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Tomorrow’s Teachers Doing Their Homework:  What Four Early Childhood Studies Students Want You to Know About the Significance of Red Dress Day

A team of four University of Guelph-Humber Early Childhood Studies students - Heather Strugnell, Felicity Medeiros, Chris Couper, and Yasenia Watkins – all aspiring elementary school teachers, came together in their fourth year to shed light on the urgent crisis of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit individuals (MMIWG2S). As part of their Indigenous Studies course, and under the guidance of Professor Christine Zupo, the culmination of their efforts yielded a 45-page essay filled with diverse perspectives and experiences. Through research, dialogue, and unwavering support for one another, they delved deep into the complexities of the crisis, while paying homage to the resilience of Indigenous communities. 

This in-depth Q&A offers an introspective look into their collaborative process, revealing the emotional nuances, profound insights, and the essential role of collective action in addressing this enduring tragedy, as we observe Red Dress Day, also known as the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit people, on May 5th.

Q: What inspired your group to delve into the topic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit individuals (MMIWG2S)?

A: Our group was inspired to research the topic of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit individuals (MMIWG2S) due to our deep concern for human rights issues, especially the crisis in Canada. According to the Native Women’s Association of Canada (2010), Indigenous women and girls constitute merely 3% of Canada’s female population, yet they represent a staggering 10% of all female homicides in the country. As non-Indigenous Canadians, we recognize the urgent need for an inclusive approach to combat gender-based violence. Our motivation stems from addressing the compounded legacy of historical trauma, systemic racism, and socioeconomic disparities perpetuating violence against Indigenous Peoples. We are committed to raising awareness and seeking solutions for this ongoing crisis.

Q: Please elaborate on the significance of shifting from the term "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit Individuals" (MMIWG2S) to "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples" (MMIP).

A: Shifting from the term "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls, and Two-Spirit individuals" (MMIWG2S) to "Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples" (MMIP) holds significant importance. This change acknowledges that Indigenous communities are collectively affected by this crisis, not just women. It recognizes that systemic policies and enduring colonial perspectives contribute to the targeted violence and disproportionately high rates of Indigenous Peoples as a whole.

Q: Explain the importance of challenging subtle representations of Indigenous women and the broader Indigenous community in media and popular culture. How do these representations shape societal perceptions and contribute to the devaluation of Indigenous women? Moreover, how can individuals and institutions work towards more accurate and respectful portrayals?

A: Through our research, we discovered that challenging the stereotypes and the outright omission of coverage is extremely important. Our ability to understand the root causes and depth of this crisis is directly influenced by how media and popular culture portray both Indigenous women and Indigenous cultures as a whole; it shapes a narrative that influences public reaction and response to this crisis. The public outcry (or lack thereof) can have a direct impact on how our elected officials prioritize and implement policies that seek to protect targeted Indigenous Peoples.

Institutional change relies upon individual commitment to better understand the crisis. It can begin by asking yourself, “What do I know?”. We quickly learned, with a minimum of research, that what we knew about the crisis only scratched the surface.

To deepen your understanding, consider reading books by Indigenous authors, visiting Indigenous Friendship Centres, or engaging with Indigenous-led initiatives.

Q: Reflecting on your research journey, what insights left the most profound impact on you as a group?

A: The most profound impact our group found was learning of the enduring horrors faced by Indigenous Peoples through children being forced to attend residential schools and the Sixties Scoop. Unfortunately, these injustices, once believed by many Canadians to be relegated to the past, persist today. Our research into the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Persons (MMIP) crisis has opened our eyes to the ongoing effects of colonial oppression on Indigenous communities. 

Immersing ourselves in this topic has also deepened our respect for the resilience and strength of Indigenous communities. We are committed to supporting a future honouring their dignity, rights, and rich cultures. Our journey has transformed our perspectives and reinforced our determination to contribute to addressing the longstanding issues faced by Indigenous communities.

Q: Reflecting on your journey from inception to completion of this essay, how has your understanding of collaboration evolved, and what lessons have you learned about the transformative power of collective action in addressing complex societal issues? Do you plan to continue working together on any projects?

A: Reflecting on our collective journey from the start to finish of this essay, we see that our perception of collaboration has significantly transformed. Respectfully collaborating enabled us to bring together diverse perspectives, leading to a deeper analysis and comprehensive solutions. We've learned that collective action is transformative, amplifying marginalized voices and driving broader advocacy. 

Collaboration isn't just about sharing ideas; it's about actively listening to each other's perspectives, absorbing essential insights, and collectively charting paths toward solutions. Active listening also proved to be crucial in serving as a vital tool for tackling the issue of MMIP; our commitment to actively listening to Indigenous voices deepened our understanding and fueled our passion for learning more and spreading awareness, as we are doing now!

We learned to lean on each other during the process of researching and writing our paper. This topic was very difficult, with raw emotional responses and disturbing truths. This process is reflective of the overall strategies we found to respond to the crisis itself; it is not a burden that can be shouldered by one person but must be shared by many individuals who are working together.

This collective effort culminated in an extensive 45-page essay, a testament to the depth of our exploration and the richness of our discussions. Moving forward, we are enthusiastic about the prospect of continuing our collaboration on projects that strive to address societal challenges, harnessing the transformative power of collective action to drive meaningful change.

Q: As you observe May 5th Red Dress Day and engage with the Guelph-Humber community through this Q&A article, what overall message do you hope to convey?

A: Our central themes are memory, resilience, and unity. We aim to highlight the importance of commemorating the lives lost among Missing and Murdered Indigenous Peoples and recognizing the enduring effects of colonialism and systemic aggression on Indigenous communities. 

Through education, advocacy, and united efforts, it is possible to progress toward justice and healing for MMIPs and their families. Furthermore, we stress the critical role of allyship and unity with Indigenous Peoples in tackling societal challenges. Enhancing Indigenous voices, pushing for systemic alterations, and backing Indigenous-led endeavours can play a significant role in forging a more fair and equal society for everyone. We aim to provoke thought, encourage discussions, and spur actions within and beyond the Guelph-Humber community, aiming for a richer comprehension of MMIP issues and a dedication to substantial progress. 

We highly recommend participating in Professor Christine Zupo's Indigenous Studies class (AHSS 1240) for a profound grasp of Canada's actual narrative. This class offers more than knowledge; it inspires students to engage actively, fostering a sense of empathy and a desire to inform others about the vital issues Indigenous communities face currently and moving forward. Studying with Professor Christine Zupo is beyond educational; it's a journey towards proactive engagement in collectively advocating for justice and reconciliation.

Another crucial message we're passionate about conveying is the imperative of actively listening to Indigenous voices and their experiences, perspectives, and ways of life. Through this active listening, we can truly learn and grow, uncovering the harsh reality that colonial legacies continue to shape contemporary issues, prompting the need for awareness campaigns like Red Dress Day. By genuinely listening, we not only confront biases within ourselves and society but also foster the empathy, understanding, and awareness necessary to combat the spread of this violence.

May 5 is the National Day of Awareness for Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and Two-Spirit people.