Recognizing Red Dress Day is one way the public can acknowledge the pain of colonial pressures put on the many Indigenous nations across what is now Canada.
Another major component of correcting the cultural damage that turned into layers of deeply personal damage, is to inform new generations about the effects.
Like may schools across School District 28, Quesnel Junior School (QJS) put effort into teaching the history of prejudice and violence faced by Aboriginal peoples at the hands of Euro-centric governments, communities, and individuals set on marginalizing those descended from the original cultures of this land. One of the cascading consequences is the vulnerabilities and disconnections that leave Indigenous women and girls open to violence.
“The significance of the dresses is that they are empty,” said Dorine Greene of the Quesnel Tillicum Society-Native Friendship Centre. “The significance of the dresses being red is, in Indigenous culture, red is the only colour spirits can see, so by hanging the red dresses in honour of MMIWG2+, it’s a way of reuniting spirits with their loved ones, to have them close.”
Staff members at QJS like Tracey Telford and Rae Lee Tresierra brought that information to light, as is happening in schools the length and breadth of B.C. Red dress displays were made, and lessons were taught that described former policies that led to suffering and pain for Indigenous people right up into modern times.
“We talk a lot about truth and reconciliation, but in order to have reconciliation we first have to acknowledge the truth,” said Tresierra, who teaches English to the Grade 8 and 9 students at QJS. “This is the first generation of schooling to be brought up in this culture of truth and reconciliation.”
Information on the red dress campaign, the moosehide campaign (raising awareness of violence against women and children), and the Highway of Tears inspired the English students to write poetry about their thoughts and impressions. The poems, and other artistic touches were all pinned to a red dress put on display as a class statement that went with other Red Dress Day acknowledgements around the school.
Abbi White, Lexi Tresierra, Ewan Lackey, Molly Leung, and Lauren Gittens were some of the students who took part and talked with The Observer about their work.
“This wasn’t a concept that was talked about for a very long time. It was really pushed to the side,” said Lackey. “It’s still going on today, and the Highway of Tears is right near here. If you don’t know about it, you can’t do anything.”
“The last residential schools closed in super modern times,” said Gittens. “I was talking with my mom about it, and she said she never knew any stories about residential schools, she’s just learning about it now.”
Leung said her poem “is mostly about how ignorant we are as to what Indigenous people have faced, because it wasn’t taught in school, and I’m very grateful that it’s being taught right now, but up until this year I didn’t really have knowledge of what they went through. This is spreading education, and education is what we need right now.”
Not long ago, Indigenous students were not positively or accurately reflected in any part of school learning. That had an impact on Tresierra, who buried her own First Nations background. She is now working to restore her personal Indigenous identity, and taking part in Red Dress Day activities with the students is a learning and growing opportunity for her, personally as well as on a professional basis.
“What we discussed, as well, is how it’s also new for teachers,” Tresierra said. “We are learning. Even though I come from a strong First Nations background, I also grew up with a temporary loss of identity because I obviously have white privilege (indicating her relatively light skin tone) and I tried to hide behind that, growing up. I was already susceptible to bullying, and I didn’t want to be bullied for another reason as well. It sometimes takes a long time to regain that culture aspect.”