The Walking With Our Sisters travelling art exhibit commemorating missing and murdered aboriginal women opens today in Yellowknife.

The heart of the exhibit is an elaborate display of hundreds of moccasin tops sewn by people across the country and deliberately left unfinished to symbolize the lives cut short.

But perhaps even more powerful than the display itself, which has already garnered rave reviews in other cities in Canada, is the teach-in series that a local group of women has been hosting around the event.

On a chilly Saturday afternoon, I took a seat in a plastic chair in a multipurpose room at the Prince of Wales Northern Heritage Centre, joining about 25 other women (and one man) in a semicircle facing a panel of three women who would start the discussion.

The bill promised  to discuss “uncomfortable truths” and “new relationships” and the promise was delivered.

Lynn Brooks of the Lynn Brooks’ Safe Place for Women spoke first, talking about the outrage she feels in the face of apathy towards the phenomenon of missing and murdered aboriginal women.

Next was local activist Arlene Hache, who spoke forcefully about “institutional betrayal” and of brave women who have waged battles against everything from the courts to local housing authorities.

Then things got personal.

Sandra Lockhart, a First Nations woman living in Lutsel’ke, N.W.T., says she could have easily been among the missing and murdered.

“There’s no Godforsaken reason why I should be alive.”

At 58, Lockhart has still-glowing skin, a calm demeanour and a no-nonsense way about her that might remind you of a grandmother or a nurse, which she is and was, until she let her nursing licence lapse.

Without notes or artifice, Lockhart told the harrowing tale of the abuse and neglect of aboriginal people in Canada in the 20th century through her own horrifying experience — and then held out an olive branch to the non-aboriginal folks in the audience who, she acknowledges, are also in a struggle to come to terms with some of the facts.

'Don't apologize for being white'

Born into the Mistiwasis First Nation in Saskatchewan, Lockhart was the child of parents who were sent to residential school. She herself was caught up in the ‘60s Scoop, entering foster care at age four. That’s when her story of sexual abuse began, culminating in a life on the streets, several near death experiences, and a long road to clean, sober living.

Racism was never not a factor.

“It was blatant,” she says. “I grew up hating being aboriginal. But it was in my skin. I couldn’t hide it.”

It’s impossible to hear Lockhart speak without thinking about the people in the foster homes who inflicted the pain, and reflecting on the blissful ignorance that I grew up in as a farm kid in Saskatchewan.

Then Lockhart puts out the olive branch: “Don’t apologize for being white,” she says. “Because I’m not going to apologize for being aboriginal.”

When the floor was opened for comments, several women — aboriginal, non-aboriginal and of mixed ancestry — shared their own experiences. One cried as she described leaving a job when she encountered racism on a day-to-day basis. Another talked about being an outsider in a small N.W.T. community, hearing a child cry out in the night, and not knowing what to do.

Without judgment, Lockhart offered the same advice to the aboriginal and the non-aboriginal people in the room: “Don’t question your own intelligence,” she said. “What you’re seeing is really what you’re seeing.”

She even had advice on what to do when confronted by panhandlers, usually First Nations, though not always, who hustle for change downtown — a major front line if we’re talking about race in this city.

“I just tell them to go back to their community,” she says. For others, she suggests doing what you feel good doing.

Colonialism in Canada is far from over, Lockhart says. And each of us have a role to play in addressing it, by examining our own assumptions about and relationships with First Nations and Inuit people. 

“I’d really hate for us to leave this room thinking that the problem’s out there because it’s not. It’s in here.”

Where at least we’re talking about it.

The teach-in was the second in a series of three, organized by Sisters in Spirit, a nebulous group of women who came together to make sure the Walking With Our Sisters exhibit is a success. A third is scheduled for Jan. 26 in Dettah, N.W.T.