Tomorrow is the day the message behind all those red dresses comes into sharpest focus.
May 5 is Red Dress Day and the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG).
In the 14-year period from 2001 to 2015, Statistics Canada reported the homicide rate for Indigenous women was nearly six times higher than that for non-Indigenous women. According to the West Vancouver Island-based Nuu-chah-nulth Tribal Council (NTC), there are 53 Nuu-chah-nulth females whom have been murdered or a suspicious death. The two missing Nuu-chah-nulth females are Lisa Marie Young and Margaret Klaver. Both these cases are unsolved.
“We have had many losses in the Nuu-chah-nulth. Be it missing, murdered, no justice, not enough evidence to charge people who have murdered or hurt our people. Our families hang these dresses and shirts to honour the people we have lost,” said Jennifer Touchie, a member of the Ucluelet First Nation, one of 14 bands within the 10,000-person Nuu-chah-nulth.
Over the weekend, Touchie hung, for the second time, three red dresses and one blue shirt to honour her brother James Williams who died from blunt head trauma last summer. Much to her disbelief and heartache, vandals removed the red dresses she had originally hung the week before.
“I could not believe that someone would do that. I felt heartbroken. I really felt upset and a lot of anger. It takes a lot of strength within to hang these dresses up. When people take them down that really hurts us. It hurts our soul, it breaks our heart,” she said.
It was at least the third such recent incident on Vancouver Island recently.
President of the NTC Judith Sayers said tearing down the red dresses are acts of racism.
“The hanging of red dresses was to bring more awareness of MMIWG, the large number of them and the lack of finding them or resolving the murders. This is a reality for Indigenous people and those that will not accept these truths, have no understanding of the situation, nor do they want to understand and preventing more MMIWG from going missing or preventing the violent acts,” said Sayers.
Anita and Tyson Touchie helped re-hang the dresses on Ucluelet First Nations treaty lands just before the Tofino-Ucluelet Highway 4 junction. Anita says the red dresses and blue shirts bring awareness to the history of trauma that generations of Indigenous people have faced since contact and colonization.
“We are still recovering from that,” said Anita. “Missing and murdered Indigenous women, men and children. Our children who are in foster care system. Our people who have addictions… You know the root connection to all of it is the trauma and the history of trauma connected to cultural oppression and residential school. It’s all connected. In our language we say hišukʔiš c̕awaak everything is one and everything is connected. When we bring awareness to this is about wanting people to know there is something wrong and it’s not okay,” she said.
Ucluelet’s new detachment commander Sergeant Kevin Smith said they are investigating the removal of the red dresses. He said without knowing what the motivation was, they cannot officially say the incident was a hate crime.
“At this point, we are just treating it as a theft. I don’t know the motivation behind it and therefore we are just investigating it and see where it leads. I don’t know if it was taken because someone needed clothes and didn’t realize. I think we need to educate people on why the dresses are there and the importance of it and the cultural significance of it,” said Sgt. Smith.
Touchie hopes the investigation is strong.
“Sometimes it feels like the police don’t care enough. We are all the same and we shouldn’t be treated differently. We should be treated with respect, love and kindness,” she said.
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