The Ottawa Citizen
14 October 2016
They say that in a small town, everybody knows everybody.
That’s all the more true in a town like Eganville, Ont. Population: 3,763, according to the latest available statistics.
So when a well-known figure in the community steps forward to share their story about a lifetime of sexual abuse, people will talk.
Sitting on a bench at the end of a footbridge by the south side of the Bonnechere River, Roberta Della-Picca points to a yellow building along the main road that crosses through the heart of Eganville.
“We sat in that restaurant and … a hand was placed on my inner thigh. I took that hand and put it on the table, and I was in my 40s then,” she says as she recounts decades of abuse that started when she was a young child. She says the man in the restaurant was a family member.
“So, yeah,” she says with a heavy sigh. “It’s pretty extensive.”
At 61, the Order of Ottawa recipient and celebrated community artist is ready to speak in detail about her history with sexual violence.
Over the summer months, she and about 250 volunteers in Renfrew County helped build what is believed to be the first monuments in Canada dedicated to survivors of sexual assault.
The Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County spearheaded The Countdown Public Art Project in 2014, but it only got off the ground in March 2016 when the Ontario Arts Council provided a $75,000 grant.
Under the artistic guidance and leadership of Anna Camilleri from Toronto-based Red Dress Productions, volunteers built four pebble mosaics — in Eganville, Kilaloe, Pembroke and the First Nation reserve, Pikwàkanagàn.
On Saturday, the main and biggest monument in Eganville’s Centennial Park will be officially unveiled at a ceremony where Tracy MacCharles, Ontario minister responsible for women’s issues, is scheduled to speak.
Sophie Grégoire Trudeau will also deliver a videotaped greeting, in which she says the monuments “celebrate survival and reclaim public space in the name of survivors.”
The main monument is a beautiful, five-ton display of tens of thousands of little stones partially submerged in joined, curved concrete slabs. Standing over the structure, it almost looks like a butterfly or a flower.
Survivors like Della-Picca say the monuments will bring the subject of sexual violence to light, especially in rural towns where the issue is often swept under the rug.
“Too many of us have been skulking around in the shadows hiding, so it feels very empowering to be able to stand up in public and say, ‘I am a survivor,’ and here’s something concrete that you can touch and stand on and meditate at and think about, commemorating all of us survivors,” she says.
As the rushing sound of water crashes through the nearby dam, Della-Picca recalls how, at 12 years old, she reported sexual abuse to Ottawa police, “but it went nowhere.”
She was sexually assaulted as a youth by a former boyfriend and then again multiple times as an adult by other ex-boyfriends, but says she didn’t report the abuse to authorities in those instances.
Not being believed by the police was one thing, but not being believed by some members of her own family crushed her. She didn’t really care much for seeking justice because there was nothing anybody could do to right the wrong in her life.
What she really wanted was to be believed.
“Because people (were) telling me it never happened. I know it effing well did, many times, many ways, many places,” she says.
“It’s really disconcerting to be told your reality doesn’t exist.”
During the entire 50-minute interview, Della-Picca twiddled with a grey, porous rock the size of a baseball in her right hand, comparing it to an adult “security blanket.” She admits she does this at times when she needs encouragement.
Rocks have always been a part of her life, beginning in childhood, she explains. Every day she meditates facing “Big Rock” on Lake Clear, about 15 kilometres southwest of Eganville. Holding a rock in her hands helps her feel grounded while a flurry of emotions – mostly anger – swirl around her.
It’s fitting that she was asked to add a stone to a mosaic that will now be a lasting tribute to survivors of sexual violence.
“It’s like I was born for it. Seriously. It’s such a natural outcome to the path of my life,” she says.
Throughout the construction of the monuments, Della-Picca also brought along a stuffed bear nicknamed “Lonely,” which was there for those times when women needed something to hold onto for comfort. Lonely became the unofficial mascot of the project.
JoAnne Brooks, director of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County, says many of the stones have survivors’ names written on the bottom, but the public won’t seem them because they’re embedded in the concrete.
One of the reasons why a monument like this is needed in Renfrew County is because of the “rural reality” survivors face, she says. In some cases, privacy is something survivors in rural areas hold onto dearly.
The lack of public transportation in rural towns means most people get around by car and people know what vehicle you drive. If it’s spotted at a sexual assault support centre, or, say, a police station, people will start asking questions.
“There’s a lot of interconnectedness here where everyone knows everyone else, and everyone is related to everyone else. There’s a lot of peer pressure to be silent about sexual violence. Even more so than in urban areas,” says Brooks.
“There is a very big stigma here to not talk about sexual violence. In rural areas, you need to keep that business private.”
Sexual violence activist Julie Lalonde spent about two years in Renfrew County researching the impact of sexual violence on rural women. She calls the monument project a “significant” triumph for people, particularly women, in small-town Ontario.
“When you’re looking at nationally, provincially, locally, rural women are never thought of. They’re never included when you look at policies, when you look at programming. Rural women are never, ever on the radar. To see the community reject that (and) force rural women into the conversation and to say, ‘We don’t need you, we can do this ourselves,’ it’s just so incredibly inspiring to me,” says Lalonde.
“It’s giving me a lot of hope.”