Hearts hang heavy on Red Dress Day

·6 min read

Hearts will hang heavy as red dresses hang with love and pride across the nation on May 5. The day is dubbed Red Dress Day, also known as the Red Dress Campaign, a day ignited through the REDress Project to remember the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, two-spirited across Canada who lost their lives at the hands of violence. Local First Nations of the Columbia Valley will honour this day. Shuswap Band will be holding a ceremony of remembrance for all Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) today May 5 at 12 p.m. out in front of the Shuswap’s Health Department and Community Hall.

“The event will be held by the electronic sign, which will have various images and photos displayed to honour those MMIWG playing from May 4 to 6,” says Tess Ainsworth Communications Officer for the Shuswap Band. “We will be hanging a display of red dresses and at noon there will be a drum song sung for those women and girls, praying for their safe return and their peace. All attendees are encouraged to wear red in their honour.”

Columbia Valley Métis Association (CVMA) and Akisqnuk First Nation will also be doing something to commemorate the individuals and their family members and were still in the process of planning their event when they spoke to the press.

“This day is raising awareness in the public, which is so important,” says Chief Donald Sam of the Akisqnuk First Nation. “At the same time, we must remember it is a constant devastating reminder for those in the community that have ties to those lost at the hand of violence.”

Conceived on May 5 in 2010 in Winnipeg, it was the inspired work of Métis artist Jaime Black that sparked the flame for the REDress Project and Red Dress Day. The red dress was chosen by Black for her artwork after she was told by her Indigenous friend that red is the only colour spirits can see. She was told that the colour red is a calling back to the spirits of these women allowing them a chance to be among us again and have their voices heard through their family members and the community.

The colour red is a symbol of the lifeblood that connects us all both through vitality and violence. Black’s display at the University of Winnipeg included a series of empty red dresses to honour and symbolize the lost lives of Indigenous women at the hands of violence. This was the catalyst for the campaign that became Red Dress Day.

Red Dress Day draws attention to more than 1,000 Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) in Canada and holds strong ties to Indigenous communities. “It’s something that is always in the back of our minds, especially as Indigenous women in particular and those that are two-spirited,” says Columbia Valley Métis Association (CVMA) President Monica Fisher. “Statistically we are at higher risk for harm and with this day we are reminded of the challenges we still face in 2022.”

Studies executed by the assembly of First Nations in 2019 show that Indigenous women are three times more likely to be victims of violence compared to non-Indigenous individuals. Red Dress Day aims to start those hard conversations and change past narratives. “I feel this is one of the most important things to honour and bring awareness to so that with education and support we will start to see change,” says Fisher.

One does not only need to be of Indigenous ties to show support and help spread awareness on Red Dress Day. There are lots of ways everyone can also get involved. “People of all walks of life can show their support by simply wearing a red shirt or ribbon on this day,” says Fisher. “There are lots of Indigenous artists that make earrings and other jewelry. I encourage people to buy these from them, especially those that are women or two-spirited individuals. This will not only help support them to be independent, but it also aids in spreading awareness to the public. I think in this time of truth and reconciliation it is all of our duties as Canadian citizens to be aware of the inequalities within our communities still due to the impacts of colonization.”

In 2019, the final report from the National Inquiry on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls made 231 calls to justice and it was concluded that the acts of violence against Indigenous women, girls, and gender-diverse people in Canada did in fact constitute genocide. “It is imperative that the public knows about the epidemic that continues to face Indigenous women, girls, and two-spirited peoples across the country,” says Ainsworth. “Without awareness, there can be no change and no justice. We need to do all we can to protect the current and future generations and to bring peace and closure to those that have been impacted by this crisis.”

Fisher shares that with the focus on truth and reconciliation and the different calls to action around it, once one is chosen and taken forward through the help of allies it will not only be beneficial to Indigenous, but to all individuals of the greater community as well.

Ways one can become an ally is to learn about Indigenous Canadian History from an Indigenous perspective and learn about truths that are shared. Acknowledge that Indigenous rights have been violated and the impact it has had, and still has. Supporting and being respectfully active in the community, while being a voice to continue to break down barriers are all ways to take the necessary steps to truth and reconciliation not just on days like Red Dress Day, but every day.

“It is best to listen respectfully to those impacted and amplify their voices,” says Ainsworth. “Donate to ndigenous-led initiatives and organizations (such as Native Women’s Association of Canada or the Indian Residential School Survivors Society.) Have those conversations with your family and friends about Red Dress Day and the MMIWG epidemic.”

One way everyone can show their support is to display empty red dresses in public spaces or in nature. To honour this day dresses are left empty to evoke the spirits of the girls and women that should don them. “Something that is often encouraged is that individuals hang a red shirt or red dress in particular and take that moment to hang it outside your front door or in the window of your home,” says Fisher. “It’s just that reminder. Sometimes we need those visual reminders to create dialogue and trigger action.”

Chadd Cawson, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Columbia Valley Pioneer

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