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Stepping toward reconciliation: On attending Walking With Our Sisters

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As we approach the Carleton University Art Gallery, the evocative scent of sweetgrass and sage wafts up the stairs.

My daughter and I slip off our shoes before padding into this somber space held sacred to the memory of murdered and missing indigenous women.

My left hand grips a sack of tobacco as I peer at the endless rows of vamps which are laid out on the longhouse – styled floor.  Each embroidered piece is the top section of the unfinished moccasins that make up the bulk of the display.

Like miniature paintings, each canvas compels us to pause and to think -- more, to feel. Each unique though diminutive fragment represents an individual whose life has been cut off or seized.  Each evokes a life that will never flower or thrive, nor reach untroubled old age.

The long line of visitors moves solemnly in collective mourning. They rotate in clockwise fashion as is Algonquin tradition, here in this hushed place that rests on Algonquin territory.

Organizers have thoughtfully set out boxes of tissues at intervals along the floor.  Many of us are sobbing. Others weep quietly for more than a thousand innocents who will never return from their shadowy realm.

Our grief is echoed by a dirge that spontaneously erupts ahead of us. These restless spirits appeared in a vision to Metis artist Christi Belcourt who then raised a call for this movable memorial to lost lives.

In eloquent silence these unquiet souls plead for remembrance, for recognition, and finally for long delayed justice.

Here is a section dedicated to the boys and girls who died or disappeared at Indian residential schools, run by not-so-benevolent churches. Their parents live in a purgatory of questions without answers.

 We're just a short drive from Parliament Hill, just after the throes of an electric federal election campaign.

But here, away from the fray of electioneering is the stuff of reality.

Here is a pair of vamps that baldly states:  "My name is 'Who Cares'" while the pair beside it is marked by a stark photo overlaid with the terse instructions: "Police Line. Do Not Cross".

These words paint the familiar picture of native women as vulnerable and routine victims of violence, of unfortunate denizens of a seedy underworld far removed from ours.

But imagine instead all of these women and children standing tall and proud, shoulder to shoulder as Belcourt pictured them.

Instead, their spirits lay embraced by mother earth. And during their lives and deaths they lay first ravaged then tossed aside like rubbish by everyday Canadians and leaders alike.

 This grass roots project is funded entirely by donations. Mounted a stone's throw from the national seat of power it's a humble but damning testament to mankind's savagery and our impulse to destroy.

But the dignity of the native community is humbling. Patient curators of a carnage that continues, the volunteers here are strong women who console people like me, who can only plead our ignorance of history.

The immigrant's catechism is simple: work hard to succeed.

 Yes, Canadian Muslims whether naturalized or native born face scrutiny, suspicion and sometimes injustice. But a Pakistani immigrant recently made the niqab a flashpoint for the nation. She lately landed on these shores yet she had the agency to fight for her Charter rights and win.

In a telling contrast, generations of indigenous peoples have suffered the systematic depredations of their lands and the erasure of their culture. Yet they endure and bear witness.

Why wasn't I taught about native culture, tradition, and history in school?

I learned about Tudor and York, the mayhem of medieval English battles, and about the merry wives of Windsor. I studied the quiet revolution and the two great wars. But I heard nothing of the residential school system, nothing about the Indian Act, nothing beyond the common simplistic myth of the drunken Indian.

But I hear it now. This memorial is alive with those clamouring spirits still shackled to earth. Their voices instruct me in pain and sorrow, teach me of beauty and of grace. The tobacco pouch is damp in my palm. We're oppressed by shame. We're consumed by loss.

Emerging into the bracing air of an autumn morning my task is made clear.

We have a new leader in Canada.

But before reconciliation comes truth. That truth is bloody, messy and relentlessly dark.

We as a nation need to hear it. We need to bear witness too. Only then can the healing begin. 


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