A red dress against violence against women | Polarjournal
Sister-theft — the disappearances and murders of indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people — is epidemic in Canada. Inuit communities are particularly affected (Photo: Edna Winti, CC BY 2.0, Wikicommons.)

Red dresses hung here and there, on tree branches, monuments or in doorways. Empty, they symbolise the women whose lives have been lost and this appalling reality: in Canada, the likelihood of an indigenous woman or girl being murdered or going missing is twelve times higher than for any other ethnic group.

Canada’s National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirited People, also known as Red Dress Day, brought together members of indigenous communities at gatherings across the country. In Ottawa, about 60 Inuit gathered at Annie Pootoogook Park, named after a famous Inuk artist who died under suspicious circumstances in 2016 at the age of 47.

Inuit throat singing echoed the same message: the violence must stop.

Several events were held by Inuit communities, including in Iqaluit, where some 80 people took part in a march commemorating the day. “We need action, we need support, we need this to end,” Amber Aglukark, chair of the Qulliit Nunavut Status of Women Council, an advisory council, told Nunatsiaq News, a local news outlet.

Worrying figures
A report published in 2022 by Statistics Canada, the national statistics agency, indicated that 63% of Indigenous women have been victims of violence and almost half have experiences sexual assault.

Another report by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police, the national police force, recorded nearly 1,200 missing or murdered indigenous women and girls between 1980 and 2012, a figure that could be as high as 4,000 according to indigenous advocacy groups. The numbers are even higher for Inuit women. According to figures published in a 2020 report by Public Safety Canada, which co-ordinates federal law-enforcement efforts, 74% of Inuit women in Nunavik reported experiencing violence in the home, and 46% reported having been sexually assaulted. In 2016, Nunavut, the Northwest Territories and the Yukon had Canada’s highest rates of female victims of domestic violence.

The origins of the red dresses date back to 2010, when artist Jaime Black exhibited an art installation of red dresses, titled “REDress, symbolising missing indigenous women (Photo: Christine Rondeau from Vancouver, Canada, CC BY 2.0, Wikicommons)

The situation is one the Native Women’s Association of Canada, an advocacy group, describes as genocide. In a press release issued on 1 May, the association called on the government “to declare a state of emergency to end the genocide against Indigenous women, girls, transgender, two-spirit, and gender-diverse people”.

According to Carol McBride, the president of the NWAC, Canada is in a state of crisis: “We ask any and all allies, organisations and advocates to please show your support by signing / including your name in an Open Letter addressed to members of parliament and senators.”

The situation is particularly dire in Winnipeg, Manitoba, where at least 28 Aboriginal women have died as a result of violence since May 2020, according to Sandra DeLaronde, of Manitoba MMIWG2S+, a movement that works to end violence against indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people.

Making things happen
Although movement is slow, some measures have been proposed. For example, Mona Fortier, an MP and the president of the Treasury Board, which oversees federal spending, announced on 3 May that she was providing C$750,000 (€500,000) in funding to Pauktuutit Inuit Women of Canada. The money is expected to enable the organisation to address the causes of gender-based violence and ensure that indigenous women and sexual minorities and their communities can thrive.

For its part, the House of Commons, the lower house of parliament, unanimously supported a motion on 2 May to make the deaths and disappearances of indigenous women and girls a pan-Canadian emergency, while calling for funding for a new public alert system for missing people that is modelled on the Amber Alert system used in the US and Canada when a child abduction is reported.

The use of red dresses to symbolise missing and murdered indigenous women started in 2010, when Jaime Black, an artist, launched her REDress project, an art installation made of hundreds of red dresses. The installation was exhibited at the University of Winnipeg, and hundreds of red dresses were sent to the artist from across the country.

Mirjana Binggeli, PolarJournal

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