Lee Everson wonders what 1,200 red dresses would look like hanging around the Comox Valley.
Her hope is that people will be a bit shocked.
Everson is a co-ordinator behind the Red Dress Awareness Campaign & Installation – a local installation, which is part of a larger, international movement where mothers, cousins, children and allies can hang a red dress to recognize missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.
On Oct. 2 and running until Oct. 8, a temporary installation on K’omoks First Nation territory along Comox (Dyke) Road will display red dresses collected by the Comox Valley Transition Society in a clothesline display lit with red lights.
While 1,200 dresses – one representing each missing and murdered indigenous woman and girl in across the country – will not be on display along the road, Everson imagines the impact that could have in the Valley, and beyond.
“Can you imagine what that many red dresses would look like hanging in and around our community?” she notes, and adds during last year’s Walking With Our Sisters installation in the nearby K’omoks Band Hall, it became clear there were many missing and murdered indigenous women on the Island due to the families who came forward.
“This is not something that is just happening elsewhere, but is affecting the people in our community.”
The idea for the project came about pursuant to WWOS. But following the dedication of volunteers to last year’s exhibition, Everson knew they needed time to rest before taking on another project.
She had heard about the REDress Project – created by Metis artist Jaime Black – and began talks with Anne Davis from the Comox Valley Transition Society and Ramona Johnson from the I-Hos Gallery.
The impact of the WWOS exhibit, the highest-attended art installation to date in the Comox Valley, created a shift in the larger community, says Everson.
“…we had 4,500 people come through … and about 400 volunteers part of WWOS; this caused a ripple effect of conversation and not just here in the Comox Valley, but across our province and Canada.”
The original REDress Project began in Winnipeg in 2010 when Black put a call-out to the greater community for red dresses, which were collected and hung around the city. The red dresses themselves serve as a way to show both the presence and absence of stolen indigenous women from communities across the country.
The exhibit continues to hang in the Canadian Journey gallery of the Canadian Museum for Human Rights in Winnipeg.
Locally, the Comox Valley Transition Society will be collecting red dresses.
“This isn’t about doing something big with fanfare,” Everson notes. “We want to honour the guerrilla style Jaime Black introduced when she created the project, and put the focus where it belongs: on our missing and murdered indigenous sisters.
“I hope that the Red Dress Awareness Campaign & Installation will be a further catalyst that promotes dialogue, conversations around the dinner table, in the classroom or by the water cooler, encouraging people to ask questions and hopefully search for the answers.”
According to Statistics Canada, one in 10 aboriginal people will be victims of non-spousal violence in their lifetime, and one in five aboriginal women will be victims of domestic violence. Aboriginal women make up 43 per cent of the female prison population, yet they only make up two per cent of the general population.
K’omoks First Nation Chief Rob Everson says he hopes the project helps to change that.
“For First Nation people, unfortunately we lead the country in the highest statistics in suicide, incarceration and apprehension.
“It’s an embarrassment to Canadian society, Canadian culture. It’s reflective of a breakdown in the system; it’s a systemic problem. The marginalization, poverty, health and well-being of First Nations across Canada is at the heart of the statistics. It’s a sad state of affairs when we lead all ethnic groups.”
Everson adds it is extremely important to continue the message and awareness brought forth from the success of WWOS, and the timing of the upcoming exhibit is even more relevant with the federal government’s National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
“It lends itself well to continue the public awareness … there’s now hope and willingness. There is a colonial relationship with the federal government – there’s a notion of hope but on the other side of the coin there still is an ignorance of people who just don’t understand. There’s still very much an attitude of, ‘Why don’t you just move on?’
“It’s a lot easier to break something than to put it back together.”
Lee Everson notes education is the key to prevention.
“The more we can be aware of what is happening to our indigenous sisters, the more we make change.”
Members of the community are encouraged to hang a red dress in a yard or window to show support and solidarity. The vision for the campaign is to have other communities on Vancouver Island plan events around the week and hang a red dress to show support.
Additionally, red dresses can be dropped off at the Comox Valley Transition Society (625 England Ave.) to be part of the larger exhibit.
Two other events are set to coincide with the project: a documentary and a teaching.
Comox Valley Amnesty International Action Circle, co-sponsored by World Community Film Festival, will be showing Highway of Tears as part of the Just Desserts screening Oct. 2 at 6:30 p.m. at the K’omoks Band Hall.
The film tells the story of some of the women and girls – many indigenous – who have gone missing along Highway 16 from Prince George to Prince Rupert.
As part of a Letting Go Teaching, elder James Quatell will lead a group in sharing a moment in life together to let go and feel peace.
A flat rock is required, in which a word will be written that does not belong – a utensil (such as chalk) is needed that will wash away in time with the currents as the tides come and go.
The teaching will take place on Oct. 8 at 10 a.m. at the beach across from the I-Hos Gallery.
For more information, contact the gallery at 250-339-7702 or firstname.lastname@example.org.