Stz’uminus councillor Tim Harris and Ladysmith Town councillor Duck Paterson work together to hang new red dresses. (Cole Schisler photo)

Stz’uminus councillor Tim Harris and Ladysmith Town councillor Duck Paterson work together to hang new red dresses. (Cole Schisler photo)

COLUMN: Red dresses have come down but we must not forget why we put them up

Learning more about the Red Dress movement a good first step in reconciliation, Paterson writes.

By Duck Paterson

A couple of weeks ago some members of Ladysmith Town Council and members from the Stz’uminus council got together to replace the Red Dresses that were disgracefully ripped down by two men.

Having the opportunity to replace the Red Dresses with Stz’uminus was a huge learning opportunity. Elder George Harris was present. He opened the day with a prayer and a traditional song for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. It was a good feeling to be able to meet and talk with members of the Stz’uminus council again, but doing it all with the proper COVID-19 protocols.

I had an understanding, I thought, of what the MMIWG movement was. I felt that the Red Dress statement had good meaning and was a proper step to bring more awareness to this tragic part of many innocent individuals and families.

About a week after we participated in that event I was asked if I could bring some poles to help with the First Nation Health Authority staff hang more Red Dresses, this time at the Oyster Bay business centre across from the Microtel. I felt privileged to be there and again listen as Chief Harris talked about the Red Dress program with the people. George Harris again drummed and sang a traditional song. I gave a hand in showing the folks how to use the poles and hang the dresses in the trees. As I was doing this I was handed a very small Red Dress with silver buttons and white lacey trim. It looked like it could fit a four or five-year-old little girl.

That dress could have belonged to a sister or even daughter of one of the Murdered or Missing Indigenous Women. It could have been a cherished possession that the mother or sister might never see the youngster ever wear. That dress was a complete statement of innocence so why was it there? It made me think about the bigger picture of what the MMIWG movement is all about.

Between the years 1980 and 2012, Indigenous women and girls represented 16 percent of all female homicides in Canada, while constituting only four percent of the female population in Canada.

Statistics Canada reported that in the 14-year period, from 2001 to 2015, 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 women who have been murdered or died under suspicious circumstances.

Despite the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, announced in December 2015 and implemented in September 2016, the implementation of some of its recommendations still remain on the “drawing board”. Why? The federal government initiated the program and set the parameters. Why? If you’re going to have an “independent inquiry, why as the initiator would you set the goalposts and not let the independent members of the inquiry set them?

Then I think of that little red dress. How many of those Missing or Murdered Indigenous Women or Girls dreamed when they grew out of that little red dress, that they would become a teacher or a doctor or for that matter a leader in their community? How many of them were just wanting to be a mother and bring up their own family?

Think about the families of those women or girls and how they are getting over their loss. The individual circumstances or issues each one of the MMIWG could have had should not be an issue. Each one was a living person who was loved by someone and loved back. Each one, even in memory, has to be treated with respect and understanding. Even though we don’t, or won’t, admit it, there is still the cloud of racism over our country. Until we can get past that I’m afraid things won’t change. The loss, the despair and heartache and huge loss of potential has to be addressed by all of us now.

A good first step is for all of us to read about the Red Dress program. And please remember, we are all the same, we are all human.