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People hold a candle light vigil for Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women and Girls at the Tsuut'ina Nation Police Station on May 4.Gavin John/The Globe and Mail

What is Red Dress Day?

Red Dress Day, the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and two-spirit People (MMIWG2S), is observed annually on May 5.

The day is marked by people hanging red dresses from trees, windows, fences and balconies. Dangling limply on hangers without women to wear them, the dresses are visual reminders of the thousands of missing Indigenous people in Canada.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, in its 2019 report, said the crisis constitutes a genocide of Indigenous people.

“Indigenous women are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than other women in Canada, and 16 times more likely to be killed or disappear than white women,” according to a Globe story that referred to the public inquiry.

“The report cited research from Statistics Canada showing Indigenous women and girls accounted for almost a quarter of female homicide victims between 2001 and 2015,” though they represent only 5 per cent of women in Canada.

The first Red Dress Day was observed in 2010, after artist Jaime Black launched her continuing REDress art installation. Black collects and hangs red dresses in public spaces to bring awareness to the MMIWG2S crisis, and the dresses have come to symbolize the issue. Red dresses are also used as a symbol of honour, at places like the Winnipeg landfill where First Nations’ women’s bodies were recently found.

How to commemorate Red Dress Day

Many people use the day as an opportunity to educate themselves, by attending seminars and workshops or reading the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

People are encouraged to wear a red dress, display red dresses in public spaces, or put a red light outside their doors, said Carol McBride, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).

Gatherings such as ceremonies, marches and vigils are planned across the country. McBride recommends that people look online to find something local they can attend, such as NWAC’s event in Gatineau, Que. She said she wishes more people understood the impacts of the crisis, “not only on the family but the community and the damage it does.”

At many Red Dress Day events, people can hear stories about the mothers, daughters, sisters, aunts and friends who are gone. The events serve as places for people to come together and share their sorrow, anger, grief and hope for a better future.

McBride said Red Dress Day brings communities together to talk, share and grieve “in a good way.”

“I know for myself, when I have to grieve, I am very vocal. I like to speak of what I’m feeling,” she said. Red Dress Day offers a chance to “acknowledge and share our feelings of what we are going through, and our grief, and also brings light to a lot of the issues that we are facing each and every day.”

Working towards a better future

“We need to talk about safety for our women and our girls and transgender people,” McBride said. “Genocide is happening left and right, right in front of our eyes, and we need to work together to bring on safety measures for our community.”

One of these safety measures is NWAC’s Safe Passage program, a database that documents and tracks MMIWG2S cases and the systemic violence that is causing the crisis by collecting and publishing stories by survivors and families. The Indigenous-led, community-driven, trauma-informed, and survivor-centred initiative offers safety resources, educational materials and research tools. It also identifies “safe places for people to go,” as well as “places that are not so safe,” McBride said.

“We are really looking at the prevention of violence and murder and what’s happening with our women at this point.”

The deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls were declared a Canada-wide emergency by the House of Commons this week. “And it was passed unanimously,” McBride noted, “so that in itself says something.” Her hope is that this motion is followed by actions that will “make a difference.”

The motion also called for funding for a new system to alert the public when someone goes missing. McBride notes NWAC already has an alert system created and is ready to deploy it.

There 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. The number is 1-844-413-6649

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