Messages of honour and remembrance were front of mind for Yellowknifers who gathered at the City Hall amphitheater Thursday for the Tree of Honour ceremony.
The ceremony, hosted by the Status of Women Council of the NWT, invited residents to tie red ribbons to a tree in Somba K’e Park in recognition of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
Be’sha Blondin, elder advisor with the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation, said the ceremony is a way of connecting with the women and acknowledging them for their families.
“To come together like this in prayer is really, really important,” she told NNSL Media. “They could still be here, alive, but we’re not sure. So what we do is through the ceremony we connect with them.”
“This has been going on for centuries and centuries,” she said. “It didn’t start with this generation or the generation before. It’s ever since Europeans first stepped into this land. There’s been a lot of our people missing, not just the girls.”
The ceremony was the second of six Tree of Honour events in the NWT starting with Aklavik and Behchoko on Tuesday. Following Yellowknife’s Thursday ceremony, the Status of Women Council will host events in Fort Simpson and Hay River on Oct. 3 and 10 respectively.
Among the speakers was City Councillor Stacie Smith.
She told attendees that she was “honoured” to be at the event as a councillor, but also as a mother, a daughter, and as an Indigenous woman.
“There are very few indigenous people who have not been touched by violence,” she said, and told the story of how she “could have been one of them.”
As a student in Winnipeg she described once having gone to see a local artist play at a coffee house and being followed, and eventually chased, by two men in a truck on her way home.
Smith was able to lose the men hiding in a crowd at a bus stop nearby, but she remembers fearing the men would “catch” her, “drag” her out of the crowd, and that “nobody would have cared.”
She calls the MMIWG movement “profound,” but said that “words mean nothing without action.”
The 2019 National Inquiry’s final report found “persistent and deliberate human and Indigenous rights violations and abuses to be the root cause behind Canada’s staggering rates of violence against Indigenous women.”
The report includes 231 calls for justice.
Finance Minister Caroline Wawzonek, also responsible for the status of women portfolio, said “there is a lot of work happening behind the scenes.”
Wawzonek said that the provincial, territorial, and federal governments are working to address the calls to justice through the creation of a national core working group, and sub working groups. She said the GNWT has “started to engage with Indigenous governments and stakeholders across the Northwest Territories.
“The NWT was the only jurisdiction in Canada that developed an initial response to the national inquiry’s report,” she said. “That was a good start. We are now working hard to create a framework for our own action plan, one that will do work to prevent further tragedies and violence to improve the lives and safety of Indigenous women, girls and LGBTQS2 people in the Northwest Territories safe.”