For the past few years, my school community school community at St. Joseph’s College School in downtown Toronto has recognized October the 4th as a day to honour the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirited People. Since 2017, our school community has worked collectively to use art and activism to spread awareness around this day in hopes of creating change. This is an important issue to us; being a school for girls and young women, gendered violence resonates particularly with our student population.
Students stand in solidarity in front of a Downtown Toronto Police station. Photo courtesy Paul Sabyan
Championing Social Justice through Art and Activism
I believe in and teach the voice of social justice through art making. I’m the visual arts teacher at St. Joseph’s school and I teach a grade 9 Indigenous Arts and Cultures course. The content in this course inspires students’ learning about issues facing Indigenous peoples in other grade 9 courses, and as students become more familiar with the injustices facing Indigenous peoples, they have also become more interested in looking for ways of responding to issues of social justice through the arts.
For October 4th, we have worked with the symbol of the red dress as a jumping off point for public art making, honouring and awareness building - an idea that was inspired by the work of artist Jaime Black, and her Red Dress Project.
Visual Arts educator Paul Sabyan with students at St. Joseph's College School. Image courtesy Paul Sabyan
How did we begin?
After taking time to create a safe space for students, we took small steps in presenting the material to give students time to process the difficult content. Then, as a class we looked at the list of names of the many Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirited People. Each student was given a number of names to research all they could find out about the people whose names they were assigned: Who was this person? What is this person’s story? Has this case been Has the case been solved or is it an unsolved case?
Because students felt safe, they could then begin to express their understanding of the issues and collectively develop a response. While it is a challenge to bring forward difficult questions and material, it is more important to express the truth. After learning about these injustices, what I want students to recognize is that they can make a difference and that they can have a voice that can be heard. It is also important understanding to know that this is a “here and now” issue and that our efforts to bring awareness help us move justice forward.
Our Plans for Honouring October 4th, 2019
This year, on October 4th, our students decided we needed to create a large dress and with the inclusion of images of the many Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2 Spirited incorporated into it. Our dress needed to have a presence to attract attention and to stimulate curiosity for the viewer.
The students thought out and planned how to piece the dress together. We chose a red water repellent nylon material to work with and printed off images on to transfers which were one by one applied to the skirt of the dress. The dress was sewn together by the students. Students who were competent with working with a sewing machine mentored other students. The completed dress was over 30 feet long and is hung from the roof over the front doors of the school. To accompany the dress a large banner was installed to promote recognizing October the 4th as an annual date to remember Murdered and Missing Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirited.
From Classroom Learning to the Community Engagement
The grade 12 art students and members of the after-school art club also led the whole school in creating red dress shaped ribbons to give out to the public.
Today, staff, students and community members will wear red to create a message of solidarity and raise awareness. Our students will pass out these ribbons in front of the school and petition the public on supporting the official recognition of a day of memory for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and 2 Spirited. The young women will share their knowledge and answer questions as they hand out these ribbons.
Changing Hearts and Minds
For students, learning the issues has changed themselves, and planted hopes to change others as well. In their own words, students have commented:
I hope that the red dress project will act as a voice for the women and girls who were murdered and give some sense of peace for the families so that they know people will remember them. - Vicky Grade 11
I am able to understand why this issue is important and why we should give importance to it. - Levona Grade 12
I’m happy this school shines so much light on this issue of injustice. - Roseni Grade 12
It has forced me to re-examine my beliefs and has educated me so that I can advocate for change - Mya Grade 12
A Final Call to Action for Schools, the Public and the Canadian Government
We hope that our work will add to awareness building in the community and spur momentum for the government to officially recognize October 4th as a day of memory for the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Two-Spirited people. We know that the issues needs to be continually addressed, worked through, and challenged.
To learn more, go to https://www.mmiwg-ffada.ca/