A Response to the Signs

When a sign about the exploitation of children went up in my neighbourhood, I thought little about it, partly because it didn’t look professional enough to have come from the desk of an official service. Instead, it had more in common with the type of sign that asks for a cat’s whereabouts, or informs the purchasing public of a pending yard sale.

I walked past the sign a few times before I noticed that it had been modified by someone with a marker, and that made me examine it more closely. Someone in my neighbourhood had been motivated enough in the cold of winter to subvert the sign’s request, and that caused me to think more about what they saw that I had missed that made them respond in such a definitive fashion.

My neighbourhood is not famous for its trust of either the police service or social services, so at first I imagined that a common kneejerk reaction inspired the modification. As I photographed the sign, and then thought about the grammatical implications of their rebuttal, however, I began to see a more profound story I’d become oblivious to behind the posters on the telephone poles on my daily walk.

The sign reads: “If you see a child or young girl being exploited, please report it, don’t regret it. 204-986-3464.” It appears to be amateurish partly because it doesn’t feature a fancy font or a graphic—such as a clip art representation of reporting or the police. Instead, its appeal is formatted simply in a large Arial font; it looks as bland as though it had been put together by a group of indifferent high school students in a class. It looked as though their teacher had demanded that they do something to raise awareness about a topic they didn’t feel affected their lives.

Part of this assessment has to do with the rather suspect grammar. The sign worries about the treatment of “a child or young girl” without being aware that the girl might fit under the category of child; as well, the sentence keeps going long after a full stop is called for. The attempt to divide the “young girl” from being “a child” is possibly significant. Although the implications of that choice are no doubt manifold, the reasoning is somewhat obscure. Does that mean the sign maker is more interested in the young girl’s exploitation? If so, why is the child mentioned at all? Do they believe a girl is more subject to exploitation than the other, presumably male children? If so, why mention the other children at all? Also, why would the sign mention the child first, if they were prioritizing the girl, instead of merely reversing them on the sign to more accurately represent their interest and concerns?

Although it is a minor grammatical point, they also wrote “a child or young girl,” which implies they are concerned about the “young girl” aspect of the child. They could have written “a child or a young girl” which would further separate them in their worries, and further divide the children along gender lines. Perhaps this is trying to put too fine a point on it, and the utterance merely represents a grammatical oversight, for the concerns with the sentence are more profound than that possible slip.

The “don’t regret it” portion of the sentence seems to be tacked on the end of the entire sentence, rather than performing a crucial function. The sign maker should have, for emphasis as well as grammar, separated the last portion of their run-on sentence (as your pedantic teacher in school would call it) with a full stop and made their appeal more emphatic, but instead they chose to tack the “don’t regret it” onto a sentence already burdened by the uneasy separation between girls and other children.

What the writers lost in emphasis they gained in a kind of dissonant poetic alliteration. The final consonance of “report it” and “regret it” appeals to the ear, but in terms of the delivered message they scarcely fit together. One is an imperative request while the other is an appeal to conscience. As well, although they sound similar they are strikingly different actions, but perhaps that is the point. Perhaps we are meant to compare the reporting with the regretting, in some kind of reverse fashion which would imply that regretting would follow directly on the heels of the lack of reporting. A semicolon might have been of greater use, for then the reader would be informed of the connection between reporting and regretting, still retain the alliteration, and not be disconcerted by the sledgehammer emphasis of two imperative appeals coming so quickly after the other.

I looked up the phone number to make sure it was a real reporting line and not merely a scam of some sort, although now that I say that I’m not sure how such a scam would work. The phone number is a dedicated tip line for the Winnipeg police department and although it does not expressly deal with exploited children, it certainly manages those reports as well as a dozen other topics.

The last portion of the sign, in terms of how it is presented to the passerby, became—after a few weeks—the rejoinder of one of my neighbours. They declare—in quite decent handwriting given the medium of a sign on a post—that “THIS IS A LIE.” I cannot tell if the capitalization is deliberate and meant to supplement the message or whether it is merely an artifact of how this person writes, but any of their readers are certainly more than accustomed to similarly declarative messages online. When someone in the nearly ubiquitous comment section of a social media source wants to be heard above the noise, they shout THEIR OPINION by using capitals. The person who editorialized on the sign might not have meant to evoke volume and rudeness, but their use of the same coding implies that they were going for that effect. Their choice of black might well be ascribed to the chance marker in their pocket, but to their credit, the colour they chose—or had chosen for them by chance—matches both the font on the sign, the import of their declaration, and the nicely-curved letters they were able to make despite standing in the cold and writing two metres in the air on a telephone pole.

Although most of their statement is written below the main part of the sign, largely on the blank space thoughtfully provided, it also overlaps the telephone number slightly. That may not be deliberate, for room for their statement is limited and, since they started a bit too far to the right, they were cramped for space once they reached the word lie. Since they didn’t cover the phone number entirely, or even consistently, I think we are asked to read this as accidental rather than a comment on the document as a whole or a wish to tinker with the ability of another to discern the number. The positioning of their writing—even if it is not deliberate—works to rather effectively emphasize the word lie. The word LIE sits alone surrounded by blank white space, and this has the effect of drawing the eye to the final word of their editorializing rather than the supporting prose of the rest of their sentence.

Merely because they wrote a response to a pre-existing and mass-produced sign, the graffiti becomes a richer document than the sign was without it. The original sign is responding to a perceived social problem, but the commentator is responding to both that perception, which they cast doubt upon, and the sign maker’s attempt at ameliorating the situation. They seemingly have taken the time to debate the merit of the choice the sign calls for, as well as represented something of their individual understanding of the situation. There is more of a personality performed by the quality of the handwriting, and the circumstances of its production, and that combines with the original intent of the sign to make their declaration rhetorically much richer than the original, rather poorly-formed request.

Perhaps because of this other rhetorical concerns, the content of the message, “This is a lie” is more difficult to parse. The “This” is used as a pronoun here and meant to refer to, presumably, a statement the sign has made. What portion of the sign it is referring to is not as easily decided, however. The commentator has made the determination that something on the sign is a lie; but part of the difficulty in identifying the pronoun’s antecedent is that the sign does not make a statement of fact.

If the sign were to state that “The sun and moon are the same size,” or any other statement of fact, then someone could quite legitimately suggest that the sign was perpetuating a lie. They would no doubt be able to point to measurements made by the astronomical field which would support their assertion, and despite not being privy to such information the sign’s readers might be happy enough with the rebuttal. Even if the sign were to venture a more controversial opinion, “Walnuts are better for your health than beans,” few would find a reason to dispute the information, despite feeling differently or wishing to question the basis of the assertion. Better in what way, they might demand, given that each offer different types of essential amino acids. Someone walking by such a sign—one that disputes either scientific verities or dietary matters best discussed with a nutritionist—would not pause at a claim about its untruth, partly due to the minus twenty degrees weather but also because we recognize grammatically that for something to be declared a lie it needs to be a statement to begin with.

The sign in question is not even asking a question, which would be problematic enough in determining how someone would respond with a statement about lying. If it were to ask, “Is the sky blue?” declaring it to be a falsehood would be equally problematic. Much more significantly, the sign rather mildly asks—and its use of the simple present conditional tense makes this even more clear—that if the reader becomes aware of such an event they should report it. The imperative that the reader report is even softened with a polite “please,” so it is likely not the information itself that the reader is responding to.

As the conditional clause makes clear, the reader is not being accused of under-reporting in the past; instead, they are cordially requested to keep their eyes open and consider contacting the relevant authorities if they suspect something untoward is happening to a child. Surely such a request does not even go far enough, and we might justly be annoyed with the sign’s authors that they weren’t more vehement over the question of child abuse. In any event, the sign as it stands should not be so virulent as to inspire such rancour, even if it were possible for it to be untrue.

Because the request is phrased as a conditional and therefore exists in a nebulous world of possibility, there is no statement that can be false. That is the reader’s first hint that the graffiti is responding to the sign’s implications, although those are difficult to discern. Perhaps the most obvious possibility the editorializing is responding to whether children are in fact exploited, but for them to hold that opinion they must either completely ignore nearly weekly news reports, or at least disbelieve their claims that child exploitation is a widespread concern. Even if they believe that such low numbers of children are being exploited that the sign is unnecessary, it’s difficult to fathom the mentality who would take it upon themselves to modify the sign in order to make a claim that there are not enough children harmed to be worth the paper or the time for someone to print the sign and staple it to a post. Most people, even if they were of that opinion, would still see the sign positively; they would likely think that anything that protects children is a good outcome for society, despite the time and effort taken to make a sign. Someone who wanted to exploit children would doubtlessly view the situation differently, but they would be unlikely to advertise their intentions by walking around the city defacing signs about their behaviour.

Perhaps the graffiti is in response to the suggestion that the person who does not report would later experience regret. It seems doubtful that anyone would feel so strongly about such a nebulous guess about their emotions in a given situation, however. The motivations of such a person are hard to imagine. They would be so outraged by the suggestion that they would be upset if a child was exploited when they could have prevented it, that they would take to the sign with a marker and quite soberly—for the letters do not look like they were formed in anger—declare the conjecture to be faulty.

These guesses do not seem to close with the actual reason someone would feel compelled to stand in the snow and state their opinion over a sign that pleads with them to perform what most would see as their social duty. Perhaps seeking for the lie does not work when focusing on the instances of abuse, and the possible feelings of regret, but rather there is a larger societal context which informs why someone in my neighbourhood went into the cold with a marker to correct what they saw as a wrong.

Perhaps they accept that exploitation is happening in the city, and perhaps even in their neighbourhood, but they reject that the proposal that they call the number is a good idea. For this to be true, we have to consider the relationship between the police and most of the people in my neighbourhood. Although the police are called when an emergency arises—just as they would be in other areas of the city—adding children to the mix complicates the police presence profoundly. Those same police are present when a child is taken by child and family services.

The relationship between child and family services and parents in Winnipeg has long been a combative one. Its origin likely pre-dates the Indian Act of 1876, which both stripped Indigenous people of their rights as well as confined them to reserves under the control of a patronizing system of governmental oversight. Before that they were enemy combatants in a war for land. When European invaders found two huge continents ripe for theft, they viewed the Indigenous people living on the land as an annoyance to be brushed aside. The history of continuous genocidal policies persist to the present day despite beginning with the invasion, theft of their lands and then broad-scale murder, until the Indian Act forced the Indigenous people to be subjects of the invading culture. The efforts to destroy the cultures of the locals by enacting colonial practices on their children began with the Residential School program. That in turn led to the grim legacy of the Sixties Scoop in which Indigenous children were taken from their parents and given—or in some cases sold—to white families in Canada and abroad.

The tendency of child and family services to error on the side of caution if the family is Indigenous is seen by many informed by such past practices. The hospital staff take it upon themselves to inform social services if an Indigenous mother is giving birth, and that inspires an investigative service to spring into action. If the mother and surrounding family—it’s worth recalling that Indigenous events typically involve huge extended families—is not considered to be fit to rear their child—a determination made largely based on colonial and class-oriented notions of propriety and property—then the child is removed. This is a significant enough problem that a child a day is taken from his or her mother’s arms in Manitoba hospitals. This unsettling reality is even more disturbing when we consider that it is supported by the same system using forced sterilization—without their knowledge and consent—of Indigenous women to ensure the colonial project endures. The well-documented historical cases are now supported by more recent allegations which have surfaced in the last year and which inform recent court cases.

Although a cursory reading of the nearly voiceless person who modified the sign merely shows them to be indifferent about the safety of children, a more careful review of the local history, the implications of different aspects of the sign, and whose children are being reported and then lost if the no-regret warning is heeded, brings the graffiti writer’s possible motivations to life.

Whoever stood in the snow in minus temperatures felt strongly enough about the issue to risk being seen writing on a sign posted by a police representative. They were firm enough in their determination that the sign presents at least one mistruth that they reached above their head to make a counter declaration. This is not idle graffiti. This is a possibly vain attempt to correct a problem which is nearly ubiquitous in the culture and which hides its history behind an appeal to help a child. The sign even makes its seemingly innocuous request with the word please, but people of Indigenous descent in Canada hear a different request and have historical reasons to fear what they may regret.

About Barry Pomeroy

I had an English teacher in high school many years ago who talked about writing as something that people do, rather than something that died with Shakespeare. I began writing soon after, maudlin poetry followed by short prose pieces, but finally, after years of academic training, I learned something about the magic of the manipulated word.
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