Winnipeg MP Leah Gazan wants ‘Red Dress’ alert system implemented for missing Indigenous women

A Manitoba MP is trying to create an alert system to notify the public when Indigenous women go missing, an initiative she hopes will lead to fewer deaths and safer reunions with loved ones.

“This is a critical initiative,” New Democrat MP Leah Gazan, who represents the Winnipeg Center leadership, said last month as a House of Commons committee began studying her “Red Dress Alert” proposal.

“This is an initiative that will save lives.”

Gaza MPs unanimously backed her motion last year declaring the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls a Canada-wide emergency. The motion also called for funding for a new alert system similar to those in place for missing children and elderly people.

Now, parliamentarians are discussing with experts and stakeholders how to implement such a system across the country.

A 2019 report from a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls found deliberate rights violations at the heart of violence against women, girls and gender diverse people.

With the final report came 231 calls for justice directed at governments, social service providers, industry and Canadians, but relatively little progress has been made to date, particularly on the federal side.

Between 2009 and 2021, the homicide rate among Indigenous women and girls was six times higher than that of their non-Indigenous counterparts, Statistics Canada concluded in a report released last year.

That report also found that homicides involving Indigenous women and girls are less likely to result in the most serious murder charges than cases where the victims were non-Indigenous.

Winnipeg MP @LeahGazan pushes ‘Red Dress’ alert system for missing and murdered Indigenous women. #CDNPoli #IndigenousWomen #RedDressAlert #MMIWG

Sheila North, former grand chief of Manitoba Keewatinowi Okimakanak and former journalist, said she frequently encountered examples of police inaction when reporting on missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“There was always a disregard, or even a lack of respect and disdain, towards the families and friends that we are trying to raise awareness and get some movement in an investigation,” North said in an interview.

“There was always the common theme of an officer saying, ‘Wait a minute, they’re probably drunk, they’re probably partying,'” he said.

“Or, ‘They have the right to go, they can go on vacation,’ knowing full well that many of these families can’t afford to go on vacation.”

The Gaza Red Dress Alert proposal is being examined by the House of Commons committee on the Status of Women, which has already heard testimony from several experts calling for the initiative to be indigenous-led.

Such a model, they say, would mitigate the problem of police inaction, as well as bureaucracy, to ensure that the public is notified of a disappearance promptly and efficiently.

Jennifer Jesty, who serves as resilience manager for the Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq Union, spoke to MPs about her own efforts to put an emergency alert system in place for their communities and their attempts to minimize police interference.

Since September 2020, Jesty told the committee he sent out 183 alerts and, as a result, reunited 67 people with their families; 96 percent of whom were reunited with their families within an hour of the alert being issued.

In one case, Jesty said he sent out an alert after a man approached a young Indigenous woman and tried to lure her into sex work. As a result, the 3,000 subscribers quickly learned of the potential threat.

Community members then shared the alert online through their own social media pages, further expanding its reach and helping prevent further recruitment efforts in neighboring areas, he testified.

“Because this system was designed by us, for us, we were able to create our own protocols for when, how and why an alert should or should not be sent,” Jesty said.

“There has not been a single alert request that has been denied, and each alert was sent within minutes of receiving the information.”

The Jesty alert system, delivered by Everbridge, allows messages to be sent via text, calls, emails, and can even alert people via landlines, an especially important form of communication for older members of the family. community or those with unreliable cell service in remote communities.

While Jesty said her alert system cuts down on bureaucracy, she still makes sure her loved ones contact police to make sure there’s a record and to make sure they’re not just “at Auntie’s house.”

Getting buy-in from the police took time, he said, “and some of the things they said to me weren’t the nicest.” But once police saw the value in using the alerts to help their own investigations, they started calling Jesty.

“In my perfect world, I would love to bring this alert system to every Indigenous community across this country,” Jesty told MPs, who questioned how a similar alert system could be implemented across the country.

“Would it save lives? I think it already has.”

Other North American jurisdictions already have similar alert systems, including Washington State’s “Missing Indigenous Person” system, which coexists with the existing Amber Alert and Silver Alert programs.

While experts say the alerts are necessary to keep Indigenous women and girls safe, North dreams of a time when they are no longer necessary.

But substantial changes must happen first, she said, including removing the barriers Indigenous women and girls face in employment, social services and law enforcement. Then indigenous women, girls, transgender and two-spirit people could better protect themselves and their livelihoods.

“So that predators have less power over us,” he said.

Until that time comes, however, North said the Red Dress alerts could educate the public about how widespread the problem is, showing the faces behind the statistics in a way that’s hard to avoid.

“I hope it’s a reminder that this problem still exists,” he said. “It’s a stark reminder of the reality of what’s happening to Canada’s first people.”

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 4, 2024.

With files from Stephanie Taylor

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