Indigenous women, families and advocates are calling for swift action in introducing a Red Dress Alert system, an initiative to shed light on and take action against the ongoing violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.
A morning rally outside Public Safety Minister Marco Mendicino's office in Toronto was among a host of events held Friday, marking the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirit People (also known as Red Dress Day).
The proposed alert system, often compared to Amber Alerts for missing children, would send emergency notifications to the public when an Indigenous woman, girl or two-spirit person goes missing.
Earlier this week, the House of Commons adopted a motion calling on the federal government to declare ongoing violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people a national emergency.
Presented by Winnipeg Centre New Democrat MP Leah Gazan, the motion also called for "immediate and substantial investment" for creating a Red Dress Alert system — which many advocates and grassroots organizations have long suggested.
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In the last federal budget, the government pledged $2.5 million over five years to convene and support the work of a roundtable of federal, provincial, territorial and Indigenous representatives in exploring a Red Dress Alert and other options. Proponents want the system to be established this year, with some taking the opportunity on Friday to urge action.
Introducing the measure "would help de-normalize when an Indigenous woman or child goes missing," said Corrina Gavan, a First Nations, Métis and Inuit committee member of the Canada Employment and Immigration Union (CEIU), who attended the rally outside Mendicino's office in support of Gazan's motion.
She pointed to the success of the Amber Alert system in finding children and underlined that while Indigenous women comprise about four per cent of the country's female population, they face violence at a disproportionately higher rate than non-Indigenous women.
"Our message to [Mendicino] is to take this crisis seriously and to enact the Red Dress Alert in a timely manner — not two to three years from now," Gavan said. "We want action now."
For Adam Murphy, a fellow CEIU member and FNMI committee representative, it was important to participate in the rally on Red Dress Day given what he describes as a lacklustre response from the federal government in responding to the violence against Indigenous women thus far.
"It's a sombre day, one filled with sadness and grief. But it's important that we continue to stand our ground and ensure that action is taken," he said.
"Promises are promises, and action is where we need to go."
Nikki Komaksiutiksak, executive director for Tunngasugit, a non-profit organization that supports Inuit living in Winnipeg, agreed that it's past time to actually start working alongside Indigenous leaders on tangible solutions.
'Give us a voice'
"We know what are the solutions. Talk to us. Give us a voice. Listen to what we know will work and then maybe you will see this crisis decrease," she said on Thursday.
Not only would a Red Dress Alert System "absolutely be effective," Komaksiutiksak noted that operating one would ensure that everyone across the nation truly understand the emergency.
"Hopefully, having this will save a life. It's one too many lives that have been taken and, if this system was in place when my sister was murdered, maybe she would not have been."
The federal government still has much work to do in responding to the Calls for Justice issued in the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, "in particular on a day like this when there are a lot of people out there hurting," Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Marc Miller acknowledged following a Red Dress Day event in Ottawa on Friday.
"No one should be talking about any level of success until every Indigenous woman and child and LGBTQ person in this country is safe. We see the tragedy ongoing and we see discoveries and bodies on almost a daily basis."
He noted that the government is working on better progress-reporting concerning its responses to the Calls for Justice, pointed to investments made since the final report's release in 2019, and briefly mentioned new funding slated for Indigenous shelters.
"We are in a state of emergency," Miller said. "But I think ... this is a tragedy that needs more than a response of public policy based on tragedy, because that leads to tragic outcomes."
'To say their names gives them their moment'
In New Brunswick, during a special ceremony hosted by First Nations storytellers at Saint John City Hall on Friday, event organizer Natasha Ward read out a selection of names of missing and murdered Indigenous women from communities across Canada.
"Speaking these names is important "because these women who are being dumped — in dumpsters, in landfills … they're devalued. To say their names gives them their moment, gives them their not their justice, but just to be heard and to be seen," Ward said after the solemn proceeding in council chambers.
According to Kateri Hibbert, who helped Ward organize the Saint John event, it's vital to educate council members and members of the public about the ongoing violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people, as well as highlighting initiatives like the Red Dress Alert System.
"When we do bring things forward, we can have more allies, more attention brought to the issues. And then we can kind of start moving forward with some real tangible action," Hibbert said.
Indigenous women are written off by many people and not considered in the same light as non-Indigenous women, said Bianca Jacobs, a parent who brought her children to the rally in Toronto.
"As native people, we're here. We live, love and laugh just like everyone else. And just like everyone else, we should each be afforded safety," said Jacobs.
"Having a system like the Red Dress Alert will help [missing Indigenous women] be noticed quicker. And it shows that we're not just someone to be thrown away. We don't belong in trash heaps. We don't belong in ditches. We belong with our people and our families."
If you or someone you know needs immediate emotional assistance, call 1-844-413-6649. This is a national, toll-free 24/7 crisis call line providing support for anyone who requires emotional assistance related to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. You can also access long-term health support services such as mental health counselling and community-based cultural services through Indigenous Services Canada.