Seated in their new home in Victoria’s Oak Bay neighbourhood, Franke James watches the autumn sun sparkle on the Juan de Fuca Strait with her husband and sister. It’s a beautiful moment of serenity the family relishes—especially since the last few years of all of their lives have been anything but peaceful.
James has dedicated her 30-year career as a visual artist to creatively and passionately articulate the social justice issues close to her heart. A graduate of the University of Victoria’s master of fine arts program, her work spans media (billboard installations and broadcast media) and subject matter (including climate change and disability advocacy).
Most recently, James has been setting her artistic focus on matters of international and personal significance. Last year, she published Banned from the Hill, a book recounting her experiences of being censured by the federal government when they blacklisted a planned European art tour that questioned tar sands development.
Closer to home, she launched a creative campaign called “Human Rights Should Never Be Disabled,” an effort to publicly raise awareness of human rights violations against people with disabilities— including people like her sister Teresa.
“We want to change their thinking”
James launched the human rights campaign inspired by her sister in 2013. That year, Teresa, who has Down Syndrome, was put into a long-term care nursing home without her agreement and against her father’s wishes.
“If we hadn’t stepped in, Teresa would still be in institution,” Franke says.
Teresa is 50 years old and had always lived with her father until last November. Teresa was placed in the home because healthcare workers deemed her incapable of making her own decisions. James disagreed with their assessment of her sister’s autonomy and abilities. And she was horrified at her placement in the old age home when Teresa was just 50.
James and her husband Bill helped her father get Teresa officially discharged after four days, and Teresa came to live with James and Bill. Their father moved into a nursing home last December.
But the question of how Teresa’s rights were taken away, and how she was forced into long-term care, is now the subject of a complaint to the Ontario Ministry of Health. James’ human rights lawyer filed it in April 2014, and they are still waiting for answers.
In addition to a Change.org petition featuring over 25,000 signatures, James and her husband set to work on a campaign to pressure the government to acknowledge what they see as a violation of human rights for a person with a disability.
The campaign includes a website, TeresaPocock.com, with videos and Franke’s signature visual blog posts that combine images, text, and illustrations.
They’ve seen an outpouring of support through social media and on the website, says James. “There’s so many pages of comments it’s unbelievable,” she says.
“Franke’s art is message-orientated art. It’s not art for art’s sake,” Bill says. Of their shared background in advertising through a firm they co- founded in 1989 called The James Gang, “we want to get people’s attention,” he continues. “We want to change their thinking about the world in some way.”
Teresa was reassessed in January 2014. She was found capable of making decisions for herself, and she signed a new power of attorney for personal care.
Today, she’s thriving and continuing to live happily with Bill and James. “Franke and I are always believing in the positive thing,” Bill says, “We’re always emphasizing the positive, like ‘look how great Teresa is: she can power-walk. She can do this.’”
“She’s changed our life”
These days, James is contributing to an essay collection, Access to Information and Social Justice: Critical Research Strategies for Journalists, Activists and Scholars, to be edited and published by academics at Carlton University and the University of Winnipeg. It examines access to information through a social justice lens. The collection draws from James’ chapter in Banned from the Hill about her experiences with access to information documents. She hopes her editorial contribution will help educate people about how to read government reports.
“A lot of people, when they get these access [reports], the tendency is just to roll their eyes,” she says, “so I want to teach people how to read these things and understand them.”
James has also been active in the Pull Together campaign, a Vancouver- and Victoria-based campaign to support First Nations legal challenges against the Enbridge pipeline. Supporters donate artwork for auction in the two participating cities. Proceeds from the auction go to R.A.V.E.N. Trust, which supports the legal work.
More important than creative projects, however, is the new presence of Teresa in James and her husband’s lives.
To celebrate the one-year anniversary of Teresa’s release from the nursing home, they’re planning to continue their campaign to encourage the Ontario government to respond to James’ human rights complaint.
“The easiest thing for them to do is just sweep it under the rug,” says James, “and we don’t want it swept under the rug. We want to have them really investigate, see where they made mistakes, own up to it, and change the way that disabled people are treated.”
For her part, Teresa has become a self- advocate with her sister’s support. Teresa narrates her own videos and her own words are used on the posters. She’s worked, through art, to reframe the conversation around her own abilities and the abilities of others facing similar barriers.
With all its ups and downs, the last year has been a rollercoaster. Both James and Bill say they feel lucky and honoured to have gone through it with Teresa. “She’s changed our life for the better,” says Bill.
“Teresa has opened a whole new chapter in our lives...who knew I’d be riding the Handy Dart with my sister and seeing the mountains and the ocean every day?” James says. “We feel very fortunate to have landed here.”