WARNING: This story contains details some readers may find distressing.
An Indigenous artist based in London, Ont., says her work is being stolen and sold online in a brazen move to turn Orange Shirt Day‘s spirit of reconciliation and healing into an opportunity to make a quick buck.
“They’re not just stealing artists’ work; they’re actually appropriating culture,” said Hawlii Pichette, a Mushkego Cree (Treaty 9) artist and illustrator. “They’re making money off of our trauma.”
Pichette’s illustrations and digital art — which you can see here on her website Urban Iskwew — are vibrant and distinctive. The stylized designs carry messages of hope and empowerment for Indigenous people, taking their inspiration from traditional First Nations art while celebrating the land and animals.
Pichette designed an orange Every Child Matters shirt for the Atlohsa Family Healing Services, a London-based non-profit organization that provides community members with Indigenous-led programming and services of healing, shelter and support.
She’s also designed colouring pages with an Every Child Matters theme. Those are offered as free downloads on her website. The colouring pages are often used as a teaching tool for children learning about the trauma Indigenous people suffered at residential schools.
Awareness of the abuse and suffering First Nations people endured at residential schools in Canada has been heightened following the detection this spring of the remains of more than 200 children buried on the grounds of a former residential school in Kamloops, B.C.
The Every Child Matters movement and the orange shirts worn as show of support for Indigenous people have gained momentum ahead of Canada’s first National Day for Truth and Reconciliation on Thursday.
But there are concerns the movement has led to people seeing it as a trend with enormous profit potential.
In the summer, Pichette became aware that a Facebook page called We Love Native American was posting images of T-shirts that use her designs without permission, and link to websites that sell them for $24.95 each.
“It’s copied and pasted off of my website,” said Pichette. “They barely changed a thing. This is my art 100 per cent. They didn’t even alter it — they just took it.”
Here’s an example of Pichette’s work:
And here’s how the design appears on the Facebook page We Love Native American:
Pichette said six of her designs are being used without permission on the Facebook page and the T-shirt selling websites that link to them.
She said that in some cases, the designs have cursory changes. For example, in this image from Pichette’s website, the moccasins appear with the words “Rock Your Mocs.”
But in the version that appears on the We Love Native American Facebook page, the wording has been changed to read “Every Child Matters.”
Pichette said she can tell the artwork has been stolen outright because her work has an embedded signature she can see in the images used on the website selling the T-shirts.
The links on the Facebook page lead to two different websites — winterbubbleprint.com and fashiondeja.com — both of which list the same contact number and mailing address in Indianapolis.
CBC News called the 1-888 number listed on the websites, but they only offered automated voice messages to verify orders with no way to speak with anyone directly.
One of the web pages includes a web form to report intellectual property violations. Pichette said she has filled it out six times since July, but the company never contacted her directly and the shirts with her stolen designs are still up for sale. She’s also posted multiple comments on the Facebook posts saying “this art is stolen,” but the posts have not been removed.
CBC News contacted Facebook for comment but hasn’t received a reply.
“I know really well-known artists who’ve had their art stolen from this group and their art is still up there a year later,” said Pichette.
She said she’s not an expert in intellectual property and doesn’t have the time and skills it would take to track down the people behind the companies.
“If there’s a lawyer out there who wants to help me with this, I’d love to speak with them,” she said. “Something has to change because this has been going on for a long time. These are profiteers who saw what’s going on with Orange Shirt Day and they’re jumping on this. It’s wrong on so many levels.”
Support is available for anyone affected by their experience at residential schools, and those who are triggered by the latest reports.
A national Indian Residential School Crisis Line has been set up to provide support for former students and those affected. People can access emotional and crisis referral services by calling the 24-hour national crisis line: 1-866-925-4419.