Red dress window art project brings MMIWG awareness from the classroom to the masses

A Saskatchewan teacher has helped develop a new project to that will see people across the province honour Canada's missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, despite public health orders preventing people from gathering and marching.

Memorials, walks to honour murdered and missing indigenous women and girls usually held in May

Brittany Simmons's daughters, Andie and Blake Bandur, work on their own contributions to the Red Dress project. (Supplied/Brittany Simmons)

In early May, people across the country are usually preparing marches, walks and memorials for the hundreds of Indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or gone missing in Canada.

This year, due to the COVID-19 pandemic, mass gatherings and marches are prohibited under public health orders.

One Saskatchewan teacher has helped spearhead a project that will see her students and the public honour those women who lost their lives or disappeared, while raising awareness about their stories. 

Katherine Koskie, a teacher at the Yorkton Regional High School, has created a new project inspired by the REDress Project, an art installation by Jaime Black. This new iteration will be featured in windows across Saskatchewan on May 5.

"It's so important because we're in a time when ceremonies and gatherings can't take place," she said. "So it's just the idea of how can we still honour these women and girls who have been murdered or gone missing and how can we show that we care — and we're aware." 

Made for the masses

Katherine Koskie, a teacher at the Yorkton Regional High School, created a new project to help people honour and remember Canada's murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. (Supplied/Katherine Koskie)

The project will see participants cut red paper and materials into a silhouette of an Indigenous woman with her arm raised. The decorative pieces will be placed in windows as a sign of solidarity and support.

Koskie said the project has garnered a lot of support across the province. She said so many people being willing to engage in the project shows Canada is taking some of the steps on the path to reconciliation. 

"We build empathy with knowledge and understanding, if that is spread to the community, rather than just within my classroom or within my students, that's such a powerful thing."

Koskie wants to see red dress silhouettes displayed in windows across Saskatchewan and the country on May 5, the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Red Dresses designed by Sherrie Bellegarde and her children can be seen on display in the home of their window. (Sherrie Bellegarde/Supplied)

Project welcomed by those who have had loved-ones taken 

Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (MMIWG) activist and advocate Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte, who has helped organize events such as the Sisters in Spirit marches in Saskatoon, said the new project is a chance to show solidarity, but also reflect on history. 

"A project like the window art is so, so important," she said. 

"Like any type of craft, you do a bit of meditation while you're doing that work. So I think that as they do that work, they'll always remember the activity they did and the importance around it."

Okemaysim-Sicotte has been advocating for Indigenous women and girls for decades, since her cousin Shelley Napope was murdered by serial killer John Crawford in 1992. She said anytime a piece of art is created with the spirit of those lost in mind, it helps create a connection between the family and their lost loved-one.

"The departed have a role in how we persevere as human beings," she said, adding that framed photos of those lost have fallen when she's gathered with others to remember. 

"We know at that time, they're with us."

Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte says the Red Dress project is a chance to show solidarity, but also reflect on history. (CBC)

Project helping parents

Brittany Simmons created some red dresses for the new project with her two young daughters, Blake and Andie. Simmons said the project helped her speak with her daughters about Truth and Reconciliation.

"It's only through recognizing these truths that we can really move forward and address the issues in the future," she said. "For kids, it can be a difficult topic to do, but I think it's still important for them to know and build an understanding of that."

Grade 9 student Kierra Delowski created this red dress image as part of the project. (Supplied/Katherine Koskie)

Simmons said the instructions she received from Koskie were helpful, as it gave them a project to do together during the pandemic, but also helped start larger conversations around women's rights and Indigenous culture and tradition.

"We can now in the future build on those, in both respect for women and for the First Nations culture."

Issue must be addressed on all fronts 

Isabel O'Soup, Tribal Chief with the Yorkton Tribal Council, said it's important that the project be made available to all Canadians, as the genocide of Missing and Murdered Indigenuos Women and Girls is a tragedy that every Canadian has a role in stopping.

"It's not just our problem," she said. "It's everyone's problem. We all have to try and beat it and conquer it together."

She said the work cannot be done in silos, noting collaboration between the Good Spirit School Division and the Yorkton Tribal Council has been critical in getting more education to the masses.

"There shouldn't be this division line, that this side is our side and that side is your side, we all have to work through this together," she said.

Sherrie Bellegarde and her kids work to make Red Dress window decorations that will be posted in windows across Saskatchewan on May 5th. (Sherrie Bellegarde/Supplied)

O'Soup said this is a chance for an education-exchange between generations.

Project has backing from division

Quintin Robertson, director and CEO of the Good Spirit School Division, said Koskie's project is a great way to get younger people engaged in conversations around Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls outside of the classroom.

"[Koskie] understands the first step is education and awareness and this project does that in a non-threatening way," Robertson said. "It is accessible to everybody and just gets you thinking and gets the conversation started." 

Robertson said he's excited to see how far the project spreads, noting he and his children have already started to make their own pieces of red dress art and will also be diving into the additional resources Katherine supplied. 

"I've got three daughters and a son and all of them were really engaged with it." 

He said it's critical for children to have a good understanding of the history around MMIWG. 

One of the red dress silhouettes prepared by Grade 10 student Precious Bear-Yuzicappi at the Yorkton Regional High School. (Supplied/Katherine Koskie)

Koskie said while it's hard to know exactly how many pieces of art have been produced. She expects on there will be at least 100 of the red dresses in windows across Saskatchewan on May 5. She hopes when people see them, they'll think about how far Canada has come and far it still has to go.

"Every person I talk to who is Indigenous … has been affected by this, knows somebody that has gone missing or has been murdered. So this is close to everyone's home," she said. 

Anyone wanting to create their own red dress silhouettes is encouraged to do so using Koskie's instructions and resources, which can be found online.