May 5 is the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.
People are asked to wear red to mark the occasion and to raise awareness, and there are “red dress” events across the country to remember Indigenous women and girls who are missing and who have fallen victim to violence.
Gabrielle Whiskeyjack is organizing a public event in Cold Lake to honour and remember women and girls from the Lakeland region. She has secured participation and support from First Nations and Métis communities in the area, as well as Cold Lake Native Friendship Centre, the City of Cold Lake, Cold Lake and District FCSS, the RCMP, Portage College, and others.
Whiskeyjack is working with Alberta Health Services to make the event Covid-compliant. It will be a drive-through display of red dresses, each with a picture of a murdered or missing woman from the area. Families of the women be present.
The event will be centred at Joe Heffner Park at the intersection of Highway 28 and Veterans Drive. Red dresses will be displayed from trees and lamp posts along both sides of the highway.
“We’re going to put out the dresses early in the morning so the commuters going to school or work will see them and to be like, ’what’s this?’” Whiskeyjack said.
The actual event will run from 3:00 to 6:00 pm.
“We’re going to have the picture of the woman who has passed away, and their family is going to stand near their picture. There’s going to be the red dress in the air, either on the pole or in the tree. The Friendship Centre is going to put up a teepee,” Whiskeyjack said.
“Cold Lake is awesome because it’s so beautiful, it’s lined with trees so it works perfectly.”
Whiskeyjack is an event planner. She was inspired to create an awareness-raising event by a vision she had.
“When I was pregnant with my son, I had a vision of me floating over a cemetery from my Mom’s reserve at Saddle Lake Cree Nation. And I have seen these red dresses on the graves of women. So I feel like I have to do something for the Red Dress movement, like I had to make it more known and raise awareness and honour those women that passed away,” she said.
“They didn’t want to die, but they had no choice.”
Awareness is the goal of the May 5 event.
“I would like to see more awareness for the movements honouring those women. When I talked to a couple of people when we were thinking of women from the local area, they were like, ‘I can’t remember her name, what’s her name?’
“And this was more than a couple people,” Whiskeyjack said.
“That is exactly why I’m doing this. We want to remember her name and make sure that her memory is not forgotten.”
The problem is a complex one, and many institutions—from the RCMP and the justice system to the news media—have failed, Whiskeyjack says. She is pleased to have the RCMP taking part in the May 5 event.
“We’ve talked about the RCMP being part of the problem, how they’re not taking it seriously,” she said. “And they really reached out to me and they told me they want to help change it. They’re going to be dressed in their full redcoat uniforms to honour the women.”
The public is encouraged to drive through the display at Joe Heffner Park on May 5 and learn more about the issue of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls.
Whiskeyjack says she would like to see the event grow in future years to include a public rally. The idea is to make it a travelling exhibit that can be displayed in communities across the Lakeland.
“All of the dresses and pictures collected are going to go on. It’s just going to keep adding and adding with each area that’s affected,” she said.