Remembering missing, murdered women

It’s been just over two weeks since more than 300 Nigerian school girls were kidnapped and some were forced into “marriage” with their abductors. Their families and advocates around the world are trying to get the word out and apply political pressure with the social media campaign BringBackOurGirls.

Closer to home, hashtag #MMIW represents an important conversation regarding over 800 missing or murdered Indigenous women in Canada. According to recent statistics, Indigenous women represent 21.8 percent of the missing or murdered women in Canada, yet only 3 percent of Canada’s women are Indigenous. This discrepancy needs attention.

While major international groups are asking quite vocally for inquiries and action in both of these disgraceful situations, grassroots social media has come to the forefront in creating awareness and mobilizing people.

Walking With Our Sisters is a commemorative art installation for missing and murdered Indigenous women that is travelling across Canada, created by Metis artist Christi Belcourt. It will be in Sault Ste. Marie for the next two weeks. I first found out about it through a Facebook link shared with me by my Aunt in Montreal. 

The phenomenal installation is over 1,700 pairs of moccasin tops (also called vamps) from over 1,300 artists from Canada, the United States, and internationally, to represent those missing or murdered women. “The original call for work went out in June 2012, asking caring and concerned people to be part of one large collaborative art piece… There is power in numbers and there is power in art” said Belcourt.

Volunteers lay out the vamps meticulously on the floor of large public spaces across Canada by colour, starting with a section of vamps created by women from the Downtown Eastside of Vancouver. Attendees are asked to remove their shoes prior to entering the space to walk the winding path to appreciate the work and care that have gone into the vamps. The path is short, however, as were the lives of those missing and murdered.

As you take part in the exhibit, you’ll also hear audio recordings of 60 traditional honour and grieving songs as of the installation.

The lead up to the event is just as important as the exhibit itself, said Belcourt: “This is about community. The main goal of the entire installation is to come together as a community to honour the women that are missing or murdered.”

In addition to coming together as a community, the coordinator hopes that Walking With Our Sisters will help find ways to support family members and recognise that their grieving is ongoing. “This project is about these women, and us paying respect to their lives and existence on this earth. They are loved, they are missing, and they are not forgotten.” Belcourt adds that often the grieving is most difficult for those that never got adequate answers about their loved one’s disappearance.

Creating awareness is the third goal. “We don’t want to do this in an aggressive way, but we need to face this history. There’s a long history of colonialism and systemic racism in Canada and that has manifested into a long history of violence against Indigenous women. If we are going to change anything, all sides will have to acknowledge the problem. It’s important to remember that all of these women can’t be categorized or stereotyped into any background. Through caring, openness, and providing people a way to participate in something, we are trying to communicate in a gentle way.”

Walking With Our Sisters began its tour on October 2, 2013 and is on its fifth of over thirty stops across Canada through 2019. The tour jumps back and forth across Canada, but a schedule of events is available online at http://walkingwithoursisters.ca/ .

For the Sault, a special call was put out for child and baby- sized moccasin tops to honour and remember the children who never made it home from residential schools.

The Shingwauk Residential Schools Centre and Shingwauk Kinoomaage Gamig is hosting “Walking With Our Sisters” at Algoma University from May 5th until May 18th in the Shingwauk Auditorium. There will be a special Mother’s Day weekend ceremony by the Elders and Keepers. Admittance is free.

I defy you to experience the installation without getting goose bumps. The artwork ranges from traditional beading to duct tape and denim. Knowing that the vamps were not sewn into moccasins purposefully to represent the lives of the women that were left unfinished is truly metaphorically and emotionally striking. It is a journey you shouldn’t miss full of stunning artwork, positive emotion, and learning moments.

Walking With Our Sisters #MMIW is art, ceremony, awareness, protest, respect, honour, pilgrimage, and community, all in one.

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