Families of Tatyanna Harrison, Chelsea Poorman demand accountability on Red Dress Day

·3 min read
Natasha Harrison, mother of 20-year-old daughter Tatyanna whose remains were found in Richmond, is consoled by a friend during a Red Dress Day ceremony in Vancouver on Friday, May 5, 2023.  (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)
Natasha Harrison, mother of 20-year-old daughter Tatyanna whose remains were found in Richmond, is consoled by a friend during a Red Dress Day ceremony in Vancouver on Friday, May 5, 2023. (Ben Nelms/CBC - image credit)

While red dresses hang across B.C. to mark Red Dress Day — a day to bring awareness to missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls, and Two-Spirit people — activists in B.C. continue to call for government action.

Red Dress Day began in 2010 when Métis artist Jamie Black hung hundreds of empty red dresses in public places in Winnipeg to bring awareness to the issue.

Among advocates speaking Friday at a Red Dress Day ceremony in Vancouver City Hall was Natasha Harrison, whose 20-year-old daughter Tatyanna was missing for months before her remains were found on a yacht in Richmond, south of Vancouver.

Since then, Harrison has been demanding more transparency and support in finding out what happened to her daughter.

"It's her that walks with me. It's her that's been guiding me," she said. "For her I'll continue, no matter how hard it is. I'll continue to bring awareness to this."

Harrison had spent months searching for Tatyanna before her body was found partially unclothed, with police ruling her death was due to "fentanyl toxicity".

But she and others had lingering questions and concerns about the investigation, including how it took three months for Tatyanna's remains to be identified through DNA samples.

"It is mortifying when you try and raise awareness and you see things get silenced. You see things get ignored," she said.

"I hope to see change, and I hope to see it in this lifetime."

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Sheila Poorman also spoke at the event, detailing the painful loss of her 24-year-old daughter Chelsea Poorman, whose body was found in Vancouver's Shaughnessy neighbourhood in 2022 — nearly a year and a half after she went missing in September 2020.

"Tomorrow it'll be a year since I was notified they found Chelsea. Chelsea went missing in September. My daughter [Chelsea's sister] and I both said something was wrong," she said.

"The police said her death wasn't suspicious. It was very upsetting. I printed posters, we put them up, we went for rallies and walks which I'm thankful for. The community came together for my family and I."

While police had deemed her death non-suspicious, Sheila has been vocal about concerns around how her daughter's case was handled by police.

It's a sentiment echoed by Chepximiya Siyam, Hereditary Chief of the Sen̓áḵw, part of the Squamish First Nation.

"People are suffering in pain and grief and there's no answers. I don't understand how could that be," she said on CBC's The Early Edition Friday morning.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

Siyam is one of the collaborators on an installation currently on display in Ron Basford Park on Granville Island, which features 60 red dresses.

"I was thinking about the sisters, aunties, grandmothers, that aren't here today. The ones that didn't make it," she said.

Canada-wide emergency declared

In Ottawa, the House of Commons unanimously backed a motion Tuesday declaring the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls a Canada-wide emergency.

It also called for funding for a new system to alert the public when someone goes missing.

Siyam says a country-wide alert system would be a step in the right direction.

"Any progress will help. I feel like maybe that could have been done a long time ago. I feel it's been such a slow process," said Siyam.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls' final report, released in 2019, found Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than others in Canada.

Ben Nelms/CBC
Ben Nelms/CBC

According to a Statistics Canada report last year, 63 per cent of Indigenous women have experienced violence and nearly half have experienced sexual assault.

On Friday, the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs (UBCIC) released a statement calling on the justice system to end discrimination, sexism, and violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

"Our people, particularly in rural and remote communities, have long endured justice authorities' racism, mistrust, corruption, and impunity," stated Melissa Moses, UBCIC Women's Representative.