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Red dresses at B.C fashion show honour missing and murdered Indigenous women

Red Dress Day was inspired by Métis artist Jamie Black’s installation project
Kim Coltman, the executive director of Fashion Speaks International, poses for a photo in Kamloops, B.C., on Friday, May 3, 2024. Coltman is organizing a fashion show in Kamloops this weekend to mark Red Dress Day, which helps raise awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.THE CANADIAN PRESS/Marissa Tiel

Models in uniquely designed red dresses are taking to the runway in British Columbia this weekend to make a powerful fashion statement about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.

“The stories that come out through the fashion are deeply moving,” says Kim Coltman, organizer of the two-day Revolutions Red Dress Fashion Festival in Kamloops.

The 63-year-old former model says the eight designers taking part in the festival have created items to honour Red Dress Day, the national day of awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls observed annually on May 5.

“For the majority of them, they have been touched by this issue personally,” Coltman says.

Red Dress Day was inspired by Métis artist Jamie Black’s installation project, which saw red dresses hung in public spaces throughout Canada and the United States as visual reminders of the number of Indigenous women who have been killed or are missing.

The movement has grown, with local communities hosting walks, events and educational gatherings.

Coltman’s mother was a residential school survivor from Red Pheasant Cree Nation in Saskatchewan.

Coltman also describes herself as survivor. Her childhood was marred by stays in foster care. She was abducted and assaulted as a teen. She says she knows all too well the world that Indigenous women can live in.

It was fashion that empowered Coltman. She signed with a modelling agency in 1972 and later created her own.

But the issue of violence toward Indigenous women and girls remained close to her heart.

When she saw the red dress movement, Coltman says she was inspired, and in 2015 she founded Fashion Speaks International. The organization has produced fashion shows in Canada, Australia and France highlighting Indigenous designers, models and artists. Each show also brings attention to missing women through stories and photos.

Coltman says it’s powerful watching Indigenous models hold their heads high as they walk the runway. It breaks behaviours pushed on the estimated 150,000 Indigenous children who were forced to attend residential schools, she says.

“The residential school taught them that they were to be seen not heard, and they were to look at their feet when they walk,” she says. “We need to make our people less invisible.”

Indigenous women and girls in Canada remain highly overrepresented as victims of violence. Between 2009 and 2021, the homicide rate among Indigenous women and girls was six times higher than their non-Indigenous counterparts, Statistics Canada said in a report last year.

Canada and Manitoba announced a partnership Friday for a Red Dress Alert system that would inform the public when an Indigenous woman or girl is reported missing. The pilot project is expected to help inform an eventual national alert system.

Darlene Okemaysim-Sicotte has been on the front lines working to end violence against Indigenous women in Saskatchewan for nearly two decades. As co-chair of Iskwewuk E-wichiwitochik (Women Walking Together), she has supported many families of those who have disappeared.

Okemaysim-Sicotte says red is a colour ancestors can see, so it’s powerful to see red garments placed in public spaces across the country.

But, Okemaysim-Sicotte adds, it’s important people look beyond the dresses to the women they represent.

“We are doing this because of the missing people, and they shouldn’t be forgotten,” she says.

“They need to be remembered.”

Kelly Geraldine Malone, The Canadian Press