Warning: The following report discusses missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. If you require immediate support, call the Native Women Association of the NWT’s emergency line at (867) 920-2978.
Residents of Yellowknife filled the amphitheatre outside City Hall on Thursday afternoon for a Tree of Honour ceremony honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
Organized by the Status of Women Council of the NWT, Yellowknife’s event was the third of six set to take place in each of the territory’s regions. The first took place in Behchokò on Wednesday afternoon, with the second in Aklavik that evening.
The Yellowknife ceremony included prayer, drumming, singing, and presenters including status of women minister Caroline Wawzonek. Each attendee was given a ribbon to tie to a nearby tree in an act of remembrance for those lost.
Attendees at Thursday’s Tree of Honour ceremony. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio
The ribbons and events “provide us with an opportunity to pay tribute to families and friends who have lost their loved ones, and the people in our territory who are grieving now,” said Louise Elder, executive director of the Status of Women Council.
“Our focus is honouring the missing [and] murdered Indigenous women and girls and being part of the healing for family, friends, and the larger community. But we’re finding that there’s a great deal of awareness being generated, too.”
The final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, titled Reclaiming Power and Place, was released last year. The report found that the scale of the issue amounted to genocide, powered by racism, sexism, and colonialism.
It included 231 calls to justice, or direct actions recommended of governments, organizations, communities, and individuals to confront violence against Indigenous women and girls.
However, when the report celebrated its first anniversary in June this year, many Indigenous leaders said little progress had been made.
Minister Wawzonek, who assumed the status of women portfolio in September, told attendees on Thursday that “action is needed” on issues such as loss of Indigenous languages and culture, discrimination, and gender-based violence.
Status of women minister Caroline Wawzonek. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio
“We must continue to tell the stories of every missing, murdered Indigenous woman, girl or LGBTQ+ person,” she said. “Each one leaves behind a family struggling to deal with loss. Each one was part of a community that is trying to deal with those issues.
“All Canadians, non-government organizations, businesses, Indigenous governments, [and] governments, including the Government of the Northwest Territories, must work to address the root causes that place Indigenous women and girls at the highest risk.”
‘We don’t want it to be forgotten‘
Wawzonek referenced the territory’s work in developing its own action plan in response to the inquiry, saying the GNWT has “started to engage with Indigenous governments … to take more steps toward finding and supporting culturally appropriate solutions that will help keep women and children and families safe.”
The Native Women’s Association of the NWT provided feedback on the design of the national inquiry and its staff acted as family liaisons when the inquiry held a hearing in Yellowknife. The association now provides victim and survivor support services.
Jane Weyallon, president of the association, told Cabin Radio the group is working with community organizations and social service providers, including the RCMP, to “build trust.”
Jane Weyallon, president of the Native Women’s Association of the NWT. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio
“We just want the programs and services to continue working on it, and to help the communities [with] the important issues that we have ahead of us,” she said. “We don’t want this thing to be sitting on the shelf or collect dust. We don’t want it to be forgotten.”
The association has created a “beaded hearts” tapestry to commemorate all those lost and grieving. While it’s currently in their office, Weyallon said the association wants to display it in the Legislative Assembly as a reminder to those in power that action is sorely needed.
Yellowknife city councillor Stacie Smith spoke at Thursday’s ceremony, sharing a personal story about a time she was followed by men in a vehicle in Winnipeg. Smith said she had to hide at a bus station until they left her alone.
“I sat there praying. ‘Please don’t let them know I’m here. Please don’t let them catch me,’” she said. “I feared that if they did, they would drag me out of that crowd and nobody would have cared.”
Stacie Smith, Yellowknife city councillor. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio
“As women, we are powerful human beings,” Smith said. “We are the life givers. We’re the nurturers. It is our task and our goal in life to teach our next generation. Teach them kindness. Teach them love. Teach our girls to be alert. Teach them to follow their intuition, because that is our safety mechanism.
“It’s our job to teach our next generation about respect – respect for others but most importantly, respect for ourselves.”
Weyallon added: “We have to fight violence against women, because there’s a lot of racism out there. It’s happening all over the place but now, it’s coming out more.
“Right now, things are changing. We need to show respect to the women, to the girls.”
Ruth Mercredi, a traditional counsellor with the Arctic Indigenous Wellness Foundation. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio
Attendees line up to tie red ribbons to a tree in remembrance of those lost. Meaghan Brackenbury/Cabin Radio