British Columbia

Red dresses hang across B.C. in a call for justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women

From the Lower Mainland to northern B.C., crowds gathered Wednesday to remember the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and to call on the federal government to take action to bring them justice.

Advocates criticized Ottawa for failure to come up with an action plan two years after national inquiry

A woman walks past red dresses hanging along a sidewalk Wednesday near Dr. Charles Best Secondary School in Coquitlam. Red Dress Day aims to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

From the Lower Mainland to northern B.C., crowds gathered Wednesday to remember the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and to call on the federal government to take action to bring them justice.

In Canada and the U.S., May 5 marks the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). It coincides with Red Dress Day which was inspired by an art project by Jamie Black, a Metis woman, who used empty red dresses to evoke the missing women and girls.

At Vancouver City Hall, participants hung a red dress on the statue of George Vancouver.

Participants listen to speakers at a Red Dress Day memorial event at Vancouver City Hall on Wednesday. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Approximately 100 people gathered in front of the municipal building to hear speakers and call for action from the federal government.

"As we remember our stolen sisters [...] I also want to acknowledge their family members who are still grieving at this time and send special prayers to each and everyone of you," Squamish nation member Deborah Baker told the crowd.

Chancey Yackel took part in Red Dress Day in Vancouver. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

Some of those family members were present at the event and shared memories of their missing daughters, sisters, mothers, aunts, cousins and friends.

Representatives from the Union of B.C. Indian Chiefs criticized the federal government's failure to develop a national action plan, almost two years after the National Inquiry into MMIWG concluded violence against Indigenous women and girls amounts to genocide.

"The government-led development of the MMIWG National Action Plan has lacked transparency and has been fraught with challenges," stated secretary treasurer Judy Wilson in a written release. 

Children stand at the ready with their drums during the memorial at city hall. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

"Meanwhile, First Nations women continue to experience staggering rates of violence, as well as on-going oppression and sex-discrimination as thousands of those newly entitled to status under Bill S-3 remain unable to claim the status and rights that were denied to them under the Indian Act."

In 2017, Bill S-3 brought in changes to the Indian Act that were meant to address sex-based inequities that disadvantage Indigenous women seeking registered status.

Prince George declares day of awareness

Over 700 kilometres north of Vancouver, the City of Prince George signed a proclamation in solidarity with the City of Ladysmith declaring May 5 a day of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and two-spirited people.

Local Red Dress campaign organizer Tammy Meise says the proclamation gave her hope that the campaign is having an impact after an April incident during which two men ripped down hanging dresses and threw them away.

"It's just horrific in this day and age, this stuff still happens," she told Daybreak North host Carolina de Ryk. "So the community rallied together. They put it back up and the mayor of Ladysmith actually brought a red dress to the council meeting and she said enough is enough."

Meise's best friend Kari Anne Gordon was murdered in 1997

Red Dress Day supporters at city hall Wednesday with a statue of George Vancouver in the background holding a red dress. (Ben Nelms/CBC)

In northern B.C., missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls have long been connected to Highway 16 between Prince George and Prince Rupert. 

It became known as the Highway of Tears more than two decades ago, a reference to the many Indigenous women who have gone missing or been murdered along the route since the 1970s.

In April, the province announced an $11.7-million project to bring cell service to the 252-kilometre stretch of highway between Smithers and Prince Rupert that is still without coverage.

In Terrace, B.C., at the heart of the Highway of Tears, local organizer Holly Harris says proclamations like the ones made in Prince George and Ladysmith help bring national attention to a movement that has mostly remained at the grassroots level.

"We see that a lot of [action] has been local and it has been rallied by families and local services, but there hasn't been a lot of the government support and federal support behind these movements that are occurring," she explained.