Vancouver women sewing 100 ribbon skirts for MMIWG families

A group of Vancouver women have pulled together for a sewing project to honour the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls at the upcoming Feb. 14 women’s memorial march.

'The meaning behind ribbon skirts is for healing, for ceremony,' says co-organizer

Holly Desjarlais sits at the sewing machine working on a ribbon skirt that will be given to a family member of a missing or murdered Indigenous woman at the Feb. 14 women's memorial march. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

A group of Vancouver women have come together to honour the families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls at the upcoming Feb. 14 women's memorial march through a sewing project.

They've been meeting at the Strathcona Community centre for several weekends with the goal of sewing 100 red ribbon skirts they plan to give to families at the upcoming march. 

Jamie Smallboy came up with the idea after hearing about the work of Agnes Woodward in Saskatchewan. Woodward led a project last year that saw 150 ribbon skirts sewn and given away at a gathering by and for families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls. 

"I thought that was an incredible gesture of sisterhood and compassion and I thought, why not bring that to Vancouver?" she said.

Smallboy brought the idea to a couple of friends — Holly Desjarlais and Michelle Paquette — and the trio have since put the idea into action. They secured materials to make skirts, a community space where they can sew, and put out a call on social media for others to come join them on Saturday afternoons. 

The first Saturday, five women showed up. 

By Feb. 1, the third week of sewing, the group was nearly halfway to meeting their goal and nearly a dozen women showed up and spent the afternoon sewing ribbons carefully onto red fabric — a colour that symbolizes healing according to Smallboy's Cree teachings. 

A spiritual project 

Walking into the common area there is red fabric on nearly all the tables and the room is filled with the sounds of laughter, music and the whirring of sewing machine motors. 

"It's been great seeing the response from the community," said co-organizer Paquette. 

"So many people are willing to give their time or whatever they have available." 

Sitting at a table covered in red fabric, surrounded by other women, Desjarlais said she feels at home. 

Organizers and volunteers take a break from sewing at the Strathcona Community Centre for a group photo. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

For her, sewing ribbon skirts for families is a way of showing respect in a way that makes sense to her according to her Ojibway teachings. 

"The meaning behind ribbon skirts is for healing, for ceremony," she said.

"This is a spiritual project."

With less than two weeks before the women's memorial march, the group has two more sewing sessions to meet their goal of sewing 100 skirts. 

They plan to give them away to families of the missing and murdered at a ceremony before the march begins. The memorial march has been taking place every year on Valentine's Day in Vancouver since 1991. 

A trio of young women lead the annual memorial march through the Downtown Eastside on Feb. 14, 2019. (Chantelle Bellrichard/CBC)

Verl Ferguson remembers marching in years past. Ferguson came to volunteer at the community centre after learning about the project through Facebook. 

"I have a sister that's been missing since 1988," said Ferguson.

"This is my contribution to honouring her and honouring the other women who've gone missing."

Smallboy also knows the pain of losing loved ones firsthand. She said the sewing project is a way for people to take action, to bring awareness and healing to the community. 

"I've been told that the colour red is the only colour that spirits are attracted to," she said. 

"If it's true that they are attracted to red and they see all their loved ones marching together, hopefully they'll all come together and march with them."