As she looked around the room, Robyn Bourgeois was overcome by emotion.
Brock’s Vice-Provost, Indigenous Engagement felt tears welling up as she stood before a packed Pond Inlet to deliver not only a message demanding justice for missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people, but also a challenge to the University and wider community.
“I’m asking folks to make a commitment to contribute in one way or another to making meaningful change in this society,” Bourgeois said. “Indigenous women and girls continue to go missing every day. This cannot continue.”
She called on the individuals to think about what they can do personally to address violence against Indigenous women and girls, asking them to commit to that action for the coming year.
Tuesday’s gathering was part of a weeklong initiative that strives to honour the lives of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people. The event featured a traditional song from Bourgeois as well as art displays and workshops, which saw participants make beaded medicine pouches, Métis sash bookmarks, beaded red dress earrings and seal skin bracelets.
Empty red dresses will remain on display inside and outside of Brock’s main campus and the Marilyn I. Walker School of Fine and Performing Arts in downtown St. Catharines until Friday, Feb. 17.
The REDress Project began as an art installation by Métis artist Jaime Black at the University of Winnipeg in 2011 to signify the loss of thousands of Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit, lesbian, gay, trans, bisexual, queer, questioning, intersex and asexual (2SLGTBQQIA) people over the past 40 years to colonial violence.
This was the first in-person REDress event held by Brock since 2019 due to the impact of the COVID-19 pandemic.
“This is such an important day for us, an important day for me,” said Bourgeois, herself a survivor of colonial violence, who shared her own experience through an art installation at the event. “This is our first time meeting in person in three years and I didn’t realize how powerful that would feel until I’m standing here with all of you.”
Guest speaker Vanessa Brousseau, an Inuk social media influencer and artist who has a personal connection with the REDress movement and its goals to educate and remember, said she is proud of the University for hosting the gathering.
“It really shows that there’s change in perspective, especially within universities, to really ensure that grassroots voices are being heard,” she said. “To me, that’s priceless. To be heard, listened to, respected and welcomed — it’s life changing.”
Brousseau said she’s from a generation that was not allowed to talk about their experiences, culture or traditions.
At 16, she never dreamed she would have had the opportunity to stand before a packed room of engaged listeners while sharing her story.
“It can be a really empowering experience for all Indigenous people,” she said, adding she was moved to see not only members of Indigenous communities in Tuesday’s crowd, but also many allies.
Among those in attendance were high school students from Soaring Eagles, a program offered by the Niagara Catholic District School Board in partnership with the Niagara Regional Native Centre.
The students contributed to the arts display by providing reflections of what they think is most important for the community to know about the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s Calls to Action.
The event “hit close to home for a lot of our students within the community,” said teacher Kelsey Huxley. “It’s important that we’re honouring our students’ voices.”
Huxley also expressed gratitude towards Brock’s Hadiyaˀdagénhahs First Nations, Métis and Inuit Student Centre, which has “always welcomed our students and provided a safe space for them, so they can possibly see Brock as an option down the road.”