Red dresses and pantsuits call attention to MMIW

Red dress and pantsuit installation shows solidarity with Families of Sisters in Spirit

TRU social work students show their support of the vigils for Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous peoples which took place across the country Oct. 4. (Sarah Kirschmann/The Omega)

TRU social work students show their support of the vigils for Canada’s missing and murdered indigenous peoples which took place across the country Oct. 4. (Sarah Kirschmann/The Omega)

Red fabric fluttering from the trees caught the attention of students passing through the campus commons on their way to class last Tuesday. The red dress and pantsuit installation, set up by TRU social work students, represented Canada’s missing and murdered Indigenous women, transgender and two-spirit peoples.

It was one of the many vigils showing solidarity with families of the missing and murdered, which took place across the country on Oct. 4. According to an RCMP report, there were over 1,100 reported cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women from 1980 to 2012. A national inquiry into the issue is currently underway, and although many are hopeful that solutions will come out of it, the process has been criticized.

TRU’s installation was in solidarity with Families of Sisters in Spirit, a grassroots group that advocates for the families of Canada’s missing and murdered. Sisters in Spirit gathered for their 11th annual vigil on Parliament Hill on Oct. 4, calling for the inquiry to be more inclusive of transgender and two-spirit peoples, along with more cross-examination within the process.

“It’s about visibility, just engaging with people and community members around the issue of violence against gendered indigenous bodies, in addition to showing support for a bigger protest,” Kiara McLean said.

McLean is one of six fourth-year social work students who organized the installation. They were inspired by the work of Métis artist Jaime Black, whose REDress project was exhibited at TRU in 2011. Black collects red dresses and displays them in public places with the hope that “the dresses allow viewers to access a pressing and difficult social issue on an emotional and visceral level, before they put up their guard, before they dismiss,” according to UBC’s Indigenous Foundations website.

One key difference between the original REDress project and this installation is that this one included pantsuits as well as dresses. The pantsuits symbolize the transgender and two-spirit peoples, a gender which embodies both masculine and feminine characteristics in many Aboriginal cultures. Those who don’t fit neatly into the gender binary are at higher risk of violence, along with Indigenous women.

The social work students asked passers-by to engage with the issue on social media, in addition to calling attention to it through the installation.

“So far, [public response] has actually been fabulous…we actually had to print more handouts because we weren’t anticipating as many people,” McLean said.