Imagine a red dress. A stunning gown made of rich, gleaming satin that shimmers under the lights. It’s fit for a party, a wedding, a black tie affair.
It holds so much potential. Except there is no one to wear it. The dress hangs lifelessly, unable to go places, to be part of a celebration, to leave an impression.
Now imagine that that dress represents a life. One that never had the chance to reach its full potential.
On October 17, photos of red dresses will be displayed throughout MacEwan University’s City Centre Campus to honour the memory of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. The dresses serve as a jarring reminder of those who should be here, experiencing life, but are not.
Elder Rick Lightning will lead a walk to each of the seven photo locations, where a prayer will be said, a song sung, a story told or a poem recited. Participants are asked to wear red, and a red dress will be carried on the walk as well. “The emptiness of the dresses is part of the story,” explains Judy Iseke director of Aboriginal education and services. “There should be women wearing these dresses, but instead the dresses are just hanging on a hanger, empty. Our own women, our own students could be these women. How many students could have been here, but were murdered or are missing?”
Indigenous women and girls are disproportionately vulnerable to violent crime. According to the Government of Canada, Indigenous women represent approximately 16 per cent of all female homicides in Canada, despite only representing four per cent of the female population. “We as Canadians have to wake up and acknowledge that we live in a society where some are more equal than others,” says Judy. “Some are more valued than others.”
The photographs are on loan from the REdress Photography Project, spearheaded by local photographer Mufty Mathewson, who was inspired by a similar project she read about. “I thought, well I care, but what can an old woman do about something like that?” she says of her initial reaction. “Then I thought, I know what I can do. I can take pictures of red dresses just like this one.”
Before long, she had gathered a team to join her in photographing red dresses, taking every opportunity along the way to raise awareness of missing and murdered Indigenous women. “It’s really been educational,” she says. “Not only the viewing of the photographs, but when we go out and hang and photograph the dresses, people will stop and ask what we are doing. That creates a chance to educate people.”
According to Mufty, the project is not only raising awareness of the problem, but also starting conversations about the solution. “REdress is redress,” she explains. “Redress has all kinds of meaning for us: seeking justice for torture survivors, a relief from distress, a means of seeking a remedy, and compensation for wrong or loss.”
Judy agrees that education is an important first step in securing a better future for Indigenous girls and women. “Our primary goal is awareness,” she says. “Once you know, you can’t deny you know. Sometimes the truth is hidden from you for a long time—you’re just not aware. But once you become aware, you feel compelled to get involved and take action.”
The REdress Photography Project Walk takes place on Wednesday, October 17 at 3:30 p.m. The walk begins at the Aboriginal Education Centre (Room 7-131). Participants are asked to wear red. The photos will remain on display until October 24.
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We acknowledge that the land on which we gather in Treaty Six Territory is the traditional gathering place for many Indigenous people. We honour and respect the history, languages, ceremonies and culture of the First Nations, Métis and Inuit who call this territory home.