Cree woman leads initiative making over 100 red ribbon skirts for families of MMIWG

Click to play video: 'Sewing red ribbon skirts in honour of MMIWG'
Sewing red ribbon skirts in honour of MMIWG
The past several weekends have been extremely busy for dozens of volunteers working hard to sew 100 red ribbon skirts, ahead of the annual Women's Memorial March through Vancouver's Downtown Eastside, on Tuesday. As Julia Foy reports, a local Cree woman has been spearheading the yearly campaign meant to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls – Feb 11, 2023

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Jamie Smallboy remembers being on the brink of giving up after struggling with addiction, becoming homeless and being told she could never see her kids again when she woke up to the sounds of drumming one early morning in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

She followed the drums, turning a corner to see thousands of people marching.

“You could just smell the smudge and you could hear singing,” said Smallboy. “And it teared me up to see that because I didn’t even know our people could do that. I never knew about the march.”

What Smallboy stumbled upon was the Women’s Memorial March — an annual march held on Feb. 14 to honour Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) whose lives were taken in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside.

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“I remember crying because I know some that are still missing today, we don’t know where they are,” she said. “And, you know, it just it really touched my heart that the way they’re being honoured.

Click to play video: 'Annual Women’s Memorial March in Vancouver’s DTES'
Annual Women’s Memorial March in Vancouver’s DTES

Hearing the drums that day reminded Smallboy, a Cree woman from Maskwacis, Alta., of who she was and helped her start her healing journey.

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“I went home and eventually I did enough healing and when I came (back to Vancouver), I wanted to bring what I learned to the women in the city,” said Smallboy.

“I wanted to do this because not everybody has the opportunity to go home, not everybody has family that are still practicing their culture and because of the 60s scoop, many people don’t even know who their families are.”

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She’s now turned her life around and the events of that day inspired her to start the Red Ribbon Skirt Project which aims to sew 100 ribbon skirts for families of MMIWG.

Across many Indigenous cultures, ribbon skirts are reserved for special ceremonies and events. The colours of the ribbons and colours of the skirts themselves hold meaning.

“What I’ve learned is the colour red is a colour that the spirits recognize,” said Smallboy. “So my vision was if I could make these skirts, these 100 skirts, give them to families, then the loved ones that passed on could see them, they’d recognize them in red and come march with them.”

Click to play video: 'Canada’s first National Ribbon Skirt Day celebrates Indigenous women and culture'
Canada’s first National Ribbon Skirt Day celebrates Indigenous women and culture

The project is in its fourth year and has grown exponentially from being just Smallboy and her family to dozens of volunteers and chapters being started in Edmonton and Calgary, and there are plans for Winnipeg and Terrace. But this growth wasn’t easy.

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Smallboy wasn’t part of an organization so she struggled to find space to make the ribbon skirts, but the march and its organizers welcomed her.

Now, every weekend leading up to the Women’s Memorial March a group of people gather at the Strathcona Community Centre to sew ribbon skirts.

Smallboy and her family bring in several sewing machines so anyone can come by and help. Some bring their own machines, while others pick up kits to complete skirts at home. The project is made possible by volunteers, — both Indigenous and non-Indigenous alike — donations, and Smallboy’s drive.

“The gifting of the skirts (needs to continue) because it helps women reclaim their identity as Indigenous people.” she said. “And if we don’t start teaching people how to respect and protect our women, then how do we expect the violence against women to stop?”

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