Corky Larsen-Jonasson knew three of the estimated 1,200 missing and murdered aboriginal women from across Canada.
And all three had either lived or died in Red Deer.
As a First Nations elder who worked with various social service agencies in this city, Larsen-Jonasson said she got to know one local woman who was recently found murdered in Edmonton.
The body of a second woman she knew was discovered a few years ago in a Red Deer dumpster.
And a third woman she tried to help turned up dead in a farmer’s field near Wetaskiwin.
The last victim was only a teenager. She had grown up in the foster care system in Red Deer, said Larsen-Jonasson, who estimates the girl was only 17 or 18 years old when her life was cut short.
Remembering Canada’s missing or murdered aboriginal women has become a very personal experience for Larsen-Jonasson, who often feels weighed down by these accumulated tragedies.
“It builds to a point, then I have to release (emotions) through a prayer pipe or a sweat lodge,” she said. “I also have an amazing support system” — including her husband.
But she stressed, “This is not just a First Nations problem.” Many other Red Deer residents also knew these women and need a healing process to find peace and forgiveness.
That’s the aim of the Walking With Our Sisters memorial, which will be at the Red Deer Museum and Art Gallery From June 1 to 21.
It consists of more than 1,800 beaded or embroidered moccasin tops, called vamps.
They were created in 2013 by friends or relatives of missing mothers, sisters, aunts, or daughters.
Museum volunteer Sheila Bannerman said the unfinished moccasins represent the unfinished lives of the missing women (although the same woman may have been memorialized more than once by different people).
Some 117 children’s moccasin vamps will also be displayed in memory of children who never returned home from Indian residential schools.
The Red Deer Industrial Institute, operated by the Methodist Church missionary society until 1919, was particularly notorious for having the highest child mortality rate in Canada because its poor conditions exacerbated sicknesses such as tuberculosis.
The vamps will be displayed along a stream of red fabric arranged in a winding path formation, with cedar boughs and other ceremonial items such as tobacco and sweetgrass.
Visitors will be asked to remove their shoes and walk along the row, said Bannerman.
Women entering the memorial can choose to wear one of the optional ceremonial skirts made for the occasion. There will also be a chance to take part in an aboriginal smudging ceremony.
Bannerman feels this is a very important museum installation because it’s helping Canadians address a huge tragedy. “It’s recognizing the grief that exists about these sisters being lost or missing, and the need to come to terms with this.”
Larsen-Jonasson believes there’s been a growing awareness about the scale of violence against aboriginal women — starting with the deaths along B.C.’s Highway of Tears, the delay in police investigating the missing women who were murdered by serial killer Robert Pickton, and the bodies of several young aboriginal women turning up in Manitoba.
“I see a great awakening,” said Larsen-Jonasson. In speaking to 150 middle school students about social issues around the violence, she found the youths “are angry about it. They don’t think it’s fair.
“First Nations women — or women, period — are finding their voice,” she added.
“We were told to be quiet, that we didn’t matter. But we do matter. And we will not be quiet any longer.”
The memorial that’s travelling across Canada until 2020 has already been in Edmonton. The Red Deer museum is the only other Alberta stop, and Bannerman said this city was fortunate to get it only because of a cancellation in Calgary.
She feels Red Deer is an appropriate site for the memorial as “there are a significant number of people here (in Central Alberta) who have lost sisters, aunties, cousins, friends.”
Andrea Lacoursiere, a project co-ordinator at the museum, said aboriginal elders will be on hand to help people who experience a flood of emotions at the memorial.
Another mandated aspect of hosting the Walking With Our Sisters is to have a series of community consultations about the issue of violence against women before the memorial opens.
The last one will be held at the museum from 6 to 8 p.m. on Tuesday, May 19. Everyone is welcome to attend.