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Red dresses as a fashion statement about missing and murdered indigenous women

Models in uniquely designed red dresses will take to the catwalk in British Columbia this weekend to make a powerful fashion statement about missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

“The stories coming out through fashion are very moving,” says Kim Coltman, organizer of the two-day Revolutions Red Dress Fashion Festival in Kamloops.

The 63-year-old former model says the eight designers participating in the festival created items in honor of Red Dress Day, the national day of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls celebrated annually on May 5.

“For the majority of them, they have been personally affected by this issue,” Coltman said.

Red Dress Day was inspired by Métis artist Jamie Black’s installation project, which hung red dresses in public spaces across Canada and the United States as a visual reminder of the number of Indigenous women who have been murdered or missing.

The movement has grown and local communities organize walks, events and educational gatherings.

Coltman’s mother was a residential school survivor from Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

Coltman also describes himself as a survivor. Her childhood was marred by stays in foster homes. She was kidnapped and abused as a teenager. She says she knows all too well the world that indigenous women can live in.

It was fashion that gave Coltman strength. She signed with a modeling agency in 1972 and later founded her own agency.

But the issue of violence against indigenous women and girls remained close to her heart.

When she saw the red clothing movement, Coltman says she was inspired and in 2015 she founded Fashion Speaks International. The organization has produced fashion shows in Canada, Australia and France that spotlight indigenous designers, models and artists. Each show also draws attention to missing women through stories and photographs.

Coltman says it’s powerful to see Indigenous models holding their heads high as they walk the runway. It breaks the mold forced on the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children forced into residential schools, she says.

“The residential school taught them that they should be seen and not heard, and that they should look at their feet when they walked,” she says. “We need to make our people less invisible.”

Indigenous women and girls in Canada remain vastly overrepresented as victims of violence. Between 2009 and 2021, the homicide rate among Indigenous women and girls was six times higher than among non-Indigenous counterparts, Statistics Canada said in a report last year.

Canada and Manitoba announced a partnership Friday for a Red Dress Alert system that would notify the public when an Indigenous woman or girl is reported missing. The pilot project is expected to help establish an eventual national alert system.

Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte has been on the front lines of ending violence against Indigenous women in Saskatchewan for nearly two decades. As co-chair of Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik (Women Walking Together), she has supported many families of disappeared people.

Okemaysim-Sicotte says red is a color that ancestors can see, so it’s powerful to see red garments hanging in public spaces across the country.

But, Okemaysim-Sicotte adds, it’s important that people look beyond the dresses and to the women they represent.

“We are doing this because of the missing people, and they should not be forgotten,” she says.

“They need to be remembered.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published May 4, 2024.

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press