On Red Dress Day, Coquitlam students, activist call for action on missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls

·3 min read
Students Cassidy Gestrin, left, Gabi Relevant, centre, Katy Morrison, right, have helped organize the Red Dress display as part of their social justice class at Dr. Charles Best Secondary School in Coquitlam, B.C. (submitted by Megan Leslie - image credit)
Students Cassidy Gestrin, left, Gabi Relevant, centre, Katy Morrison, right, have helped organize the Red Dress display as part of their social justice class at Dr. Charles Best Secondary School in Coquitlam, B.C. (submitted by Megan Leslie - image credit)

As the force behind the 100 Red Dress Project, Stephanie Elickus Rivers has raised awareness and funds in support of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls for years.

But for this year's Red Dress Day, the Campbell River woman of Wiikwemkoong heritage is doing something different, trekking to Ottawa to mark what is a deeply personal anniversary.

"It is the 30th anniversary of the murder of my sister-in-law, Corinne Lafleur," said Elickus Rivers. "She and another woman were murdered near Mount Washington 30 years ago on May 5th."

On Thursday, her thoughts will also turn to family members Caitlyn Andersen, who was just 15 when she died a violent death, and Marnie Frey, one of serial killer Robert Pickton's victims.

The tragedies drive Elickus Rivers, who has hung over 500 red dresses in her travels across Canada, drawing attention to the issue while calling on authorities to act on the 231 calls for justice that came out of the 2019 MMIWG report, which found that Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or to go missing than any other demographic group in Canada.

"Just write your letters to Marc Miller, Crown Indigenous [Relations] Minister of Canada," she said. "Make this call to justice a call to action, a priority, because [murders are] still happening."

High school students create 'red dress route'

Red Dress Day started in 2010 as an offshoot of a project by Métis artist Jamie Black, with the red dresses meant to draw attention to missing and murdered Indigenous women across Canada and United States .

Elickus Rivers is a long-time activist in the movement and her active social media presence has inspired others to take up the cause, including students at Dr. Charles Best Secondary in Coquitlam, B.C.

For the second year, the school's Social Justice 12 class has hung 60 red dresses to mark May 5. A display on a section of sidewalk designated the "red dress route" comes complete with municipal approval, information cards and QR codes linking to educational material on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

submitted by Megan Leslie
submitted by Megan Leslie

Grade 12 student Gabi Revelant said the display sparks conversation.

"A lot of our classmates have reported family members and friends talking about it and asking questions about what they represent. So we've got a lot of positive feedback," she said.

"We've been trying to educate people and prompt them to do more research so they understand what is happening," said Grade 12 student Katy Morrison.

"And maybe it can help to have more reconciliation with our Indigenous communities and help find the murdered and missing Indigenous women around Canada."

Teacher Megan Leslie said the red dress project grew out of a study into residential schools and the resulting harm to Indigenous peoples and communities.

Students have also launched a letter-writing campaign to change the name of Dewdney Elementary School, named after former Indian commissioner Edgar Dewdney, whose legacy does not stand the test of time, they said.

"He was a racist lieutenant and commissioner of Indian affairs. And he did a lot of problematic stuff that led to a lot of deaths of Indigenous people," said Grade 11 Cassidy Gestrin, a member of the St'át'imc Nation.

On Thursday at 1 p.m. PT, students will join a drum procession along the red dress route honouring missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and Kwikwetlem First Nation members, elders and residential school survivors. The display will remain up through May 9.

To complete the circle, Elickus Rivers will be on the steps of Parliament Hill on Red Dress Day with letters written by Leslie's social justice students last year, demanding action on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

"They all wrote letters that were sent to the government that I'll be reading aloud," she said. "It's just wonderful that they're so passionate."

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