A Pretty Amazing Story in Megaphone Magazine
“Freedom” describes Teresa Heartchild’s awakening as an artist and poet in the Downtown Eastside. When she draws, she is free. There is no filter. She doesn’t second guess herself or say her drawing isn’t “good enough”. She is confident. She lets whatever is on her mind come out, freely.
But the freedom to make her own decisions and choices—where she lives, what she does, and how she expresses herself—is new to her. Teresa has Down syndrome. It’s been very difficult for her to assert her rights and be her own person. For much of her life, she’s been wrapped in a cocoon, where other people made decisions for her. This was made evident in 2013, when Teresa was forced into a nursing home in Ontario at age 49.
Against her wishes, Teresa was placed in a long-term care home that specialized in dementia and palliative care. It was absolutely the wrong place for her. When Teresa said she didn’t want to live there, no one listened. Fortunately, Teresa’s father, a retired lawyer, was able to get her released after four days. The next day, Teresa came to live with me and my husband. Three months later, we moved from Ontario to British Columbia and eventually settled in Gastown in the Downtown Eastside.
Finding her voice
Settling in the Downtown Eastside turned out to be a great stroke of luck for Teresa and her budding career as an artist. She applied for a DTES Small Arts Grant to create an illustrated book about her new neighbourhood. The grant was approved in February, and Teresa got to work.
Over the next four months, Teresa created about 100 illustrations in large spiral-bound sketchbooks using vibrant hues of magic markers. She also wrote 10 poems for the book. My husband and I helped Teresa design and self-publish her book.
Pretty Amazing: How I Found Myself in the Downtown Eastside is a collection of Teresa’s art and poetry. In her opening poem, I Am Alive, she shares her upbeat philosophy on life: “Be nice to everyone.” And she says she feels “redeemed. Okay, I am reborn. In Gastown.”
Her natural ability to express herself through art is important. In her art and poetry, she can freely express her worries and her joys. Her poems reflect the dialogues she has with herself. Often, she takes on the role of her own parent, saying, “Please be nice to my daughter.” And she encourages herself: “You’re not afraid of those monsters. You have the power of attorney.” Her power of attorney document helped win her release from the nursing home. To this day, Teresa carries the updated document with her.
In her poem “The Schedule,” Teresa shows how she organizes her day. She carefully plans the times for her breakfast, lunch, snack, and dinner. She includes these detailed times in her drawings and often scratches the numbers out as the hours pass. We hear her sense of humour and wordplay when she writes, “We are quite a pair. Eat your pears at Nesters. I love Perrier.” When she reads the poem aloud she laughs at her own cleverness.
Teresa is enjoying her new identity as an artist and author. This past summer, she launched her book and art show at Gallery Gachet. And then something amazing happened. For almost three years now, Teresa has been asking the Ontario government to apologize. Her Change.org petition—Human Rights Should Be For Everybody— garnered more than 26,000 signatures. Last month, the B.C. Civil Liberties Association and seven other signatories sent a letter to the Ontario government stating, “We are gravely concerned that the government, through its actions, appears to condone the forced placement and mistreatment of developmentally disabled adults.”
The letter caught the attention of Christina Stevens at Global News, who did a story on Teresa. On July 22, Minister Eric Hoskins apologized to Teresa on Global News for “placing” her in a “seniors’ residence,” saying it was not appropriate. The apology was a welcome surprise, but the Global News story exposed the fact that Teresa is just one of thousands who have been deprived of their liberty, as 2,900-plus people in that province are living in such facilities.
Teresa’s pretty amazing journey that brought her to the Downtown Eastside is still unfolding. She has just turned 52. She is now free to make her own decisions. Free to colour outside the lines. And free to make a difference for all people with disabilities simply by being who she is: a self-advocate and artist in the Downtown Eastside.
I AM ALIVE
Be nice to everyone.
Look, I am alive.
You have to be nice.
I am doing fine.
I have to be nice to them.
And to the others.
That’s a brilliant idea!
And I’m thinking too.
I think we need to make a list of the things we need.
Right. I’m alive. Nesters. Flying Pig. Prado.
We love it here.
Everybody loves me.
You guys are alright, I know.
You guys, I am born. I am alive.
Okay, I am reborn.
“A Pretty Amazing Story”, Megaphone Magazine, September 2016
BC Civil Liberties letter to the Ontario Government: Teresa Heartchild’s forced admission to an Ontario long-term care home violated her human rights