More than 120 people gathered in the amphitheatre outside City Hall in Yellowknife to recognize and honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and pay tribute to their families and friends during a Tree of Honour ceremony.
It was one of six ceremonies organized throughout the territory by the Status of Women Council of the NWT.
Caroline Wawzonek was heartened.
"I think this is the single best turnout I've seen in years of participating," said the minister responsible for the status of women. "I think there's such a powerful message when we all come together like this."
The minister told the crowd how the government of the Northwest Territories was addressing the issue of violence perpetrated toward Indigenous women and girls.
In June 2019, a federal inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls found that they were 12 times more likely to be murdered or to go missing than members of any other demographic group in Canada — and 16 times more likely to be slain or to disappear than white women.
In its final report, the inquiry made 231 "calls to justice" to help address the violence.
Wawzonek said the territorial government has started to engage with Indigenous governments and stakeholders across the Northwest Territories to "take more steps toward finding and supporting culturally appropriate solutions that will help keep women and children and families safe."
She said the root causes of the violence include systemic poverty, the residential school system and colonialism.
The territories and provinces are working with the federal government to develop an action plan that will address the calls to action, she said.
"It requires conversations, it requires engagement … that's why I think it's important for all us to be here today. You help turn the conversations into action," she said, urging everyone to keep up the pressure.
Wawzonek told the crowd that when they tie a ribbon around a tree during the ceremony, they are showing honour to the missing Indigenous women and girls.
"Each and every one of us needs to carry the conversation forward to put pressure on the systems that we are a part of," she said.
'I could have been one of them'
City of Yellowknife councillor Stacie Smith said she was honoured to be there on behalf of the city but also as an Indigenous woman.
She said the ceremony gives a voice back to those who have gone missing.
"I could have been one of them," Smith said.
She recounted how, as a student in Winnipeg, she'd gone to a downtown coffee house one evening and left by herself.
As she walked up Portage Avenue, a truck with some men in it slowed down beside her.
"They stopped at the corner where I had to pass and they started coming out of the truck. And I looked at the men coming for me and I decided to take my chances and I darted across the road," she said.
The men got back in their truck to follow her. She made it to a bus stop where there was a crowd of people and she hid.
"I remember feeling terrified and frozen," she said. "And I sat there praying ... because I feared that if they found me, they would [have] dragged me out of that crowd and nobody would have cared.
"I was one of the lucky ones that night."
She said as the mother of two boys, her job is to teach them, and the next generation, love, kindness and respect.
Yellowknives Dene Chief Ernest Betsina also paid tribute to the families and friends of those who have lost loved ones.
"As a community and as Canadians, Indigenous and non-Indigenous, we must continue to reflect and search our hearts and souls to fight … and to promote healing," he said.