Winnipeg’s Alexander Docks reimagined as living MMIWG2S memorial by Métis landscape designer

A Métis landscape designer hopes to transform Winnipeg’s Alexander Docks into a living monument for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, as well as a healing space for their loved ones to mourn and raise awareness — but first she needs city approval.

Desirée Theriault’s thesis for her master’s degree in landscape architecture was dedicated to creating a healing memorial for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people (MMIWG2S) at the docks.

“As designers, we have the power to reveal, uplift stories, but also to mask stories,” she told CBC.

“I realized that there are not many spaces in our city that create space for memorializing MMIWG2S and to practise cultural safety alongside our river.”

The docks became notorious after the body of 15-year-old Tina Fontaine was found nearby in 2014.

Theriault says the site deserves to be memorialized for Fontaine and for others like her who didn’t make it home.

Theriault’s reimagining of the Alexander Docks includes design elements such as a ‘spirit forest.’ (Submitted by Desirée Theriault)

Her thesis design includes a “spirit forest” made up of 64 maple trees to represent the 63 First Nations and the Métis Nation in Manitoba. It also includes a firepit in the spot where a memorial for Fontaine once stood and where a sacred fire would be lit with every announcement of a new stolen sister, said Theriault.

“Every time that sacred fire is lit, those plumes of smoke [would] obstruct the view of the … [Canadian Museum for Human Rights], which is seen across the distance of the river,” she said.

“And that really symbolizes the ongoing violation of human rights.”

‘We often feel like we’re alone’

In collaboration with their families, Theriault also mapped the locations of areas in the city where Indigenous people were either found dead or were last seen before they went missing.

Placing those points on a map brought dignity to the victims’ memories, but they also highlighted the prominence of the Red River in the MMIWG2S crisis in Winnipeg, she said.

Mapping the locations of places where Indigenous people have gone missing or were found murdered brought dignity to their memories, says Theriault. (Submitted by Desirée Theriault)

Manitoba NDP MLA Bernadette Smith, whose sister Claudette Osborne-Tyo has been missing since 2008, collaborated with Theriault on the project. She says Theriault’s partnership with families gave them a voice.

“We often feel like we’re alone — that our loved ones have been forgotten, and that nobody’s really paying attention,” she told CBC.

The discovery of Tina Fontaine’s body near the docks galvanized the country into action — with thousands coming together to remember the teen there. It was also a turning point for community initiatives in Winnipeg, said Smith.

Drag the Red was born out of that, and they started their very first search at that dock,” she said. “Bear Clan was resurrected as a result of that, and helped search those banks for missing and murdered persons.”

‘This is something that the community wants,’ says NDP MLA Bernadette Smith, whose sister has been missing since 2008. (Gary Solilak/CBC)

The MLA hopes the City of Winnipeg will consider implementing Theriault’s design.

“This is something that the community wants, and hopefully the city will listen and work towards making it happen.”

While she has reached out to the city about her thesis, Theriault says it has not made any commitments.

“This space is really critical to telling the story of MMIWG2S,” she said.

Developments docked: city

In an email to CBC, the city said $600,000 was allocated last April to fund future developments of the docks, but it’s still too early to comment on what those developments will be.

The city’s 2022 plan for the Exchange District noted the history of vigils and temporary memorials dedicated to MMIWG2S that took place on the docks, and says any redesigns must ensure the docks remain a place of “healing and reconciliation.”

Theriault is not the first to reimagine the future of the Alexander Docks. In 2018, two Winnipeg architects held a public contest for people to submit design ideas for the derelict site.

The “On the Docks” competition was unaffiliated with the City of Winnipeg, but resulted in 200 submissions forwarded to the city with the hopes that it would jump start the process of redevelopment at the site.

The docks were deemed unstable in 2015 due to the river bank’s position on one of the highest flood lines in the city.

Consequently, a memorial dedicated to Fontaine at the docks was moved to another location in 2015.

Theriault’s design includes a flood protection wall and structures to prevent damage from floating ice chunks during spring thaw. The Alexander Docks were closed to the public in 2015 after they were deemed unsafe. (Submitted by Desirée Theriault)

“Now, when you go to the Alexander Docks, it’s covered in snow,”  said Theriault. “There’s no markings, plaques or a monument that is dedicated to a place for Tina Fontaine.”

Her design includes protective debris to combat floating ice chunks and a wall for flood protection.

During her work on the project, Theriault says she chose to prioritize creating dignity for the spirits lost, because she realized that she cannot bring justice through design.

“I cannot create justice — whether that be political or legal justice, but I can create dignity to the memories of those that have gone.”

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