Yellowknifers held a walking vigil along the Frame Lake Trail on Sunday to honour the memory of 14 women who were murdered in 1989 at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal.
Pandemic restrictions ruled out holding the traditional National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women ceremonies in a church. Instead, the Status of Women Council of the NWT organized an outdoor, vignette-style event on the Frame Lake Trail.
More than a dozen stations were set up beside Somba K’e Park and along the trail featuring informational displays about the threats of violence women face. There were also artistic exhibits honouring the 14 murdered women in Montreal and 22 women slain in the NWT since 1991.
People were welcome to do self-guided tours of the vigil site on Sunday afternoon.
The concept for the outdoor displays was developed partly as a way of complying with Covid measures and also to connect the Montreal Massacre with the violence experienced by women in the NWT, said Status of Women Council executive director Louise Elder.
She gestured to a station that displayed 22 pairs of shoes to represent women killed in the NWT since 1991.
“It’s been a really hard year for so many reasons. There’s been so many losses across the territory, and having three young women murdered in our territory in one year… there aren’t words to describe how sad, how heartbreaking and beyond tragic that is,” Elder said.
Breanna Menacho, 22, was found dead in Yellowknife on May 6. Three people face murder charges related to her death.
Meg Kruger, 18, was found dead in Hay River on Sept. 9. James Colosimo has been charged in connection with her death.
Victoria Lafferty, 29, is believed by the Status of Women Council to have been murdered on Oct. 31, after there was a death in Yellowknife that RCMP deemed suspicious. Ahmed Mohamed has been charged with murder. He remains at large and RCMP are asking for public assistance in locating him.
Broader data show that the NWT has some of the highest rates of violence against women in the country.
Fifty-two per cent of women in the territory reported having been sexually or physically assaulted since the age of 15, according to a Statistics Canada report released on Dec. 2.
Among First Nations women in the three territories, 60 per cent reported being sexually or physically assaulted at least once since the age of 15, and among Métis women that proportion was 51 per cent.
A 2013 report from Statistics Canada states that violent crime against women in the territory was nine times higher than the national rate, second only to Nunavut, where the rate was 13 times higher.
But Elder realized there were gaps in the Statistics Canada data, specifically regarding how many women have been murdered in the NWT.
She turned to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, which helped her broadly identify 22 murders of women in the NWT going back to 1991, though not all the information on their names and ages was available.
“(With the data), we can say categorically this year, this many women were murdered or this year, we didn’t have any women and girls murdered,” Elder said. “We celebrate those years, we heave a big sigh of relief when we get to the end of that year… without someone being murdered.”
Great Slave MLA Katrina Nokleby said she’s glad the event happened on Sunday despite Covid restrictions changing the format of the annual vigil.
“There’s a lot of people in Canada that don’t know about (the Montreal Massacre), and also outside of Canada. So I think it’s really important that we continue to talk.”
As an engineer, Nokleby explained that she feels a particular connection with the victims of the Montreal Massacre.
“Oftentimes in Canada, we hear about violent acts that never seem to really affect us,” she said. “And this is one where I think, I’m not a religious person, but ‘There but for the grace of God go I.’ As a woman in engineering, if it (happened) only 10 years later, it could have been me. That’s something that I think about every year. It just hits me more and more.”
Sunday’s vigil was also meant to convey a message of hope, and Elder wants NWT residents to understand that the majority of people want to live in a peaceful society and there are actions they can take to end violence against women.
“Things like listening and believing when someone tells you what’s happened. If you suspect someone’s being abused, reaching out asking them if they’re OK, is there anything you can do to help?
“If you suspect somebody is abusing, maybe if you feel comfortable, safe to do so, to call them on it. You can take a pledge, make a commitment not to commit violence or you can volunteer your time and money to initiatives like this. You can be a role model.”
She stressed that it’s “absolutely critical” that men be involved in ending violence.
“If it’s (only) women talking about equality, and trying to end violence, we’re only a part of the equation. And so we all have to be working together and talking about it and figuring out what we can do and then actually implementing it.”
To that end, Elder is encouraged by the growth of Canadian initiatives started by men that aim to end violence against women.
Men’s groups dedicated to ending gender-based violence have formed in the NWT over the last few months: The Coalition of the Willing group formed in Yellowknife in early September, and a group was organized by Scott Clouthier in Hay River on Sept. 29.
“We want to give people hope that we can make the world a better place; we can make it safer, we can make it one where we enjoy equality, and live in safe communities,” Elder said.