What the first National Ribbon Skirt Day means for the founder of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week

Jan. 4, 2023, is the first National Ribbon Skirt Day, a day to honour Indigenous cultures, traditions and histories. (Linda LaVallee - image credit)
Jan. 4, 2023, is the first National Ribbon Skirt Day, a day to honour Indigenous cultures, traditions and histories. (Linda LaVallee - image credit)

Joleen Mitton, a Cree woman who was born and raised in East Vancouver, says she rarely saw anyone wearing traditional regalia such as ribbon skirts while growing up.

But today, she says, she's proud to see so many people donning ribbon skirts — including herself.

"It is really special," Mitton — the founder of Vancouver Indigenous Fashion Week — told B.C. Today host Michelle Eliot.

Jan. 4, 2023, marks the first National Ribbon Skirt Day, a day where Indigenous women across the country are encouraged to wear ribbon skirts to celebrate their culture, their strength and their connection as women.

"For me, ribbon skirt day means [celebrating] our resilience, the beauty of our culture," Mitton said.

National Ribbon Skirt Day comes from the story of Isabella Kulak, a young girl shamed by a staff member at her Saskatchewan elementary school for wearing a ribbon skirt to a formal event at the school in 2020.

Submitted by Lana Kulak
Submitted by Lana Kulak

In November 2021, Sen. Mary Jane McCallum put forward a bill in Parliament to recognize National Ribbon Skirt Day. The bill passed on Dec. 15.

McCallum said that the day is to "provide an opportunity for everyone in Canada to recognize, learn about and celebrate the importance of Indigenous traditions and expressions of culture."

"Isabella's story shone a light on the enduring injustices, racism, and discrimination faced by First Nations, Inuit, and Métis in Canada every day and on the importance of the role we all have to play in making sure that what happened never happens again to anyone in Canada," Prime Minister Justin Trudeau said in a statement.

When Kulak returned to school after the holidays on Jan. 4, 2021, a crowd of women wearing ribbon skirts led her to class, along with chiefs from surrounding the First Nations, as a show of support.

That's why Jan. 4, 2023, was chosen as National Ribbon Skirt Day.

Baneet Braich/CBC
Baneet Braich/CBC

The meaning behind the ribbon skirts varies by First Nation, Mitton said, and different colours have different meanings for different people.

They're often seen as a symbol of identity, adaptation and survival for Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse people.

Mitton, who was adopted into the Heiltsuk Nation, says that for her, ribbon skirts are something for Indigenous women to wear to express themselves. On National Ribbon Skirt Day, she wears a ribbon skirt she made that represents who she is — an Indigenous woman from East Vancouver. Her skirt features the colours of the medicine wheel to represent balance and has the words East Van written on the ribbons.

"It's just a beautiful way to celebrate my culture."

Mitton learned to make ribbon skirts from a woman in Saskatchewan and is now passing on those teachings to Indigenous youth.

"It makes me feel like my purpose is big," she said. "Having people wear ribbon skirts and teaching them is just, it's rewarding."