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Memorializing the missing and murdered
Walking with our Sisters project brings 70 volunteers together

Daron Letts
Northern News Services
Published Friday, November 7, 2014

The topic of missing and murdered aboriginal women has gained much traction over the last while, and this will carry over into the new year when a travelling art installation - Walking with our Sisters - makes its way to the city.

NNSL photo/graphic

Gerri Sharpe, left, and Nola Nallugiak, executive director for the Native Women's Association of the NWT, are reaching out to residents interested in volunteering for the Walking with our Sisters project, which honours the lives of missing and murdered aboriginal women. - Daron Letts/NNSL photo

Gerri Sharpe is one of the co-ordinators of the Yellowknife leg of the tour, which has been drawing people together twice monthly for community conversations on how to memorialize missing and murdered indigenous women in the NWT during the exhibit.

"Having come from a background being raised in domestic violence, there is a misrepresentation of aboriginal women in the numbers when it comes to the missing and murdered within Canada," said Sharpe.

"While the population of aboriginal females represents two per cent of Canada, when it comes to the missing and murdered we represent almost 16 per cent of that."

More than 30 residents came to an Oct. 29 meeting at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, for the fourth of eight community conversations hosted by the Native Women's Association of the NWT in partnership with the museum as part of the project.

The travelling art installation features close to 2,000 moccasin uppers (the top part of the shoe) designed to represent the unfinished lives of the nearly 2,000 aboriginal women murdered or missing in Canada over the past three decades. Artists in the territory created 35 pieces in the collection.

The memorial, now on display in Saskatoon, is two years into a seven-year tour to more than 30 venues across the country. Each host community is tasked with developing ceremonies to accompany the exhibition to reflect indigenous traditions from the surrounding region.

Co-ordinators of the Yellowknife leg of the tour are seeking more than 100 volunteers to help organize ceremonies that reflect the NWT aboriginal experience during the exhibit, which is scheduled for display at the museum from Jan. 9 to 24.

Although the Native Women's Association and the museum are drawing the volunteers together, the Yellowknife memorial is being developed by an expanding network of individuals, and not by the organizations themselves, according to Erin Konsmo, the national project's Edmonton-based youth co-ordinator.

"It's meant to be held by the whole indigenous community," she explained. "It's not organizationally-based. It's for the community and run by the community."

Yellowknife co-ordinators Lila Erasmus and Gerri Sharpe facilitated the latest gathering at the museum.

"Any ceremonies that go along with the exhibit are driven by the community and what the community wants to see happen," said Sharpe. "We need direction from the community to tell us what that would look like."

So far, about 50 volunteers are engaged with the project, with another 20 or so expressing an interest in helping out along the way, she added.

"All of the positions are volunteer positions. We all are equal and our voices are all the same. None of these positions are paid," she said. "It's all based on the time that you can give. It is going to be a massive effort."

Several committees have been struck to develop plans for enhanced programming, co-ordinating volunteers, communications, fundraising and more.

The minimum estimated cost of hosting the exhibition is between $9,000 and $10,000.

"Of course, we do want to raise funds over and above that for expanded programming," she said. "One of those ideas is bringing in families that have been affected by missing or murdered aboriginal women within the NWT."

The project is designed to be led by an advisory group of four to six elders. Inuk elder Rassi Nashalik and Dene elder Marie Speakman have signed on so far, according to Nola Nallugiak, executive director of the Native Women's Association of the NWT. There are plenty of roles yet to be filled, said Nallugiak.

"Anyone can be involved any way they want. We want people to bring their gifts and their talents to the meetings and be part of the effort," she said. Although led and guided by indigenous women and girls, men are encouraged to share their volunteer effort on the project, as well, she added.

The next community conversation is scheduled at 7 p.m. on Nov. 19 at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre.

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