Walking With Our Sisters memorial for murdered and missing indigenous women drawing crowds in Ottawa

A touring art memorial to missing and murdered indigenous women is drawing big crowds to the Carleton University Art Gallery.

Art installation open until Oct. 16 at Carleton University Art Gallery

A touring art memorial to missing and murdered indigenous women is drawing big crowds to the Carleton University Art Gallery.

Walking With Our Sisters is a commemorative installation that features nearly 2,000 pairs of handmade moccasin tops, or "vamps", to honour indigenous women, along with children and two-spirited people, who have been murdered or have disappeared in Canada.

"The vision for the vamps is they're unfinished," said volunteer and Carleton student Gabby Richichi-Fried. "Vamps usually get sewn into moccasins. But they're to symbolize lives that have been cut short."

The project began nearly five years ago, when Métis artist Christi Belcourt put a call out for family members of missing or murdered indigenous women to submit beaded or crafted moccasin tops in their memory.

The response was huge, and the memorial has toured Canada since late 2013.

"It travels in what we call a 'sacred bundle'," added Richichi-Fried. "This bundle travels all together, and it's consider sacred. It travels in ceremony always."

At the Carleton art gallery, the pieces are carefully laid out on red cloth with cedar, a traditional medicine in many indigenous cultures. The centrepiece is a canoe, an homage to the Algonquin people who traditionally travelled the rivers through what is now Ottawa.

Since opening here on Sept. 25, approximately 2,000 people have come to see the memorial, according to gallery director Sandra Dyck.

Juliana Matoush-Snowboy is one of the elders on hand helping out with the installation.

"I bring my daughters and my family to come in to look at the vamps, the memorial," she said. "It's a really, really awesome experience, yet tragic, in a sense."

From left to right, Juliana Matoush-Snowboy, Gabby Richichi-Fried, Brittany Mathews are all team members with Walking With Our Sisters Ottawa. (Waubgeshig Rice)
Matoush-Snowboy is originally from the Cree community of Mistissini in Quebec. Being a part of Walking With Our Sisters is a chance for her to honour one of her cousins, who was murdered in the 1970s.

"Back home on the rez, there's really nobody that honours her existence, basically," she said. "I want to fulfill that void that's been happening in our family."

The RCMP has counted nearly 1,200 indigenous women who have been murdered or have disappeared in Canada since 1980.

In Ottawa, community members, leaders, educators and family members of victims are lining up to see Walking With Our Sisters.

"It's been such an honour, ultimately, to provide a space for people, for families to come grieve, frankly," said volunteer Brittany Mathews, who is Métis.

"Yes, awareness is good, and yes awareness is amazing, but to me the most important healing needs to happen with families first."

"Anything that's spirit-driven is going to create an impact in history," added Matoush-Snowboy. "It's going to be something that'll be remembered and honoured, especially when it's done in such a beautiful manner."

Walking With Our Sisters runs until Oct. 16 at the Carleton University Art Gallery and then will head to nearby Akwesasne First Nation in early November.