Rosena Winnie of Red Deer makes her way through the gallery at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery Monday during the opening of the Walking With Our Sisters exhibit. The memorial to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls from across Canada will be on display until June 21st

Art installation commemorating missing women opens at Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery

It’s not just art.

It’s not just art.

The moccasin vamps represent the unfinished lives of grandmothers, mothers, daughters, sisters, and aunts.

The lives of these missing and murdered women in Canada are memorialized in Walking With Our Sisters, a commemorative art installation.

It opened to the public at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery on Monday.

The installation features 1,808 pairs of individually designed, beaded moccasin vamps (or moccasin tops), which embody the women. Of those, some 117 vamps represent the children’s lives lost through the residential school system.

Corky Larsen-Jonasson, a First Nations lead elder, said she hopes the families or women who are directly affected find healing as they walk along the rows of vamps.

But the installation is for everyone to gain awareness of a serious social issue and understand that the vamps represent real people.

More than 1,200 indigenous women and girls have been reported missing or murdered in Canada in the last 20 years.

Rhonda Runningbird, 25, vanished without a trace on a hunting trip near Swan Lake recreational area west of Red Deer in March 1995. She is still considered missing and police have no leads.

In 2012, Talia Meguinis’s body was dumped and the 27-year-old was left for dead in a recycling bin in Red Deer. Nathan Michael Desharnais, 24, will face charges of second-degree murder and interfering with human remains in September.

“It is happening too much,” said Larsen-Jonasson. “It’s not random. It seems to be a population that is targeted. The government, as Prime Minister Stephen Harper said, has not put it on the radar. Hopefully as (Walking With Our Sisters) moves through each community, it brings better awareness, more knowledge and more action.”

The opening of the exhibit was as solemn as months of emotional and mental preparation came to a close.

And the days ahead will prove to be even more powerful as visitors walk alongside the vamps created by friends or relatives of the missing or murdered women.

“It just hits you,” said Sheila Bannerman, a museum volunteer. “That this pair of vamps represent someone who is not here.”

In the eight months leading up to the exhibit, the museum hosted eight community conversations to prepare the for the powerful and emotional memorial.

Counsellors will be on hand to help visitors cope with their feelings. Bannerman said while hope is the key message, there are huge respect issues in the community that need to be resolved.

“These women are significant individuals,” said Bannerman. “Their lives deserve to be honoured and recognized and they are missed. Perhaps as communities we can come together to create situations where women are not disrespected.”

The exhibit is steeped in ceremony. Visitors will be asked to remove their shoes to walk along the rows of vamps assembled on a pathway representing a path or journey that ended prematurely.

Women can choose to wear a ceremonial skirt made for the occasion.

The memorial will travel to various communities in Canada until 2019. It was in Edmonton earlier this year.

Lisa Periard helped install the exhibit in Ontario, Alberta, Northwest Territories, Whitehorse, Manitoba and Saskatchewan.

Periard said the response has been overwhelming on so many levels.

“There’s so much healing that comes from this,” she said. “You never know what direction it can come from. It could be as simple as somebody having personal healing from this to people who have never worked together before in communities working together.”

Periard said she hopes people will step into the installation with an open mind and an open heart and walk away with either understanding or a form of healing.

“Some people do not know what the issues are,” she said. “If they come through with some understanding and take it back to their own family and community in some way so this issue one day stops for our future generations.”

The memorial wraps up in Red Deer on June 21.

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