Guest Post: Wynter Ducharme
I grew up hearing stories whispered by my older cousins on our trips to the pas for Christmas. During the long ride they would talk about everything and one time, the story of a girl who was killed by some white guys came up. Being 7 or 8, the grisly details stayed with me. That girl was Helen Betty Osborne who was kidnaped and murdered in the Pas in 1971. Later on in my life, I was reintroduced to this issue when the Robert Pickton case broke and when I did a research paper on this issue in university. I was shocked at how many names had surfaced in my research. How many places were known for Native women to just vanish – the Highway of Tears, Vancouver and Pickton’s Farm, the international waters of the Great Lakes, and the human trafficking routes in all the major cities in Canada. I myself was warned to be weary when I was on my own in the cities I lived in. I could not understand why this was happening and why there did not seem to be any one important doing anything about it.
Statistics state that 1,200 indigenous women and girls have gone missing in the last 30 years. This number does not include unreported cases, cases not within RCMP jurisdiction, Two-Spirited/Trans people who were not listed as women, deaths from domestic violence, this list could go and the number would definitely grow larger. Our government and larger society refuses to listen to those that have been left behind, those who continue to fight for justice. They just want to be heard.
In 2012, a Michif artist from Lac St. Anne area, created what would become a travelling commemoration to honor the lives that have been lost, create a space for their families to grieve, and continue to raise awareness about the issue of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women. Her project is a collection of 1,600+ pairs of moccasin vamps, each to represent an indigenous woman who has either been declared missing or murdered. Many of the families affected by this issue have not seen justice and continue look for answers about their loved one. Two and half years ago, I wanted to see this brought to Calgary and Treaty 7 area and thus began my journey with WWOS Calgary.
For months, we came together to share ideas and teachings and fundraise to host this bundle in this community. On April 29, 2018, we opened our viewing lodge to the public and welcomed them to visit this space and learn about this issue. Mount Royal University came alongside us about half way through our planning and we were able to create the lodge in their brand new Riddell Library and Learning Centre. For 2 weeks, anyone was welcome to walk the path we created with the vamps. Often visitors entered a little hesitant as they did not know what to expect but as they made their way around our lodge, it was touching to see them take in the full magnitude of the issue behind the space. I watched as our Elders and committee members would comfort those who needed it, answered questions and just thanked each person for coming. I loved hearing our Grandmothers’ speak and share stories. I enjoyed our firekeepers’ teachings, gentle reminders and support at our closing circle each night. And I enjoyed watching our volunteers and committee members grow and voice their concern by being a part of this project
It was a very busy, very emotional time for me. We had spent many hours together trying to get all we needed in place and all that time did not prepare me for how powerful this would be. One night in particular I was asked to smudge down the lodge and the vamps. I made my way around the space and was told to smudge as though someone was standing there. It was not until that moment the fullness of this space and issue hit me. The little pieces of art, decorated with beads, lace, hide, quills, pictures – they each were someone’s daughter, sister, mother, cousin. They were a person and not just a number in some statistic, each had a goal and dreams. They had memories and relationship with family. They were a human being first and foremost and it saddened my heart to think that our cities, our leaders, do not see this tragedy as important.
The month before was crammed with meetings, recruiting and scheduling volunteers, driving repeatedly to the fabric store, a million phone calls and emails, and lots of hard word. We had spent the last two and half years preparing and planning for this lodge and it still seemed chaotic at times. As each day of install completed, I was reminded of how important this time was going to be. Every person who gave their time, be it half an hour or an all-day commitment, did so with such compassion and willingness. Every layer of the lodge was handled with love and care and lots of graceful teaching.
On mother’s day, at our closing ceremony, I stood in a room full of people singing with my committee and I was overwhelmed with the honour and pride I felt for each of them and what we had accomplished. .We had reached our goal of creating a loving space for families to grieve, we were able to raise awareness of this issue in and around Calgary and we were able to help educate those who wanted to know more. WWOS Calgary closed on May 13 and the bundle was transported and passed on to the next community 5 days later.
What I learned most from this whole experience was how just one voice, one question could spark a little bit of change. The committee members and volunteers who helped make this event possible came from all sorts of backgrounds and education. They had families and jobs and other commitments, yet they still found time to share a bit more of themselves to speak out against the injustice our people are subject to. I was also reminded how resilient and strong our people, but mainly our women are. Hearing the stories of those who have been lost, watching the grief and tears spill down their faces, even those who were taken years ago, having a glimpse into their family’s pain broke my heart. But each of them stood there, with almost a fire in their eyes and told us that this needs to stop. They gave voice to the whole reason we carried this bundle. They continue to fight for justice and they continue to work towards a goal of bettering life for all indigenous people in our city. I am very honoured to have been a part of this whole movement and to share a little bit of hope in our City.
“The Old Ones say the Native American women will lead the healing among the tribes. Inside them are the powers of love and strength given by the Moon and the Earth. When everyone else gives up, it is the women who sings the songs of strength. She is the backbone of the people. So, to our women we say, sing your songs of strength; pray for your special powers; keep our people strong; be respectful, gentle, and modest.” ~ Lakota