by Jean Roberta
Everyone who was raised female knows that men can be dangerous, and that going out on a date could mean never coming home. Yes, I know that Not All Men Are Like That, but any woman can be targeted, and women who get killed are 100% dead. Women who survive to report being abused in any way are suspect: why didn't they know what they were in for? If it was really that bad, why are they still alive?
This is the dark side of social interaction between women and men, known as the gateway to Romance.
Native (indigenous) women in Canada are so much more likely to go missing and (sometimes) to be found dead that a social movement has formed to raise awareness of the data and to honour the names of specific women. Here in Saskatchewan, one of the prairie provinces, 20% of the population is of native descent, and a whopping 59% of women who go missing are native. Contrary to widespread belief, most of them are not sex workers.
Images of red dresses, usually in outdoor settings, dramatize the absence of the women and girls who have gone missing.
By now, there have been several red dress art exhibits in various cities, mostly on the prairies. As far as I know, the first one was in Edmonton, Alberta.
Here is a news item:
In a stand of barren trees in Edmonton's Alberta Avenue neighbourhood, 40 red dresses have been suspended from shorn branches and left to sway silently in the street.
The dresses — which encircle a bare, uncovered teepee — are meant to represent Canada's missing and murdered aboriginal women, says Lori Calkins, the artist behind the new outdoor art installation on the corner of 92nd Street and 118th Avenue.
"Each of the dresses represents about 30 missing and murdered aboriginal women and girls, and their families," said Calkins during a Monday morning interview on Edmonton AM.
Calkins, a Métis woman and Anglican priest, says the dresses are meant to act as a striking reminder of the ongoing epidemic, and an act of reconciliation.
"We hope that people will see that there are hundreds of indigenous women and girls that have gone missing or have been murdered in this country," Calkins said. "Indigenous women are not being valued and that needs to change."
In the entrance area of the Ad-Hum (Administration-Humanities) Building in the university where I teach in the capital city of Regina, Saskatchewan (just to the east of Alberta), there is a red dress made of tissue paper with pale wings suspended above the back. It's a project made by students in an art class. I find it incredibly moving.
My spouse Mirtha (who has a visible amount of native -- Mapuche -- blood from Chile) and I are currently rehearsing for a performance of the Vagina Monologues that we take part in every year, organized by a young native woman. Most of the performers are native. We always wear red and black for the final performance/reading. This year, we will also bring red dresses to be strung on a line behind us on the stage. The dresses will look like a kind of silent chorus, or audience.
Over the years, I've learned the names of native women who have been sexually assaulted and killed in this town: Elaine Flowers. Jewelle Judith Gambler. Pamela George. There is the young transgender woman who lived with us temporarily as a foster child, then went missing after she moved out. There have been women who stayed in the shelter where Mirtha worked, who were later tracked down by the men they were escaping.
A white male federal politician created a little media firestorm by saying something that many of us already knew: much of the violence against native women comes from native men. This doesn't cancel out the combination of racism and sexism that motivates white men (and possibly "men of colour" who are not native). When I hear that someone I know (or a close friend or relative of someone I know) has gone missing, I don't care who dunnit as much as I want 1) the victim to be found alive, and 2) the perpetrator to be found and locked up, whoever it is.
Mirtha doesn't like to go anywhere alone if that can be avoided. I comfort myself with the thought that she is too old to attract predators, most of whom seem to hunt for juicy young women between puberty and age 30. Still, I would feel more comfortable if she went everywhere in a suit of armor, and had the legal right to carry an arsenal of deadly weapons.
The relatively new, Liberal federal government of Canada (widely represented by a photogenic couple, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau and his wife Sophie Gregoire) has promised a national enquiry into missing and murdered indigenous girls and women. We shall see. A few suspects have been arrested, and that looks promising.
Besides an alarming number of girls and women, the other thing missing from this situation is a confession by even one of the perpetrators. They don't say what they did, or why they did it. In most cases, the assailants are never identified, let alone convicted.
As a writer, I would like to understand the mindsets of people who are much different from me, but the consciousness of these guys is a mountain I haven't been able to climb. I feel it's important for me to understand them, even if I'm not their favourite prey myself. As I walk down a street in a prairie town, I could be brushing past a man who recently burned the clothes he was wearing when he dismembered a young woman and disposed of the remains. Did her existence offend him so much? Did he hate her for giving him a hard-on? If he thought of her as part of the local wildlife, equivalent to a coyote or a gopher, why not just leave her alone?
There is a theory that the "darkest," most harmful desires exist in all of us. I'm not convinced of that, but I would like to understand why things happen. I can sense a murder mystery taking shape in the back of my mind.