British Columbia

'I was just shocked': Cree woman makes bold statement against racial profiling

A Cree woman living in B.C.'s Fraser Valley says she is making a statement after she was racially profiled in Chilliwack.

For 365 days Linda LaVallee is showing the world she is proud to be Cree

Linda LaVallee is making 365 ribbon skirts in a symbolic action against racial profiling of Indigenous people. (Angela Sterritt)

A Cree fashion designer from Chilliwack, B.C., is making a statement after she says she was racially profiled in a local grocery store.

Linda LaVallee, who is Cree and the owner of CreeNisga'a Designs located in the city about 100 kilometres east of Vancouver, was shopping for food for her family when she was approached by a security guard who asked her to empty her purse-sized backpack.

"And I said why," said LaVallee, 54, who had noticed a group of non-Indigenous teens sporting large backpacks right in front of her.

He told LaVallee he wanted to make sure she didn't steal anything.

She was upset and refused to open her backpack so was escorted outside the store.

"I was just shocked," she said. "I was in the parking lot and I was so hurt and I was crying and I thought, they can't do that," she said.

365 Ribbon skirts

LaVallee went home and told her husband that if she was going to be racially profiled then she would 'dress the part.'

Armed with fashion design and sewing skills, she brought out fabric and ribbons and embarked on a project aimed at keeping her pride intact.

"I started making ribbon skirts and for 365 days [I will be making] one a day," she said.

ribbon skirts
Fifty of Linda LaVallee's ribbon skirts stuffed into her closet. Every day for 365 days she is making a ribbon skirt. She is now at day 350. She's sending the proceeds from selling some of the skirts to support a Cree language camp in Saskatchewan. (Linda LaVallee)

Ribbon skirts are traditional women's regalia among many Indigenous groups including LaVallee's Cree people.

She is now on day 350 and over the last year she has noticed people staring at her, but not for the reasons she expected.

"It wasn't like the racial feel, it was like I was walking taller and stronger and I was like I have my ancestors behind me now — don't mess with me," she laughed.

LaVallee says people from different cultures often approach her and ask about the skirts, and what it means to her people. In that sense, it's helped build connections with people from all over the world.

From the closet to a Cree camp

When LaVallee's closet started to fill up with dozens and then hundreds of ribbon skirts, she and her husband decided to sell them and use the proceeds to fund a project to help Cree youth in her Montreal Lake Cree Nation in Saskatchewan  learn their language.

One of 350 of Linda LaVallee's ribbon skirts. She designed and sewed them herself as part of a project to make a statement against racial profiling. (Linda LaVallee)

She charged women between $50 to $100 per skirt, based on what they could afford. 

"It was was never to make a profit but ladies knew any skirts they bought would go toward the Cree program," LaVallee said. 

The language camp in Saskatchewan was attended by 22 Cree kids from kindergarten to Grade 8. LaVallee said only one youth knew more than five words at the beginning.

"Now 17 kids know 40 words".

"If we don't find ways to keep our language alive, our generation will be the last," LaVallee said on the importance of the teaching youth their language. 

While the racial profiling incident morphed into something beautiful, she said she hasn't forgotten how this all started and the message she wants to send to all Indigenous people who may have experienced racism:

"Not to let the racial profiling define you, to stand up and say, enough is enough. Be proud of who you are."