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opinion

A portrait, drawn by a human hand, has the power to linger in the mind, and raise more questions than it answers. There's a reason viewers have been staring at Lady with an Ermine or Girl with a Pearl Earring for centuries and wondering, what was she thinking? And what happened to her?

Toronto illustrator Evan Munday is neither Leonardo nor Vermeer (and wouldn't claim to be). He uses the services of Kinko's, for one thing, and his aim is more political, but he's still in the tradition of the portraitist who captures a personality before she can be lost to history. Before she becomes just another statistic.

Every day since Jan. 6, Mr. Munday has been drawing one of the more than 1,100 indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered in this country in the past 35 years. Then he puts the drawing on Twitter, and sends it to the attention of the Prime Minister.

Although he'd been thinking about those women for a long time, he was spurred to action by the government's inaction. Specifically, by the federal government's refusal to consider an inquiry into the destruction of those women, and by Stephen Harper's blithe comment, in a year-end interview with Peter Mansbridge, that an inquest "isn't really high on our radar, to be honest."

So Mr. Munday decided to put some dots on that radar. Or faces, to be more precise. He first drew Danita BigEagle, mother of two, who went missing in Saskatchewan in 2007 at the age of 22. In his pen-and-ink drawing, Ms. BigEagle wears bangs falling over her forehead and a quizzical half-smile. I didn't know anything about her, and went and read her story in the Native Women's Association of Canada database. She had children, parents, struggles, a life left behind.

Sometimes we catch a glimpse of the public face of violence against native women – most recently in the photographs of young murder victims Tina Fontaine and Loretta Saunders. We saw their pictures in the news pages, even if for a brief time. But what about the hundreds of others? This week, Mr. Munday also drew Amanda Bartlett, who disappeared at the age of 17 in Winnipeg, and Maggie Lea Burke, last seen in Edmonton in December, 2004. He posted the drawings on Twitter and sent them to the Prime Minister. Not surprisingly, he's had no official response. "I think maybe he's blocked me," Mr. Munday said. He intends to keep going, a project that will take three years if he draws one portrait a day.

While the number of missing women seems vast (imagine an auditorium with that many people in it) it's also somewhat incomprehensible (exactly what does an auditorium with a thousand people in it look like? What are they wearing? How did they get there?). The women's absence is haunting, and self-perpetuating: What we can't picture we forget.

"A lot of people know the number, but not many people know the names or faces," said Mr. Munday, when we spoke this week. He was reluctant to speak at all, wanting his portraits of the women to stand for themselves. He doesn't want the story to be about him (he points out that poet Gregory Scofield has a similar project, and is tweeting the names of one missing woman a day.) It's a tricky landscape: As a man and a non-native, does he have a right to intrude on this territory?

I'd argue that, as an artist, he has every right. As we saw in France, the ancient art of lines on paper still has a remarkable power to enrage, unsettle and resonate. Even more than a photograph, a drawing contains the added power of human interpretation. Care has been taken with it, and context added. It exists as a collaboration between the subject and the creator, even if they never meet each other. As the painter Francesco Clemente said, "When I look at a drawing of a person, I see that person as living."

We remember faces, even when we forget names. What Mr. Munday (and, more important, a network of women's groups) is doing is a collective act of remembrance. You have, on one hand, people who would like to remember, and on the other a much more powerful group of people who'd like to forget. Who do you think will win?