Skip to content

‘I just about became a missing, murdered woman’: Kelowna Red Dress march

Red Dress Day is an annual movement to honour missing and murdered Indigenous people
Janice Marie-August, an Elder from the Syilx Okanagan and a survivor of Catholic residential school in the Okanagan at the May 3, Red Dress event in Kelowna. (Jacqueline Gelineau/Capital News)

This article discusses topics which may negatively impact the reader due to its subject matter. If you are affected by the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and 2SLGBTQI+ people and require support, call 1-844-413-6649 or visit the Government of Canada website for more resources.

People gathered, marched and shared stories in downtown Kelowna to heal and raise awareness in honour of the thousands of Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit+ people for of Red Dress Day.

To the beat of drums, people marched through downtown Kelowna from the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society on Leon Avenue, to the courthouse and back on May 3.

“The red dresses symbolize those who went missing,” said Leanna Curtis, the Indigenous healthcare advocate for the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society.

“We wear a red hand paint on our face to acknowledge our solidarity and to remember these lost souls,” said Curtis.

She spoke at the courthouse about how Indigenous people, specifically women and 2SLGBTQIA+ folks, face disproportionate amounts of violence, stemming from racism, colonialism and inter-generational trauma.

Curtis said it is important not only to educate people about the realities of what Indigenous have experienced in the past and present but also to remember those who never made it home.

“The red dress represents the bloodline and the connection between people. According to lore, red is the only colour spirits can see. The red dresses aid in calling the spirits the missing and murdered indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirited people back to their loved ones,” said Curtis.

After the march, people gathered for a ceremony where Elders who have lost loved ones and have survived violence and racism were invited to share their stories.

“I just about became a missing and murdered woman,” said Janice Marie-August, an Elder from the Syilx Okanagan and a survivor of Catholic residential schools in an interview after the ceremony.

Marie-August was five years old when she was taken from her home near Winfield and forced to board a bus to a residential school near Kamloops with her siblings.

During the summer break, her siblings never spoke about their experiences at boarding school, and Marie-August said she did not know what to expect. At age five, she was just excited to be with her siblings and the older kids on the bus. However, as the bus got closer to the residential school near, her siblings told her, “you have nothing to be happy about. Not a thing.”

At the school, Marie-August said she was sexually abused and told repeatedly that no one, including her mother, wanted her.

“Roman-Catholic school was not a school, it was a child brothel,” said Marie-August.

The abuse that took place at the school was not something that was ever discussed amongst her family until much later in life, said Marie-August. Her mother was also a survivor of residential school and carried the trauma of her own experiences with her.

Marie-August said that for years, she carried resentment toward her mother for allowing the priests to take her and her siblings away. It was not until she was older that she realized that her mother did not have a choice.

“I loved her but I had a lot of hate because I thought how could you let me stay in that situation? I did not know that she was threatened with prison if she took us back.”

As a result of the trauma and feelings of abandonment she endured, Marie-August said that she survived many bad and dangerous relationships.

“I didn’t have a say. Men would just take me and hold me prisoner. I was near death a lot of times,” said Marie-August.

Since she grew up in poverty in a rural area, Marie-August said she had no choice but to hitchhike whenever she wanted to leave. The men that would offer her rides often turned out to be violent and she would have to physically fight to escape them before running away and hiding in the ditch.

She explained that many women lost on the Highway of Tears faced similar situations to what she survived and like her, may have been trying to escape dangerous situations.

Marie-August is now a great-grandmother and is dedicated to breaking the cycle of trauma by educating people. She was supported by one of her daughters at the event in Kelowna. To heal from her experiences at the residential schools, Marie-August has gone through years of counselling and therapy and has relied on Indigenous teachings to guide her journey. She encourages people to not give up if the first counsellors they work with are not the right fit.

Marie-August said some of her siblings have not been able to heal in the same way she has, and as a result have passed down trauma to their children.

“My sister said; Well nobody cared for me. No one protected me,” about the lack of protection she offered her children, said Marie-August.

To break the cycle of abuse, Marie-August says that it is imperative that people give children the opportunity to speak.

“Listen to children. They are smart,” said Marie-August.

She said it is also important to educate the younger generations about what took place, in order to bring awareness to the inter-generational trauma and racism that is present today. She said the past has impacted the people of today, and to honour the people who are no longer with us, it is essential to keep sharing stories and supporting one another.

To learn more about Missing and Murdered Indigenous women, girls and Two Spirit+ people and the resources that are available, visit the Government of Canada’s National Action Plan.

Leanna Curtis, the Indigenous healthcare advocate for the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society at the May 3, Red Dress event in Kelowna. (Jacqueline Gelineau/Capital News)

READ MORE: Indigenous domestic violence victim shares her story and her Red Dress Day display

READ MORE: Indigenous Okanagan creator shining bright on TikTok

Jacqueline Gelineau

About the Author: Jacqueline Gelineau

Read more