. His senseless murder and public outcry were also a definitive turning point that galvanized and mobilized Ottawa’s queer community.

Both works are included, and in conversation for the first time, in the exhibition To Be Continued: Troubling the Queer Archive curated by Cara Tierney and Anna Shah Hoque at the Carleton University Art Gallery from September 24 to December 12, 2020. The curators note, “To Be Continued: Troubling the Queer Archive looks at local histories and genealogies of queerness. The exhibition showcases the work of emerging and established QTIBPOC artists, countering the dominance of white queer histories. It also reflects on the moments, spaces and people that constitute the existing archive, while addressing its gaps and omissions.”

In their writings on the works, the curators note that for the Bandolier for Alain Brosseau and Bandolier for Minnie Sutherland“Barry Ace uses the form of the bandolier bag, historically worn in Anishinaabe ceremony and often given to respected people, as a way to pay tribute to Alain Brosseau and Minnie Sutherland whose tragic deaths in 1989 call us to take a closer look at histories in the local, and the collective responses to events that exist at the interstices of race, Indigeneity, and queerness. Whose histories and stories are easily known? What amplifies a story and obscure another?

Alain Brosseau’s tragic death in 1989 is often framed as the event which brought homophobic violence into local public discourse as a matter of urgency; the catalyst that led to the formation of the Ottawa Police Service’s LGBT Liaison Committee which came about as a result of Brosseau’s death, a straight white man who was read as gay because of his gender expression. Earlier that year, Minnie Sutherland was the victim of a car accident that led to her death as a result of institutionalized neglect, motivated by racial-bias, bordering on a hate crime, perpetrated by the Quebec police. 

Seen here together for the first time, their installation on a painted blue stripe alludes to the Ottawa River, which played a fundamental role in each of their premature deaths. Brosseau, whose body was thrown in the water and Sutherland whose emergency need for medical care was denied by forces who used the river, the colonial state-sanctioned border, as a way to divest themselves of responsibility. In this way, the body of water which for Indigenous peoples is the place of coming together of distinct nations was, in colonial terms, ideologically weaponized as a tool to neglect life.”

Two earlier works of Ace’s addressing HIV/AIDS are also included in the exhibition. Speaking to Ace’s work from 2011 Stop Saying HIV/AIDS is in the Past (because it is not), the curators explicate, “the AIDS pandemic has had a ravaging effect on the queer community. From its outbreak in the 80s and up until today, it continues to affect those most disproportionately marginalized by the larger structural inequities that govern contemporary society. Historically, the impact on the queer community meant severe losses at the level of the individual and the collective. Musicians, playwrights, visual artists, dancers – creatives of all disciplines, as well as their audiences struggled to keep each other alive and provide dignified deaths in the face of overwhelming social neglect amplified by the homophobic and racist attitudes that govern the public response towards sexuality and illness. 

The introduction of a treatment (seen here in the ubiquitous blue and white AZT pill) while providing a framework for the development of sustainable management of the virus has been accompanied by the ongoing task of continuing to educate a larger population whose stigmatization of the virus has an inordinate wall of ignorance to overcome.  The “state of emergency” public discourse pronounced in the early days of the pandemic, like other forms of socially secured rights and stability, has since subsided which again, fosters the neglect to support those most strongly affected who continue to suffer.” 

For the final work included in the exhibition, the curators quote directly from Ace’s artist statement where he decodes Erased; “Like trailing fringe on Indigenous footwear erasing the tracks of the wearer, AIDS erased the lives of friends and lovers, as the privileged class marginalized the Queer community to take care of our infected and dying. Through activism, we challenged homophobia for our survival and healing. Like Anishinaabeg floral medicine motifs, the digital age provides new interconnectivity for sharing and healing so the lives of our courageous warriors who pushed our community forward will not be forgotten.”

TO BE CONTINUED: A STONECROFT SYMPOSIUM PODCAST

Ep. 1: Curators Anna Shah Hoque and Cara Tierney Introduce “To Be Continued” (here).