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‘Our women are sacred’: Red dresses hung in Halifax to call for justice and honour MMIWG2S

Click to play video: '‘Our women are sacred’: Red dresses hung in Halifax to call for justice and honour MMIWG2S' ‘Our women are sacred’: Red dresses hung in Halifax to call for justice and honour MMIWG2S
WATCH: On May 5, Red Dress Day, Mi’kmaq women and their allies hung red dresses from some of Nova Scotia’s largest government buildings to honour more than a thousand Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people who have been murdered, or gone missing in Canada. As Elizabeth McSheffrey reports, they say little has been done to answer the 231 calls for justice released by the National Inquiry into MMIWG2S nearly three years ago, and are calling for immediate systemic change. – May 5, 2021

Red dresses blow in the wind outside two of Nova Scotia’s largest government buildings.

Pinned to some are pictures of beloved sisters, mothers, daughters and aunties, missing or murdered in Atlantic Canada. Ribbons decorate others with the colours of the Medicine Wheel.

May 5 is Red Dress Day, a national day to raise awareness for more than 1,000 missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people (MMIWG2S) in Canada. It’s a day to remember and honour them, and to call for justice from a system that continues to leave so many behind.

Read more: ‘The cause is too important’: Family and friends of Tanya Brooks celebrate her life online

“Being a survivor, I can only imagine the trauma that our women go through, I can only imagine the pain our families are feeling as they miss their loved ones,” said Thunderbird Swooping Down Woman, who hung dresses at Halifax City Hall and Province House on Wednesday.

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“They’re still waiting for answers from the government.”

Red dresses hang outside of Province House in Halifax on Red Dress Day, May 5, 2021. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

Red Dress Day, in which dresses are hung from trees, windows and buildings, started in 2010, inspired by Jaime Black’s REDress Project — an art installation and visual reminder of the “staggering” number of Indigenous women who are victims of violence.

Read more: Liberals pledge $18B for Indigenous communities in 2021 federal budget

Tanya Brooks, Chantal Moore, Loretta Saunders, and Annie Mae Pictou Aquash are just some of the women from Atlantic Canada lost to that violence, which the National Inquiry into MMIWG called a “genocide” on June 3, 2019.

“Right now we have a national action plan and we need to see action from the government, because there’s thousands of others across Canada and the countries around the world that are hanging these red dresses in the trees,” said Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC).

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“It’s a voice, we’re crying out to honour.”

Click to play video: 'Indigenous women in Canada offer mixed response to MMIWG report' Indigenous women in Canada offer mixed response to MMIWG report
Indigenous women in Canada offer mixed response to MMIWG report – Jun 3, 2019

Nearly three years ago, the inquiry released 231 calls for justice from governments, institutions, service providers and individuals that would address the root causes of the crisis. Since then, critics say little has been done to implement them.

“I don’t think there’s an excuse,” said Thunderbird Swooping Down Woman.

“We see fit that our women should be protected first because our women are sacred, just like the water.”

“I find a large part of the issue is that our women cannot afford security,” explained Tayla Paul, a Mi’kmaw survivor who also hung dresses on Wednesday. “With the pandemic, things have gotten a lot worse.

“We see shelters entirely full, we see a population of homeless overflowing onto the streets, and when we are part of the most vulnerable population, you have to understand that our women are in those numbers, and people exploit our vulnerability. They do it in all kinds of ways and it causes a lot more trauma.”

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Signs placed in Halifax’s Grand Parade call attention to the crisis of violence against Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. Elizabeth McSheffrey/Global News

In its first federal budget since the National Inquiry’s findings were released, Ottawa committed $2.2 billion over five years and $160.9 million each year to crack down on the crisis, by addressing systemic racism in the health-care system, for example.

Whitman said those funds are years too late, and called on the federal government to ensure NWAC — cone of the largest women’s organizations in Canada — plays a key role in determining how such programs roll out, and how the dollars are spent.

“It makes it really difficult to accept and say that because of the pandemic they couldn’t go further with stopping this violence,” said Whitman.

“This has been in play for many years before this pandemic.”

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