In July of 1997, at the age of 42, Deborah Sloss was found dead in Toronto. Laura Clarke, Sloss’s daughter, heard the news through her mother’s friends, 30 days after the body was found.
“In the police report the first line is, ‘The victim was an aboriginal from northern Ontario, a known crack addict and alcoholic,’” said Clarke, 40, “and her whole police report, if you take out the spaces…is one sheet (of paper).”
Although the Toronto Police wrote the case off as an alcohol and drug overdose incident, Clarke believes her mother was murdered. Many of her questions were not answered, she said, and much of the evidence did not fit.
“When I go the autopsy report…it listed no cause of death. There was nothing toxicological, nothing anatomical,” Clarke said. “We don’t have any answers and my feeling is because of her being native, and she was using drugs and she was an alcoholic, that she didn’t matter…(that) they couldn’t bother to waste the time to find out why she was dead.”
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC), based in Ottawa, says the issue of missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls is serious and overlooked. In order to raise awareness, the association approached Alberta artist Gloria Larocque to create a visual impact of the 582 found cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada, through art.
“The majority (of these cases had) no justice and no closure for the families,” said Michèle Audette, 42, president of NWAC. “So the artist wanted to represent the 600 known missing and murdered…as dolls with no faces.”
Each doll created for this project is unique, and although they are faceless, they have traditional native clothing, hairstyles and skin tones. All these features are used to break stereotypes about the native culture and show the diversity within the aboriginal community.
Throughout her youth, Larocque was a human rights activist for aboriginal women and girls, but she realized politics and speeches were not catching the public’s attention. That’s when she gathered the courage to choose a different path.
“I knew how to do one thing, which is sew,” said Larocque, 45. “And if I went on the foundation that these women’s stories wanted to be told, it was like being called…it was a moment of transformation for me to take a very simple craft into an art form that I did not consider art work.”
“To do something politically through the dolls, it became the Faceless Doll Project…to really hammer in the whole issue of facelessness and that story of being faceless in means of society and vanity,” Larocque said.
The faceless aspect of the dolls came to Larocque, when she looked into the history of cornhusk dolls from the east coast native culture. She discovered the dolls were faceless to teach the youth about vanity. The community’s children learned about cohesion, selflessness and other aspects of living in a tight-knit society through their dolls.
“I used that (message) in a different way,” Larocque said, “to say these dolls are faceless because of society’s vanity, not the woman’s vanity. (The facelessness) created that anonymity, that anonymous factor that I was really searching for.”
According to Larocque, aboriginal women and girls are neglected by society, which makes them invisible.
When the Faceless Doll Project started in 2012, Larocque created simplified 2-D patterns, so each of the 600 faceless dolls could be put together in workshops by aboriginal and non-aboriginal families across Canada. Now, all the dolls are attached on large green panels, creating an exhibit whose massive size emphasizes the impact of the situation.
“It’s amazing how the project helped us to open the eyes and hearts of many people who didn’t know at all about this reality, right here in Canada,” Audette said.
“The project speaks for itself,” she said. “These girls that are missing or murdered…don’t have a face until their families put a face on it. I think without the families standing up and doing the (search) on their own, these girls will end up staying faceless dolls because society doesn’t really acknowledge them.”
The exhibition is travelling to every workshop in Canada organized by NWAC, so that people can glue together their own faceless aboriginal dolls and engage in the issue. Each doll is created with the intention of increasing public awareness.
Every time a woman goes missing a new doll is created, and Audette says that needs to keep happening.
“We need to (continue the project) and to keep it alive,” she said. “So we don’t say, ‘OK, that was the issue of the year, of the moment, so now let’s jump on another issue.’ We have to keep this alive until we see justice. That’s how I’m driven every day.”
– Vida Korhani