An artistic project that responds to violence against Indigenous women and girls in Nelson has been vandalized.
The REDress Project, featuring red dresses hanging in trees outside city hall and also in a gallery at Touchstones Nelson Museum of Art and History, is a dual exhibit by Winnipeg Métis artist Jaime Black.
On several occasions some of the dresses have been torn down (on days with no windstorm, Garlow points out) and the explanatory sign vandalized. One of these incidents was on International Women’s Day.
“I wish I could say I was shocked and surprised,” says Touchstones museum educator Lesley Garlow. “With our Touchstones team, there’s been a bit of a disillusionment as to the progressive nature of our community.”
Garlow said Touchstones went public with news of the vandalism because “it was an opportunity to disillusion the community a little bit, to let people know that this is a serious problem, and that if we think that it doesn’t affect our communities, or that it’s something that only happens in Winnipeg or Vancouver.
“It happens here, Indigenous women are sexually assaulted here. It happens everywhere.”
Red dresses have also recently been vandalized on Vancouver Island.
But positive responses have also been left at the guest book at the museum, at the museum shop, and through messages from the local Indigenous community, Garlow says.
“It has given people a place to mourn, to celebrate, and to feel heard on these issues,” she says, adding that she heard from one person who was asked by her young daughter about the dresses as they drove by city hall.
“That is a really great conversation to have about equality and about how it’s important to value all members of society,” Garlow says, “and that when somebody goes missing, it’s important to make sure everything is done to find them.”
Garlow, who is Indigenous, says the accessibility of the exhibition in a well-travelled outdoor area lends itself to healing even in a community that often sees itself as having few Indigenous people.
There has also been great interest in the Nelson exhibit among youth, several of whom have asked about the history of Indigenous people in the area, says Garlow.
“They question how they can better interact with the local Indigenous youth. How can they connect with the Sinixt through the Colville Confederated Tribes across the border? How can they connect with the Ktunaxa?”
Garlow says the youth are hoping for a lasting memorial piece.
“They’ve been asking what happens when the dresses come down. Will the community just forget? And so the youth have suggested a large red rose garden or something like that, for the community to use as a teaching tool.”
Touchstones has planned a series of online community forums on the REDress Project, one of them already held on April 19, with two more on May 5 and May 17, and finally a Facebook Live forum with artist Black.
At the first forum, Garlow says she used the questions from the 25 participants to give context to the dresses.
“I draw a map from first contact through residential school systems and talked about the health effects that have affected Indigenous communities as a result of severe trauma and malnutrition, and those kinds of living conditions.”
She then related that to over-representation of Indigenous people in the justice and public health systems, and which led to a discussion of what reconciliation actually means and what it will take to implement the calls to action in the Truth and Reconciliation Commission of Canada report.
“What we know about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls is that loss of land, and connection to culture through the land, is one of the most basic causes of this systemic and cultural loss,” Garlow says.
To pre-register for the forums or submit questions, email firstname.lastname@example.org.