What Red Dress Day represents for local Indigenous communities and their allies

A Red Dress Day event was held in London, Ont., on Wednesday, where Indigenous communities and allies joined together to reflect on and raise awareness for members of First Nations communities who were murdered or went missing. The event was to commemorate the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which falls on May 5 every year.

Members of local Indigenous communities are focusing on reconnecting with their culture and language

Reta Van Every of My Sister's Place helped facilitate Red Dress Day to commemorate the National Day for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls. (Isha Bhargava/CBC News)

A Red Dress Day event was held in London, Ont., on Wednesday, where Indigenous communities and allies joined together to reflect on and honour those who have been killed or gone missing over the past seven generations.

May 5 is the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG). It's also referred to as Red Dress Day, in which red dresses are hung from trees to commemorate the lives of the men, women, children, and two-spirited people, that were lost.

The event was organized by Atlohsa Family Healing Services, a non-profit organization providing Indigenous-led programs and services. 

CBC News spoke to some attendees on what this day means to them, and what their journeys of reconnecting with their culture look like. Here are some of their stories: 

Madison Alexandra

Madison Alexandra (left) and Shania Simon (right) are youths part of Atlohsa's anti-trafficking network to help educate Indigenous peoples on what the signs of human trafficking might look like. (Isha Bhargava/CBC News)

MMIWG day means community coming together and learning from the Indigenous families who are impacted by the epidemic for Madison Alexandra of the Mohawk from Six Nations of the Grand River.

Through her work with Atlohsa's anti-trafficking network, Alexandra found that the voices of LGBTQ and two-spirited youth often get overlooked in relation to MMIWG. 

"Indigenous two-spirited people, are at greater risk to become part of this, but they're often completely ignored and cut out from these conversations, so when we ignore that, we give them the message that they aren't seen," she said.

"A lot of times our youth is told their voices don't matter, but they're at such a unique position where they're growing up in a time where they lived through intergenerational trauma, but they're going through intergenerational healing, and we need to foster spaces for them to be able to do that."

Alexandra seeks to change that dynamic by opening up conversations to all Indigenous Peoples, including boys and men as well. 

"A lot of people are really hesitant to learn about this because it's heartbreaking and can really put someone in an emotional heaviness if they find out that a close family member became one of these statistics," she said.

Red dresses are hung from trees to honour the lost lives of MMIWG (Isha Bhargava/CBC News)

Although she always had a Status Indian card, it meant nothing more than just a card to her. Now Alexandra makes moccasins and does traditional beadwork with her mom. 

"I'm able to speak some of the language, but it's a lifelong journey reconnecting and passing that down to future generations. My mom is also able to reconnect with me, culture really did save my life," she said. 

Alexandra said a way to foster positive change is for police to take Indigenous complaints seriously.

"They can't just brush it off with the stereotypes that 'we're drunk and Indian' because that's not all we are," she said. "When there is an MMIW case, it's shrugged off and a few days later, we find them burned in a ditch or their body in a lake." 

Glen Henry 

Glen Henry of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation is a traditional sacred firekeeper. (Isha Bhargava/CBC News)

Glen Henry of the Chippewas of the Thames First Nation is a firekeeper who watches traditional sacred fires which serve to protect people from evil spirits. 

"We offer our prayers, tobacco, and our good thoughts to all the fires, it's an honour to get asked to watch these fires," he said.

As a child, Henry attended a Residential School on his reserve in the 1970's, and his trauma came out in the form of alcohol and substance abuse.

After overcoming battles with his addiction, Henry's main focus now is to heal himself and relearn his Native language. His traditional name, which he said he's still learning how to spell, means "eagle pipe."

Elyssa Rose

Elyssa Rose is the anti human trafficking coordinator at Altohsa. (Isha Bhargava/CBC News)

Elyssa Rose runs the Okaadenige anti-human trafficking program at Atlohsa. Her connection to the term "missing" represents the people she serves in her community. 

Although Rose grew up in her community of the Chippewas of Kettle and Stoney Point First Nation, she feels that she wasn't connected to her culture in the ways she wanted to be. As an adult, she's working hard to change that. 

"Maybe it also represented myself being missing toward who I was culturally and spiritually, the everyday work I do has a direct connection to missing and murdered individuals," she said. 

Rose believes that more understanding and kindness towards Indigenous peoples is needed to create change.

"We need to open our hearts, doors, and our minds...especially to those who are struggling and hurt," she said. 

"A teaching I received long ago was 'the longest journey you will ever take in your life is from your head to your heart.' When working or being with Indigenous people, we need to move from our head to our heart."

Candice Lawrence

Candice Lawrence believes true allyship must be shown everyday, and not just on special occasions. (Isha Bhargava/CBC News)

Candice Lawrence spent her birthday volunteering at the event. Before retiring from her job at Fanshawe College, she worked hard to learn more about Indigenous culture so that she can be a helpful ally.

"I realized I'd been lied to during my entire education, this is such an important thing to be aware of," she said adding that true allyship needs to happen every day and not just on special occasions.

"It's not just about showing, it's about doing and asking where you can be of help. I'm a settler here, and I feel it's imperative that I learn about the original people of this land."