North End school kids working to help young Indigenous women feel empowered and safe

Two Grade 12 students from St. John's High School want changes to help young women feel empowered and safer in their own community. They organized an event at their school Thursday night to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

Two Grade 12 students organize event to honour missing and murdered indigenous women and girls

St. John's Grade 12 students Shay-Ann Scott-Jolicoeur, left, and Lekighe Kissu organized a forum at their North End school in Winnipeg Thursday night to draw more attention to Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and find solutions to help make young women feel safer in their own community. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

A pair of students from St. John's High School say more discussions are needed to help more young women feel empowered and safer in their own community.

Shay-Ann Scott-Jolicoeur and Lekighe Kissu, both in Grade 12, organized an event at their school Thursday night to honour missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and raise more awareness on the issue.

It's part of a school project called "Combatting the MMIWG Crisis."

"We have the goal of coming together as a community and developing solutions to make our women feel empowered and safe in their own community, and it really starts in the community," said Scott-Jolicoeur.

"It's such a big topic and really a crisis across Canada and even more in Manitoba and Winnipeg, specifically even this community," she said.

Scott-Jolicoeur said she wanted to work on a project at school that specifically addresses systemic issues in their own backyard.

She came up with the idea after she lost of one her friends.

"One of my friends had passed away and her family said instead of flowers they wanted donations made to missing and murdered Indigenous girl funds. So when I saw that at the back of the eulogy card, I was like that's what we need to do."

Her friend Lekighe Kissu said she only learned about the issues surrounding missing and murdered women and girls when she came to Canada from Uganda 10 years ago. 

"I was born in Congo and raised in Uganda and when I came here I was seven or eight so it took me a while to understand the whole Indigenous culture and the history we have in Manitoba," said Kissu.

"As years passed by I was doing school projects and I kept learning about missing and murdered Indigenous women and I'm like 'Oh there's not a lot of people who talk about this.'"

'Just because I'm a woman I shouldn't be scared'

She said the news surrounding violence against women in Manitoba is upsetting.

"It's really hard when it's a woman and you're growing up to become a woman. It may not be my culture, it may not be my tradition but it could also affect me, it could affect people in my country."

Both students admit they don't always feel safe walking home at night in the North End.

"Sometimes I (don't), then I'm like 'Come on you have to get it together, why would you be scared because you're a woman?'" said Kissu.

"Just because I'm a woman I shouldn't be scared," Kissu added.

"It's definitely a little scary," said Scott-Jolicoeur.

"For sure there's been times later in the evening after volleyball practice or whatever, you're leaving and walking to your car and you're kind of apprehensive about it," she said.

St.John's High School invited guests such as NDP MLA for Saint John Nahanni Fontaine and community activist Michael Champagne to talk to students and share personal stories about MMIWG issues, in hopes of creating change.

Thursday's event was scheduled to run from 6:30 to 8:30 p.m. at the school's senior gymnasium and end up outside on the school grounds for a friendship dance.

Stephanie Midford, an Indigenous graduation coach and teacher at St.John's High School, is proud of her students for bringing more attention to the issue surrounding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls at their North End school. (Tyson Koschik/CBC)

Indigenous graduation coach Stephanie Midford called her students true leaders and true advocates in their community.

"I'm very proud and in awe of them as their mama bear," she said.

"Just to see them envision it and to see it unfold as they plan and prepare and gather other students under their wings to participate in a volunteer capacity is amazing," said Midford.

Both students say the issues surrounding violence against Indigenous women need to be kept in the spotlight.

"We're really just hoping for people to change their perspective on victim blaming, on risk, and how men shouldn't be scared of following a woman, they should feel more than OK with being led by a woman and empowering a woman," said Scott-Jolicoeur.