Canada and Manitoba will develop Red Dress Alert for missing Indigenous women and girls

Canada and Manitoba are teaming up to launch an alert system that will inform the public when an Indigenous woman or girl goes missing, they announced in Winnipeg on Friday, ahead of a national day marking the crisis.

The long-awaited Red Dress Alert system is an effort to prevent deaths and increase safe reunions with loved ones.

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

A national study concluded five years ago that they are twelve times more likely to go missing or murdered.

“This is a historic moment and an important step toward ending the crisis of missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse peoples,” said NDP MP Leah Gazan, who has led the federal advocacy effort.

“And while we celebrate this historic moment, it is critical to remember that we are not finished until a Red Dress Alert is no longer necessary.”

The pilot in Manitoba will be designed with and led by Indigenous peoples, and is expected to contribute to an eventual national early warning system.

It will be funded with money set aside in this year’s federal and provincial budgets.

Nahanni Fontaine, Manitoba’s minister of women and gender equality, said she has heard from community members who believe the alert system could help reduce risks for Indigenous women and girls.

“We look forward to working inclusively with Indigenous partners in Manitoba to find the best path forward as we build this pilot project.”

Minister of Crown-Indigenous Relations Gary Anandasangaree said Winnipeg – and Manitoba broadly – ​​is the epicenter of the crisis, and launching the Red Dress Alert there will bring solutions that can be implemented across the country.

“It is not the only solution, but it is a crucial starting point for us to address the immediate crisis.”

Gazan’s efforts on the file prompted a House of Commons committee to study the prospects for a national early warning system.

Her fellow MPs unanimously supported her motion in the House of Commons last year declaring the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls a Canada-wide emergency.

The motion also called on the federal government to fund a new alert system that would work much like Amber Alerts.

Other North American jurisdictions already have similar alert systems, including Washington state’s Missing Indigenous Person system.

The 2019 final report of the national inquiry found that intentional rights violations were at the heart of violence against indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people.

The final report included 231 calls for justice, addressed to governments, social service providers, industry and Canadians, but relatively little progress has been made so far.

Sheila North, former Manitoba Chief Keewatinowi Okimakanak and ex-journalist, has spoken out in favor of ending violence against Indigenous women.

She said that while news of an alert system is welcome, she hopes expectations remain reasonable — at least for now.

“There will be bumps in the road – there will be challenges that maybe none of us see right now,” she said. “It is inevitable that someone will be disappointed.”

But it’s the premise that matters, she said. “I think it’s high time.”

To those who might not see the value of a warning system for Indigenous women, North said people with that identity have been excluded from many parts of society for “so long,” and that the deaths “are a consequence of that.”

The House of Commons committee that examined the warning heard testimony from experts who stressed that any system must be Indigenous-led.

That is partly to alleviate the problems of police inaction and red tape, so that members of the public are notified of a disappearance quickly and efficiently.

Jennifer Jesty, who serves as resilience manager for the Union of Nova Scotia Mi’kmaq, spoke to MPs about her own efforts to get an emergency alert system up and running for her communities and efforts to minimize police interference.

Since September 2020, Jesty told the committee in late March that she had sent out 183 alerts and as a result reunited 67 people with their families – the vast majority of whom were returned to their families within an hour of the alert going out.

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

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

— With files from Brittany Hobson in Winnipeg.

Alessia Passafiume, The Canadian Press