Saturday, April 9, 2016

The Red Dress

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 M├ętis 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.


  1. To me, the most shocking part is that so many are missing, almost certainly murdered with no trace of their bodies found. I wonder how this rate compares with that in more densely settled urban areas. Maybe we just don't hear much about it. Or maybe even less effort is made to solve crimes involving indigenous women in Canada than is true for minorities in the USA.

  2. It might well be an instructive (though possibly harrowing) exercise to try writing a story from the perspective of an imagined perpetrator. That's probably more of a stretch than I am capable of, but you might be.

    I do think that some people (not just men) have the conviction that people of other races (especially, though not exclusively women) are subhuman. This is what the European invaders coming to the New World truly believed. They were God's chosen, and the other peoples they encountered were Godless, soulless barbarians. This attitude may endure, to a greater extent than one would think.

  3. As a human being, I'm not so sure I want to know how such a mind works. If I can't wrap my head around that kind of logic, that's just fine. I knew a black guy from Mississippi who said that in his neighborhood, people went missing every year. He didn't specify gender, but said that every black family could tell of relatives who went out in the morning and never came back. I also heard about 5 years back that around Juarez, hundreds of women's bodies have been uncovered. I don't know if any perps have been caught.

    If anybody is interested in the inner workings of a nutcase in that realm (Though not with a racial aspect) see Rose B. Thorny's "Power and Glory" in the ERWA Treasure chest.

  4. Thanks for commenting, all.
    - The total disappearance of certain people seems creepier, in some sense, than the discovery of a body. The disappearance of a victim usually makes it hard to find a perpetrator.
    - The double whammy of racism mixed with sexism in the history of the Western Hemisphere definitely sets up certain people as targets of violence. I've heard complaints that native women are not the only victims, and therefore the "missing & murdered indigenous women" movement (with its visual symbol of a red dress)should be expanded to include other demographics. This seems parallel to criticisms of the slogan "Black Lives Matter." I think there is room for several parallel protest movements against the abuse and murder of particular groups of people. A targeted campaign seems much more effective than general statements that human beings should be nicer to each other.
    - I don't honestly know if I could write a story from the viewpoint of the perpetrator, but even if I couldn't, I would like to know what motivates such people, beyond an upbringing in a racist & sexist culture. (For that matter, I would like to know what motivated people who formed lynch mobs, back in the day. The end of lynching as a tradition seems to show that publicizing and prosecuting crimes really does have a deterrent effect.)

    1. There's a current story of San Francisco cops killing a guy who was waving a kitchen knife. According to witnesses, he never rushed the cops. Thirty seconds after the cops arrived, the guy was dead. WTF. I've taken knives away from drunks in bars on several occasions. Not something I liked to do, but as bartender, bouncing came with the job. You'd think that with their resources, they could train the police to disarm somebody like that. What about all the martial arts guys? It's only a knife for chrissakes. Instead, they just shoot. The poor fuck didn't even speak English, so when he didn't 'drop it', they opened fire. Seven bullets hit him and there were a score of cops around. What fucking wusses. He never attacked, just was twirling around in a circle like he didn't know what was happening. Bam.

  5. Wow, Jean. I didn't know this. The empty red dresses, empty and unworn, shifting and swaying in the wind...what an evocative, touching image.

  6. Incredibly powerful post, Jean. I'm glad you're talking about what's happening with native women. On top of that, the first two paragraphs of your piece are a chilling representation of what's underneath lots of supposedly benign interactions.