Several years ago, while working as a producer at the CBC, I came across a website so disturbing I had to abandon my computer, clutching my stomach, to stand by a planter, breathing in the foliage to settle my dizzying shock.
On my monitor, face upon face upon face of beautiful indigenous women from across Canada – hundreds of them – rolled out one-by-one, accompanied by short biographies outlining their many gifts and the ways they were missed. Some were murdered, some had mysteriously disappeared; all had been loved.
How could such an atrocity persist in a country that proclaims itself a steward of human rights and equality? Why didn’t more people care? In the years since viewing that website, I have been unable to speak, or sing or hear stories of missing or murdered aboriginal women without my throat constricting and my eyes welling with tears.
Until last week.
Ceremonies speak louder than words
The Walking With Our Sisters memorial to missing and murdered indigenous women and girls in North America opened Friday at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre in Yellowknife.
I was one of more than 300 people to attend the powerful opening ceremony; smoke from sage and sweetgrass wafting through the main foyer along with the sounds of flute, drum and prayer songs – ceremonies which not long ago were banned by church and state in an unsuccessful attempt to assimilate First Nations, Inuit and Metis. That these ceremonies are ongoing this month inside a prominent government building – smoking bylaws and scent sensitivities aside – speaks volumes.
Walking With Our Sisters is a commemorative art installation of 1,808 pairs of moccasin vamps (also known as uppers), plus 118 pairs of children’s vamps (symbolic of those young ones who died in residential schools) representing the unfinished lives of missing and murdered women and children in North America. It is, in all senses of the word, stunning.
Run entirely by a volunteer national committee operating on crowd-sourced funds (no government or resource-extraction corporation money is accepted, and no one is paid), the memorial began with a call-out to sewers in June 2012. It will tour 32 communities across Canada and the U.S. before finishing its run in 2019. Yellowknife is the 9th community host, Whitehorse is next.
In November, I signed up to help with its installation, hoping that by volunteering I could shift my own personal dialogue on the subject away from paralyzing grief into something more promising and productive. What I could not have anticipated then was that during that same week of preparing the installation, I would also be helping a dear friend and neighbour, Doug Ritchie, die.
Aggressive pancreatic cancer struck this gentle giant, a strong advocate of women’s rights known for his grassroots action on climate change, with silent vengeance. His wife, friends and family scrambled to keep up with the rapidly changing requirements of a man who in early December was given “days or weeks” to get his affairs in order.
I became a key person in the orchestration of the care he, his wife and their high-maintenance, off-grid home required. I worried that I would not be able to simultaneously face the symbolic representation of those missing and murdered women and girls, and Doug’s death.
Instead of crumbling, something else happened.
A memorial, but also a refuge and an inspiration
Each visit to the museum imbued me with the calm ritual and serenity of the dedicated women charged with bringing the memorial to life; in particular the elders, who counseled when needed. Eagle feathers, a buffalo skull, turtle shell, fur, cedar…nature was everywhere inside and out. Walking With Our Sisters allowed quiet reflection and refuge.
Out of respect for the missing and murdered women, their cultures, and in the spirit of the equality they were so denied, there are many protocols: no outdoor footwear; no walking over the vamps; no touching them with your hands (gloves only); no police or military uniforms, or weaponry allowed into the space; everyone is treated as equal (politicians get no special treatment); smudge before entering the sacred space; no alcohol before a shift; no photos after the official opening; visitors are encouraged to hold tobacco as they walk by the vamps, which will be burned in a sacred fire…
On my third visit, I got down to work laying sheets of red cloth sprinkled with sage over double-sided tape on every inch of the installation space. The care and attention to this task could not have been greater. Each wrinkle was smoothed until, over two days, the room transformed into a flat, tranquil sea of vibrant red.
A cream-coloured cloth was laid on the red along the room’s perimeter. This was where the vamps would be placed. I ached to see them, but Doug needed a ride to palliative care at the hospital and I could not volunteer that day.
The next night, I arrived and the vamps were there in all their glory, including 27 pairs representing women of the NWT. Such exquisite detail and creativity, so much care, love and compassion were on display. While their sheer volume overwhelms, much of the hopelessness that is evoked is countered by their innate beauty.
My job that night was to ensure each pair’s backs were aligned and touching. As I knelt with a straightening ruler, the sounds of women rolling lint brushes along the fabric, picking up anything that would detract from the vamps, was constant.
I noticed a single red bead lying detached on the cloth, traced it to a loose thread on a vamp and entrusted it to an organizer who clasped it tightly in her hand. Surely this bead would not be destined for the garbage. Of this much I was sure.
Outside, contrasts and a revelation
In striking contrast to these respectful gestures, CBC News Manitoba on this day revealed an RCMP constable, egged on by fellow officers, had taken an aboriginal woman from a holding cell back to his home to “pursue a personal relationship.” The officer got a reprimand and lost seven day’s pay.
Earlier in the week, the Inter-American Organization of Human Rights released a report on the missing and murdered indigenous women of British Columbia.
But I was oblivious to these headlines, immersed as I was in the healing, practical tasks at hand. I visited the hospital and stayed glued to my phone as the tremendous outpouring of support for Doug continued. And that’s when it struck me.
His dying was being conducted with dignity and as per his wishes. His hearth and home were tended, his pain minimal and managed, his family notified and prepared. His funeral and legacy work on the environment self-planned. He would die at 52 a man at peace, surrounded by love.
None of this was afforded the women at the centre of Walking With Our Sisters, whose lives were cut short by violence and disregard, or who have gone missing. With reverence and meticulous attention to every aspect of the installation, they are now getting the respect and honour they so deserved.
For seven years, their memories and spirit will travel through the continent, awakening people to their plight and opening up meaningful discussions on changing the underlying societal conditions that marginalize indigenous women. This VICE interview with Dr. Dawn Harvard, vice-president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, gives valuable insight into these complexities.
My last volunteer shift ended Saturday afternoon. Six hours later Doug passed peacefully. Both experiences, however much steeped in loss, are proof to me that the world is still a caring place capable of positive change; indeed, it is bursting with divinity.
The Walking With Our Sisters memorial runs Jan. 9-24 at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre. Admission is free and all are welcome. A teach-in: Uncomfortable Truths and New Relationships, will follow Jan. 26th at the Chief Drygeese Centre in Dettah, 7 p.m.