Warning: The following report discusses missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people. If you require immediate support, you can call the Native Women’s Association of the NWT’s emergency line at (867) 920-2978, the NWT Help Line at 1-800-661-0844, the Inuit and First Nations Hope and Wellness Helpline at 1-855-242-3310, or the Kid’s Help Phone at 1-800-668-6868 or by texting CONNECT to 686868.
Two new benches honouring Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people (MMIWG) now stand in Rotary Park.
The benches, paid for by the Native Women’s Association of the NWT (NWANWT), bear designs of the not-for-profit’s beaded heart tapestry.
They were officially unveiled during a commemoration ceremony the organization hosted on Friday afternoon. Dozens of community members gathered to pray, seek comfort, and reflect on the work that still needs to be done to address the nationwide crisis.
“It’s time to end this,” Jane Weyallon, president of the association, said on Friday. “These little kids, girls – it’s their future that we are worried about now. If we don’t do anything, it’s going to escalate, and we want to stop the violence.”
In the Northwest Territories, MMIWG remains a prominent issue.
The territory had the second-highest overall rate of intimate partner violence between 2017 and 2018, according to Statistics Canada, second only to Nunavut. Nationally, Indigenous women are six times more likely to be murdered than non-Indigenous women, and three times more likely to experience sexual assault.
For many speakers at Friday’s event, the topic was personal. Resident Candace Meyer tearfully shared the story of her daughter Angela, who has been missing for over 10 years.
“Not a day goes by that we don’t think of Angela,” Meyer said. “We miss her terribly. So please, think of people …keep everybody safe.”
Therese Villeneuve, resident Elder with the association, offered a heartfelt opening prayer.
“I get so emotional when I think about it, because it must be the worst feeling in your life not to know where your loved one is,” she said. “At least if you lay them to rest, you could go see them and talk with them.
“I’ve talked to many, many women that have family members missing, and they’re always, always, always looking for them. So, we really pray for these women so that the Lord Creator will help us find them.”
‘We cannot forget them’
According to Weyallon, the benches at Rotary Park have been in the works for about a month. They are meant to serve not only as a healing space for those affected by MMIWG, but as a constant reminder for the community.
“A lot of people that are aware, but they’re ignoring it,” she said. “It’s going to be sending out a message to the public to let them know about the Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, that we cannot forget them … and to let the family know that we are still here.
“We need to keep talking about it, and to address it and to get in people’s face. That’s what the benches are supposed to be – it’s to be in your face. We’re not going anywhere.”
Weyallon herself has family members who have suffered partner abuse and has friends who have gone missing. She said she has witnessed firsthand the fear many women experience when trying to seek justice.
Violet Blondin-Camsell, president of the Status of Women Council of the NWT, has also been personally affected, losing friends and fellow community members in Behchokǫ̀.
“When you come from small a small community, you are like a big family,” she said. “Then something happens to a family, and it affects everybody.
“We had a girl – Charlene Catholique. She was passing through the community, and to this day, she’s not found yet. So, we feel for her relatives and her relations.”
Now that the benches have been unveiled, Weyallon said the association is working on creating three large billboards. One will be placed at Chan Lake Territorial Park, another at the NWT-Alberta border, and a third on the Dempster Highway in the Beaufort Delta.
The boards will have the same beaded heart tapestry designs. Written at the top it will say: “We are watching.”
“We don’t want this to happen anymore,” Weyallon said. “We don’t want it to be repeated anymore. That’s got to stop.”
National and territorial responses
It’s been over two years since the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was published.
In early June, the federal government released its action plan to address the MMIWG crisis. It includes various “short-term priorities,” such as more financial support for Indigenous-led healing and violence prevention programming, the creation of a special task force to re-examine unresolved case files of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQQIA+ people, and work to make available more shelters and transitional housing.
While the plan was accepted with cautious optimism from some, Indigenous leaders, communities, and allies have long admonished both the federal and territorial government’s slow pace in addressing the calls the justice.
The CBC reported on June 1 that the Native Women’s Association of Canada had left the process to develop a national action plan, calling it “toxic and dysfunctional.”
The territorial government continues to work on its own action plan around MMIWG, with a first draft set to be released this fall.
The Native Women’s Association of the NWT have led the engagement process, serving as a primary contact for the GNWT, while the Status of Women Council of the NWT has served a supporting role.
At Friday’s ceremony, Status of Women’s executive director Louise Elder told Cabin Radio the council was currently in the middle of a two-day engagement session with the GNWT to “help shape their action plan.”
“We’re reviewing each section to look at, do we think the government’s doing enough?” Elder explained. “Can they do more? If they can do more, what would that look like?”
The Native Women’s Association has been similarly busy with consultations and advocacy in the past few months, Weyallon said. Though she celebrated the progress made so far, she acknowledged the work still left to do.
“We’re very busy right now … it’s intense,” Weyallon said.
“We’re just going to continue – continue working, continue fighting.”