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Red Dress Day honouring MMIWG creates space for conversation and healing

“It’s a memorialization and a chance for families to get out and say, ‘hey here is my loved one,’ and share what happened and what terms of justice they want. It is a powerful conversation.”

STONEY NAKODA— Giving a voice to those whose lives were cut short, community members gathered Wednesday (May 5) in Stoney Nakoda First Nation, Cochrane, Canmore and Calgary to stand in vigil for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and people.

Red Dress Day co-organizer Gloria Snow said the day was centred on understanding the issues many Indigenous people face and sparking a conversation aimed at creating societal change.

“It is a difficult and tough subject to talk about,” Snow said. “It’s a memorialization and a chance for families to get out and say, ‘hey here is my loved one,’ and share what happened and what terms of justice they want. It is a powerful conversation.”

At the Stoney Nakoda RCMP Detachment red ribbon skirts developed for families who have lost a family member were hung and a drive-thru event with education stations took place at St. Andrew's Church in Cochrane.

The day served to honour the memory of those who are missing and murdered and show action is being taken to address the crisis.

Snow said Red Dress Day was established by Indigenous artist Jamie Black. The day is designed to bring awareness to the violence Indigenous women face. Black began the tradition in Winnipeg with an art installation where she hung red dresses as a reminder of those who have gone missing because of domestic and sexual violence.

“She inspired a whole generation of people to observe the day of Red Dress Day with a red dress,” Snow said. “It’s a symbol of the blood memory of an individual— As that matriarch or that woman is missing or is gone now that is a stark reminder that, that lineage stands there. They may have decedents, they may have families, but they don’t have a voice.”

The event marked the first Red Dress Day in Cochrane, Snow said, and was the result of working with the Town’s Equity and Inclusion Committee to facilitate and engage in relationships between Cochranites and Indigenous people.

An important aspect of the day was the partnership established with the United Church and Rev. Ray Goodship as an act of Reconciliation, she said.

“It’s really fitting,” Snow said, explaining the church’s role in families healing from the intergenerational trauma of residential schools and the colonial experience. “The church itself is living out its actions to the apology our Prime Minister has given.”

Snow said she hopes those who participated in the Red Dress Day events walk away inspired and ready to help their community.

Snow is part of the recently launched group Mmiwg2s & MMIP Cochrane. The group is centred on raising awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people and advocating for action in their names and memories.

A critical aspect of the Red Dress Day was providing information on the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada and Reclaiming Power and Place: The Final Report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls documents.

The Reclaiming Power and Place report was released in June 2019. In the report, commissioners concluded thousands of Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or disappeared in Canada.

The crisis was characterized as a "genocide" against Indigenous Peoples that was made possible by the actions and inaction by governments rooted in colonialism.  The report concluded that colonial violence, racism, sexism, homophobia and transphobia against Indigenous women, girls, LGBTQ2S+ and two-spirit people is embedded in everyday life, resulting in many Indigenous people becoming accustomed to violence.

The report indicated Canadian society has shown an "appalling apathy" in addressing the issue.

There are believed to be between 2,500 and 4,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls across Canada, however, the report indicates quantifying the total number of those affected is not possible.

Overall, statistics show one in four Indigenous women will experience violence in their lifetime and are three times more likely to experience frequent violence than non-Indigenous women.

Indigenous women are six times more likely to be victims of homicide than non-Indigenous women.

Among the calls to action included in Reclaiming Power and Place is a hope Canadians will read the document, learn about Indigenous history and take steps to confront racism and other forms of discrimination when they see it. 

Snow said more action is needed because there has been a lapse in moving forward in a meaningful way since the report's initial release and finding justice for missing and murdered Indigenous Women and Girls remains elusive.

“Now we stand in solidarity with these families to have some justice, and some closure and some healing for those women, girls and two-spirit people,” Snow said. “We don’t want these personal stories to be forgotten. We want them to speak from where they are and if they can’t we become their voice.”

Cochrane Red Dress Day volunteer Melissa Engdahl said it was important to help foster and build a space for Indigenous voices in Cochrane.

“There’s a lot of personal stories and they touch really close to home, and they touch really close to our community,” Engdahl said.

Support for the event was provided through the Town of Cochrane Equity and Inclusion Committee. The committee provided an honorarium intended to help develop marketing materials and make a Cochrane Red Dress Day sustainable for years to come.

The event is part of their Reconciliation toolkit, Engdahl said, and it was paramount to provide support— Especially because there had been no official Red Dress project installations in Cochrane before the inaugural event.

“It was important we try and do something and support something to happen— It has had so much momentum so quickly,” Engdahl said.

She said the event at St. Andrew's Church was made possible by a group of engaged community volunteers dedicated to honouring the memory of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The day was one of powerful emotions as personal stories of grief and loss were shared in a community of respect and reverence.

The day served to increase education and awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous Women and Girls by fostering connections between Cochrane and Stoney Nakoda First Nation members.

“We’re all responders to acts of violence and how we support each other around that. It’s larger than one community,” Engdahl said.  “We all have a role to play in that no matter who you are— We want to raise awareness for the calls to justice, but we also want to build the capacity of our community to help people understand some of the historical contexts of why we are here right now.”

By revisiting the Truth and Reconciliation Commision of Canada and Reclaiming Power and Place can recognize that all members of the community have roles to play in taking action and accountability tangible.

“There’s more work to be done around truth and Reconciliation,” Engdahl said. “The only way to do that is to be actively partnering and building relationships with Indigenous people.”

For more information on the continued advocacy for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls visit the Facebook page @MMIWG2SCochrane.

Chelsea Kemp

About the Author: Chelsea Kemp

Chelsea Kemp joined the Cochrane Eagle in 2020 as editor, bringing with her experience as a reporter and photojournalist. She writes about politics, health care, arts and entertainment and Indigenous stories.
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