Ottawa is beginning consultations today on the creation of a public alert system for missing Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.
Some advocates, meanwhile, are calling on the federal government to expand emergency notifications to all Indigenous missing persons cases.
NDP MP Leah Gazan is leading discussions on the proposed “Red Dress Alert” system with Indigenous frontline advocates and Liberal MP Pam Damoff, who previously served as parliamentary secretary to the ministers of Indigenous services and public safety.
The talks launched after Gazan brought forward a motion in Parliament last spring to fund an alert system. The motion received unanimous consent.
Red Dress notices would send notifications to the public on their phones whenever an Indigenous woman, girl or two-spirit person goes missing, just as Amber Alerts do now for missing children.
In Ontario, more than 90 per cent of Amber Alerts lead to children being recovered safely, says the Ontario Provincial Police.
Gazan is urging the federal government to implement the program before the next election. She said it’s a matter of life and death.
“If they don’t, it shows how serious they are about the crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls in this country,” said Gazan, who represents the riding of Winnipeg Centre.
“The very least they can do is look for us.”
Damoff, who represents the riding of Oakville North—Burlington, said she was asked to co-lead consultations after she gave Gazan her word that she would work with the NDP MP on the program.
Although the government doesn’t have a definitive timeline for implementation, Damoff said creating a Red Dress Alert is a government priority.
“I hope it’s in place before the next election,” Damoff said.
The program doesn’t require new legislation, but Damoff said the government needs to consult with survivors, frontline workers and families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls to find the best way forward.
“If it’s not used properly or if it’s not used at all, it’s just going to sit there,” she said.
“We want to make sure that it’s being done in a way that is actually going to work to save Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people.”
‘Time to start including red shirts’
In its 2019 final report, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls called on provincial and territorial governments to establish a nationwide emergency number for missing Indigenous women and girls.
Marion Buller, the inquiry’s former chief commissioner, said it’s disappointing Ottawa is only taking action now.
“Starting consultations some four-and-a-half, five years later indicates to me a lack of political will to actually take some firm action to help deal with the genocide that we so clearly identified in our final report,” Buller said.
Buller helped Washington State develop emergency notifications for missing Indigenous people — the first system of its kind in North America.
While she supports the Red Dress initiative, Buller said any alert that brings the public’s attention to finding a single missing Indigenous person would be helpful.
“The first 24 hours that a person goes missing is absolutely vital to use to try to locate the individual,” she said.
While all federal political parties have backed the Red Dress initiative, some advocates say they would like to see the government include Indigenous men and boys in the alerts as well.
“It’s time to start including red shirts,” said Sheila North, who coined the social media hashtag #MMIW for missing and murdered Indigenous women.
North, who is running to become the next national chief of the Assembly of First Nations, said all Indigenous people should be included in emergency alerts.
“I have a three-year-old grandson and it makes me think of our men and boys who are just as valued, of course, as everyone else,” she said.
“We have to be vigilant and protective of all of our relatives the same way.”
Dan Martel, CEO of Aboriginal Alert, agrees.
Martel, who is Métis, has been sending notifications about missing Indigenous people since 2017 to a network of about 800 members of his non-profit.
Although Indigenous women and girls make up the majority of missing persons cases he sees, Martel said Indigenous men and boys make up more than a quarter.
“Men and boys are important as well,” he said.
A step forward
Martel said the federal government should also examine and address the reasons for the disappearances.
“They’re missing the mark,” Martel said.
Although the details of the program still need to be worked out, Damoff said she hopes the system will raise awareness about the emergency.
“If I were to go missing, I know that people would be out there looking for me,” Damoff said.
“It’s not the same situation for Leah [Gazan] and it’s not the same situation for Indigenous women and girls and two-spirit people across this country.”
Gazan called the beginning of consultations a step forward but said the NDP needs to continue pushing the government until the program is in place.
“It’s one thing to change colonial laws,” Gazan said. “It’s another thing to change colonial behaviour in this place. Certainly, a place that has a history of violating the rights of Indigenous Peoples.”
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