The StFX Aboriginal Students Society brought its version of the REDress Project to the Antigonish campus earlier this month.
The exhibition, created by Winnipeg-based Metis artist Jaime Black more than five years ago, aims to deliver a message and raise awareness about missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, symbolized by a display of red dresses.
“We just want to reach as many students as possible, and get as many people aware as we can,” Jasmine LaBillois, a StFX Aboriginal Students Society member, said of the initiative.
After two days outdoors, located on the grounds between the Gerald Schwartz School of Business and Xavier Hall, organizers moved the display into the centre court of Nicholson Hall.
“There definitely has been wide support,” LaBillois added, including from those who contributed clothing to the display.
With more than one dozen dresses hanging overhead – their brilliant reds impossible to miss – LaBillois and her co-creators, Kate Jadis, Tamara Cremo and Natalie Lesco, talked about the initiative. [Shanna Francis, another of the organizers, was unavailable for the conversation.]
“The dresses represent our sisters who are missing or have been murdered. It is about bringing awareness that this is an injustice and that there is something that needs to be done,” Jadis said.
Although she has seen REDress Project displays before, whether on television or online, she noted its depth did not strike her fully until she saw theirs for the first time.
“It is something about them – you just feel their presence,” Jadis said.
She talked about the “resilience” of the dresses as they “swayed in the wind,” while outdoors; not to mention indoors, as she gestured towards one wafting gently, to and fro, overhead.
“To think about these girls that never got to say their goodbyes, or never got to reach out. It just kind of touches your heart, because it is so real and visible,” Jadis said.
“It is one thing to talk about these things that are happening in Canada, with the unjust system that we have, especially against our Indigenous people and our Indigenous women – which lives are so sacred – and they are not taken as seriously or are sacred anymore, and that’s what I see when I look at them.”
Jadis said the red stands out because it is a colour that represents “power.”
“And, it represents the violence and the blood, and the things that these women have gone through; it’s why these dresses are hanging today,” she added.
Jadis said she offers a prayer each time she sees the dresses.
So does Cremo.
“Because it feels like, if I go by and not acknowledge them, I am not doing my part,” she said.
“I always offer my prayers and guidance for these women, knowing that they will be OK, even if they pass on, knowing that their presence is respected.”
Cremo hopes bringing the exhibition to StFX “will create more awareness and more safety for our people” on campus.
“I hope that more Aboriginal students will come, knowing that we will be respected as who we are, once we enter this university, when you face so much cultural shock, loneliness and feeling of defeat and failure, knowing that you have a community – people around you, your brothers and sisters – to guide you through everything; knowing that we will always call on one another,” she said.
“So, when I look at these, I see hope and I see that our women are going to be OK, and we are going to regain our power, and we are going to make sure that we are heard.”
LaBillois said the display makes her not only think about the “now,” but also “the 500 years of resistance that our people have been enduring,” and the seven generations of women “who have been systematically erased.”
“I feel like it is more than just the now that we see in these, but I also see my ancestors and their spirits, and their missing presence. So, I feel like it is more than just [pauses], it shows such resilience; and that we have been part of that resilience and we continue on forward,” she added.
As the hustle and bustle of people travelling through Nicholson Hall, and up and down the zig-zag staircase, continued, they talked about the response to the exhibition.
“We were hearing students coming down and they were talking about it, and reading some of the flyers that Natalie [Lesco] put up on the wall,” LaBillois said, adding “people just seem very supportive and aware.”
She noted the society’s Facebook page includes many messages of support for the project.
“It is definitely nice to get that sort of response, especially from our fellow students,” LaBillois added.
They said the visibility of the clothing has helped catch people’s attention, with Lesco noting there has been “a lot of positive feedback.”
“Even when we were reinforcing the dresses, when it was really windy outside, people would come by and say, ‘oh, this is such a great idea,’ or ask for more information; ask if it was OK to take pictures – things like that.”
Lesco said another thing really caught her attention.
“Since it was so windy, the dresses had clearly fallen down and were put up in a different place, so students and people walking by were taking the initiative to put the dresses back up,” she added.
Lesco, who is non-Aboriginal, said she was “looking for a way to kind of raise awareness about missing and murdered Aboriginal women on campus,” joining the project as part of fourth-year thesis in anthropology.
Describing reaching out to the society and its members as “perfect timing,” because they were starting the REDress project, Lesco said “we just came together and collaborated.”
She described her experience as a “privilege,” looking to her collaborators as she recalled how nervous she was to meet them.
“Because I thought – who am I here to walk in, with my white privilege, and ask what’s going on – and try to get myself involved, and [thinking] what is my position?” Lesco said.
“I just didn’t understand that; it was still unclear to me, and they were laughing and saying ‘you are doing exactly what you are supposed to be doing’ – looking for that awareness and serving as an ally, somebody who tries to push recognition forward of what is going on – who may not be Aboriginal or may not have experiences in their own life, but still have a capacity to deal with, and to raise awareness about it.”
Lesco added that sentiment also represents, in a way, the reconciliation that has started – albeit slowly – and needs to continue.
“Where settler populations and Aboriginal populations can come together and work together – and live together, and be peaceful together – and reconcile over the history that has occurred in Canada,” she said.
Again, using the word ‘privileged,’ Lesco reiterated how grateful she has been for this opportunity, including getting to meet and work with her project partners, now friends.
“This is so much more than a thesis right now – that’s the thing that is in the back of my mind. It is so much more than academic research, for sure,” she said.
Jadis talked about the importance of acknowledging that Indigenous and Mi’kmaw people “are still here,” noting she never “knew much about her people,” until she took the initiative to pursue her studies in that field at Cape Breton University.
“I think that, especially around communities and towns just like this, where there is so much Mi’kmaw community surrounding it, you kind of have to want to know what these people are going through,” she said.
“We all are human. I think that, the take home from this [project], is that they recognize that these people – they are still here and they are not going anywhere.
“They are striving. A lot has happened in the past, but we are really hopeful and this generation – this is that seventh generation that just has fire in its bell and they are ready to push – to push for what is right, and knowing their rights,” Jadis added.
She also stressed the importance of treaty rights’ knowledge.
“When I look at these dresses, and I think about these projects, these are just stepping stones to creating that community – with the university, with the surrounding communities,” she said.
Jadis added it is about “allowing people in.”
“Some people have their views that we are only to ourselves, or we are only this. Look at this [gesturing to the group], we have a lifelong friendship here that we developed from Natalie reaching out,” she said.
For Jadis, it is “about creating those friendships,” making it personal.
“Those treaties were signed for peace and friendship and this is us living it out,” she added.
From the REDress Project, Jadis hopes everyone involved realizes it is about a partnership.
“It can’t be pushed forward with only one side, and I hope that is something we gain from this,” she said.
When talking about the ongoing truth and reconciliation process, LaBillois reminded that the first word is ‘truth.’
“I feel like this display shows so much truthfulness,” she said.
“I feel like that is the first step – recognizing and understanding that this is an issue, that this is a problem, and now it is like – how do we work together to push forward and to do better – that’s definitely what I hope people get from this [project].”
Cremo also talked about the importance of “working together,” including Aboriginal people “trying to develop who we truly are, and be proud that we are not going to be oppressed anymore and that the institution is going to allow education – Aboriginal education – to be heard also.”
“Because it is not just First Nations’ history, or it is not just our truth; no, it is everyone’s truth and everyone’s history, and we have to make sure that we bring that out in our classrooms – not just for us – but do it for our future generations,” she said.
“I don’t want my nieces and nephews to be the one next, and I want them to be able to have the best education they can, and know that they are well-respected and they are supported through their professors and their teachers and their families.”
Work to do
LaBillois noted so many students, especially First Nations, “fall through that institution gap.”
“Where we don’t feel like our needs are being met, especially with this Indigenous way of learning that I feel like so many of us have,” she said.
LaBillois suggested a lot of “our truths” are not being told.
“I am glad that we have a handful of professors that really take the initiative to infuse Indigenous teachings and culture, and ideas, into the curriculum,” she said.
There remains work to do, with even the REDress Project as an example, as LaBillois said she had to mention “how difficult” it was to get university approval for the initiative.
“It was just so frustrating,” she noted.
LaBillois expressed similar frustration with the acknowledgement of occupying Mi’kmaw land at the outset of campus events.
“You say that but do you actually know what you are saying,” she said, wondering for some, if there is an understanding why it is being said.
While gazing up at the dresses, Cremo said they make her hopeful that the Mi`kmaq Flag will soon fly on campus, something the society continues to push for.
“I feel like it is going to happen soon, and I know that we have to push for that and hope that everyone will get on board, because it is time to be recognized and it is time to just let reconciliation take its action,” she said.
Again, acknowledging the REDress Project remains a piece to a much bigger puzzle, the women stressed its positive and lasting effect.
“Especially for all of us involved, I feel like it has personally affected each and every one of us; I think that’s why it hits so close to home, to try to tackle such a huge issue and bring it to campus,” LaBillois said.
For more about the REDress Project, visit www.theredressproject.org/