October 4, 2018

Red, white and black paint dots Styrofoam plates while a dozen women sit around a table in Lennox Island, P.E.I., canvases in hand.

It may look like a regular art class, but this one has a greater meaning.

Kerri Bernard stands at the front of the room, instructing the group on how to paint, all the while knowing the real reason she is here.

"This is my contribution to raising awareness for missing and murdered Indigenous women … it should be important to everybody," she said.

Most are novice painters , but when completed each woman will have painted a woodland scene with red dresses hanging from trees. When they are finished they will become part of the 13th annual Sisters in Spirit vigil on Thursday, along with nine real dresses symbolizing the different roles women play throughout their lives.

"I think it's going to strengthen and empower the women to be more knowledgeable about the actual fact that we do have Aboriginal women who have gone missing or murdered," said Samantha Lewis, the executive director of the Aboriginal Women's Association of P.E.I.(AWAPEI) and creator of this painting event.

"Just by empowering them and being a part of something really gives them the strength and say, 'We can make a difference.'"

The idea came from the Red Dress Project, an awareness campaign started in Winnipeg in 2010 by Jamie Black, a Métis artist.

The talk around the table is boisterous — mostly about everyday life and what is happening in the community. But as the women begin to paint red dresses in their compositions each in their own style the conversation turns to the reason for the night. Many saying they feel they are honouring their missing or murdered sisters.

Participant Patsy Gavin said the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women has wide ripple effects.

"It affects the family and it affects the whole community, because we may not be related by blood but we're all family.”

"We haven't really talked about it until now and I think it's important that we have these discussions,"said Alma MacDougall, president of AWAPEI.

"It's important that we have examples for our youth to follow and our young girls and young men and know that this is a problem across Canada, and that this happens here as well. And that we need to support our sisters, we need to start ending that cycle of violence."

MacDougall isn't painting tonight. Instead she is steaming the nine red dresses and outfitting each with a purple sash.

Each sash has words in gold lettering — wife, mother, grandmother, daughter and others — that represent the range of diverse roles women can play throughout their lives.

"One of the things that I wanted to do this year was to make sure that we had at least nine dresses, and that would include from the girl, the young woman, the aunt, the cousin, you know the grandmother, the mother, the daughter to go through all of them to make sure we could represent all of them equally," said MacDougall.

Those dresses will also be on display at Confederation Landing during the ceremony, something MacDougall hopes will help with reconciliation.

"I think it's vitally important that the rest of the Island knows the history. A lot of the history that has happened with residential schools, Sixties Scoop, the murdered and missing women, it hasn't been told, it hasn't been told to them, it hasn't been taught in schools," she said.

"The more people can understand why things happen in our communities and where the violence originated from — that it wasn't something that was always in our communities, it was something that was come from the outside.”

The Sisters in Spirit event will take place Thursday morning at 11:30 at Confederation Landing in Charlottetown.