The Walking With Our Sisters exhibit and memorial stopped on Yellowknife this month, drawing in volunteers and audiences from across the territory.
Jacqueline Carriere was one of those volunteers. Although, like many Northerners, she was sensitive to the plight of indigenous women in Canada, she said the travelling exhibit honouring the lives of missing and murdered aboriginal women was a powerful experience.
“When I first heard about it coming to Yellowknife, I wanted to go,” said Carriere, who volunteered for four days earlier this month at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre where the memorial is being hosted, representing the Hay River Metis Government Council. “Each set of uppers represents a missing or murdered woman, and the incomplete moccasins represent an incomplete life … as I was going through, I was walking with these women … I was walking so that they wouldn’t be alone, and I thought of how they died alone.”
Walking With Our Sisters began as a social media project based in Alberta in 2012. A call went out for 600 pairs of uppers to represent the lowest accepted number of women who have gone missing or have been murdered on record in Canada. Organizers were overwhelmed when more than 1,600 pairs were made.
Although Edmonton hosted the first incarnation of the exhibit, it will be travelling to 32 cities across North America between now and 2019. The Yellowknife show is open to the public until Jan. 24 and is free of charge.
“I think each community that displays it, they change it a bit, they add their own touch,” said Carriere, adding that they added more than 100 children’s uppers to represent the children who never came home from residential school. “When I saw them, I was overcome, and I imagined holding a child, rocking them, and it comforted me as well… I’m so blessed. I have my granddaughter and my daughter, and not every grandmother has that.”
Janine Hoff, who attended the one in Edmonton agreed. She said it took her a long time to go through, as she felt she had to look at each and every upper.
“Each one is a person, each one is a life, and all lives matter,” she said. “Some people have said that these were high-risk women, that some of them were on a dangerous path. But that doesn’t matter. All lives matter.”
Hoff also pointed out the potential the exhibit has for raising public awareness of this massive problem. Although nearly everyone in the North knows someone who has been touched by the loss of a mother, sister, daughter or niece, the same cannot be said for larger southern cities.
“I always feel like art has that way of opening us up, cracking us open, and I think one of the great things is the awareness this is raising,” she said. “There’s so much beauty, and there’s so much grief too, and that’s healing.”
After the last memorial closes in 2019, Carriere heard that not only would the organization attempt to return each pair of uppers to the family of the woman or girl they represented, but also that a book would be made documenting them and their stories.
“The whole ceremony, it’s a way of recognizing them, of remembering their lives, and I hope that it will help those families heal,” she said. “And we take that healing with us as well.”
At the centre of the exhibit’s path, there are two staffs. Both have eagle feathers attached to them, one with the feathers pointing up, representing the women have died and moved on to the other side, and the other with the feathers pointing down to represent the women who are still missing.
“You can see that in the uppers too,” said Carriere. “A lot of them say that … ‘still looking,’ ‘love you,’ ‘miss you.'”