Mary Graham never got to know her sister, May-Marie, before she was slain almost 30 years ago.
But she has a place to remember her.
Right now, it’s just a small tree, a little over five feet tall. But over time, the bur oak in the park behind the Norquay Community Centre in Point Douglas — planted Wednesday to memorialize missing and murdered Indigenous people — will stretch its branches across the field for generations.
It’s what makes the tree a reflection of the community that planted it, said elder Belinda Vandenbroeck.
"The roots of it go all over, and that’s what makes it strong," she said.
"As human beings, if you see me and her as a tree, then we’re rooted," Vandenbroeck explained, reaching out to Graham and placing her hand on her shoulder. "We’re connected."
Graham said it took months of navigating applications and funding concerns to finally get the tree planted — but once she decides to do something, there’s no stopping her.
Years ago, when she told her mother she was going to find out what happened to May-Marie, who was apprehended by Child and Family Services at birth, Graham set out on a difficult journey that would not lead her to a happy ending. Her sister was killed in 1992.
"I don’t give up on things," said Graham, a pair of silver angel wings dangling from her ears. "I fought hard to get to know about her, (but) I never really knew her. That’s the hard part."
The memorial tree officially took root in Michaëlle Jean Park Wednesday morning in front of about 40 people — some of whom, like Graham, had sisters, daughters, uncles counted among the murdered and missing.
Graham said she hopes to see more of these families speaking up, and speaking for themselves.
"We can empower ourselves. That’s important," she said. "I’m tired of being a victim, a survivor — it’s time we be warriors."
The bur oak — a massive, slow-growing tree — seems like a natural symbol for these families, said city forester Martha Barwinsky, who attended Wednesday’s ceremony.
"It symbolizes strength, endurance," Barwinsky said. "Oaks are known to easily surpass 300 years of age, making it a powerful, life-affirming symbol. It is also known as the tree of life, because of the countless living beings that make it their home."
The memorial tree, which has been granted heritage designation status through Manitoba Sustainable Development’s Heritage Trees Program, was planted next to a commemorative stone with the phrase "those stolen will always be loved and remembered" etched onto it. Before the stone was unveiled, Graham had it covered with a large blanket that had belonged to her sister.
For families of the murdered and missing, the memorial is a place to grieve, to remember and to honour the people they’ve lost.
And for Graham, it’s a place to think about May-Marie.
"I’ll be able to have a piece of my sister," she said. ""Her spirit is here."