• Post published:October 18, 2022
  • Reading time:15 mins read
  • Post category:At Home / In Ottawa

moved that Bill S-219, An Act respecting a National Ribbon Skirt Day, be read the second time and referred to a committee.

She said: Mr. Speaker, first I want to acknowledge that I am addressing you from the unceded territory of the Anishinabe people. At the core of the beliefs of the Anishinabe is the notion of respect. Each element is part of the cycle of life. Each has its purpose and deserves as much respect. Our relationships are what matter the most, and we should cherish them.

I am also conscious that we have people joining us from across Turtle Island who are located on both treaty and unceded lands of Canada’s indigenous peoples. In the riding I represent of Fredericton, or Ekpahak, we are on unceded Wolastoqiyik territory, where the beautiful and bountiful river flows through our communities and reminds us of our collective responsibility to each other and the land.

Today I have the incredible honour of sponsoring Senate Bill S-219, an act to establish national ribbon skirt day for January 4 in Canada. The bill comes to this place thanks to the work of Senator Mary Jane McCallum and the inspiration of Isabella Kulak. Dr. Mary Jane McCallum is a first nations woman of Cree heritage from Brochet, Manitoba, and an advocate for social justice.

Before arriving in the Senate of Canada, she spent much of her career in the dental field, focused on education and on the health of indigenous communities. Throughout her career, she has worked tirelessly to provide dental and health services to a variety of northern, first nations and indigenous communities, especially by managing youth and health programs in her home community. Senator McCallum also raises awareness and understanding of the experiences of indigenous peoples by sharing her personal experience as a residential school survivor.

I tell members all this because the senator’s passion for advancing the health and prosperity of indigenous communities is reflected in this important piece of legislation. We have the opportunity to vote on this bill because of Senator McCallum’s unwavering commitment to real reconciliation between Canada and indigenous communities across Turtle Island.

What I am seeking to impart on my colleagues today is the fundamental importance of celebrating indigenous women, girls and two-spirited people, the importance of championing their resiliency, their diversity and their power on their terms. That is the spirit behind ribbon skirts. They are a strong symbol. They are beautiful, and they carry teachings and stories. They also represent cultural and spiritual protection, like armour.

Where I am from, there is a not-so-new tradition of Wolastoq Wednesdays, started by school staff, indigenous organizations and communities across the territory. Today people of all ages show their pride in culture and identity. I am also a member of a national Facebook group called Ribbon Skirts Everyday, where an online community has been built. I urge all members of this House to explore their own ridings’ resurgence of ribbon skirt makers and wearers.

There are exciting entrepreneurial activities around the growing practice of ribbon skirt making as indigenous women stock up for every occasion. Whether they are mother-daughter sets, traditional wedding dresses or regalia, ribbon skirts’ meanings vary from person to person. From personal to traditional designs, from ceremonial to casual, ribbon skirts are a beautiful manifestation of strength found in the feminine spirit.

Colours are chosen with intention, and intricate appliqué designs can represent family clans, sisterhoods, wampum history or traditional names. Each one is unique and made with love and positive thoughts. They are also often made for statements and disseminating truth, with dedications to missing and murdered indigenous women or for bringing awareness for the children and families who experienced residential schools.

There were times in our history when ribbon skirts would have been banned, seen as outside the norm, shamed. When the potlatch ban in Canada started in 1885, ribbon skirts, along with ceremonial items, were outlawed by the government. Sadly, this history sometimes rears its ugly head. Two years ago, 10-year-old Isabella Kulak from Cote First Nation took a stand in her ribbon skirt against her Saskatchewan elementary school.

In December of that year, she was shamed for wearing a ribbon skirt instead of the store-bought dresses the other girls were wearing for a formal day. Her parents shared the story on social media, and soon after, she became the catalyst of a movement. Indigenous women from all over the world began showing their support by donning their ribbon skirts in solidarity.

Let me share Isabella’s story, in her own words, through a letter that she wrote to Senator McCallum, which was read into the record. It states:

Dear Senator McCallum

My name is Isabella Susanne Kulak and I would like to start off by telling you what the ribbon skirt means to me. The ribbon skirt represents strength, resiliency, cultural identity and womanhood. When I wear my ribbon skirt I feel confident and proud to be a young indigenous girl.

When I was 8 years old I was gifted my very own ribbon skirt from my auntie Farrah Sanderson. I wore it with pride and honour to my traditional ceremonies and pow wows. On December 18, 2020 it was formal day at Kamsack Comprehensive Institute where I attend school, so I chose to wear my ribbon skirt just like my older sister Gerri. When I got to school a teacher assistant commented on it and said it didn’t even match my shirt and maybe next formal day I should wear something else like another girl was wearing and pointed at her. Those words made me feel pressured to be someone I am not. I eventually took off my skirt as I felt shamed.

Today I no longer feel shamed and I feel proud and powerful enough to move mountains because I know that people from around the world are standing with me. I am very grateful to be Canadian, to be Indian and to represent my people by wearing my ribbon skirt proudly! Thank you to Senator McCallum and to all the people who supported me from around the world, from Canada and from all the First Nations across the nations of the earth.

Sincerely Isabella

I want Isabella to know how strong and amazing she is for not only finding the strength to stand up to discrimination, but for turning her experience into empowerment for other young girls and women. I have two beautiful Wolastoqey nieces, Hailey and Olivia, who love ribbon skirts, and because of Isabella’s efforts, they can wear them with their heads held high, knowing they are not alone and that their ancestors are proud.

I cannot help but think of the children from residential institutions, of Phyllis Jack Webstad and her orange shirt. There is a saying that bears repeating: They tried to bury them, but didn’t know they were seeds. In so many ways indigenous youth in particular are changing history. They are shaking off colonial expectations and imposed practices and beliefs, and they are redefining who they are and how the world sees them. It is moving to say the least, and I am so excited to see the Canada they create for us all.

We know there are still challenges in Canada today that require our attention and bridges that still need building. We need to try every avenue to support indigenous women, girls and two-spirited peoples, including through expression, art and social enterprise.

What we learned from the story of Isabella Kulak is that not everyone has learned the true history of our relationship, the significance of respecting the first peoples of the land, or even that they are still here. As a former educator, I know that education is the antithesis of ignorance. Anti-racism is rooted in education, and it has real tangible results. Keep learning, Canada. Keep listening. Keep opening our hearts and our minds to new understandings, even if they make us uncomfortable. This learning is not about guilt; it is about action.

Let me take this opportunity to remind this House of the findings of the Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples, of the Truth and Reconciliation Commission’s report, the 94 recommendations of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, and more locally in each of our provinces and territories, child and youth advocate findings on indigenous child welfare. There are still serious gaps in key outcomes that we can close with concerted effort, investment and education. There have been dark times, but I am optimistic more so than ever that the tides have turned. There is political will. There is co-operation. There is hope.

Ribbon skirts may not seem like revolutionary tools, but I believe they are. Today’s ribbon skirts are as much about modern indigenous culture as they are about tradition. As the world has moved forward and evolved, so too have the diverse indigenous nations across the country. Today we see so many living up to the words of Lee Maracle: “Find freedom in the context you inherit”.

Ribbon skirts represent freedom, living out loud and being proud of who we are. These are realities we can all get behind.

In Canada, the first step to knowing ourselves and our communities is knowing where our traditions come from and how we relate to others through those traditions. Kaija Heitland, a Métis woman who belongs to the Cowichan Valley Métis community, started the project Indigenous Nouveau to facilitate a greater visibility for her community and the Métis to showcase the unique beadwork and quillwork patterns, arts, culture and history.

She describes the history of ribbon skirts as follows: The history of the ribbon skirt comes down to us through many cross-cultural interactions, and so many different interpretations and expressions exist. Many first nations and indigenous groups across Turtle Island have a strong tradition in this iconic piece of clothing, and all have their own stories and protocol surrounding them. What we know today as the modern ribbon skirt is a collaboration. Ribbon skirts are a symbol of resilience, survival and identity, but their meaning changes with each person who wears one and each person who shares their story. For indigenous peoples, the ribbon skirt represents personal reclamation. It represents reclaiming identity and wearing that identity proudly. It is a cultural protection against assimilation and degradation. It is a reminder of the various roles of the community as women and as members. It reminds us of the sacredness of women and the power in that. It tells the story of adaptation and survival.

Women have always been the ones who nurture us through difficult times, through bad dreams and storms. Women are the ones revitalizing the language and culture through education, resuming child and family jurisdiction and winning legal battles. These are women like Cindy Blackstock, Patricia Bernard and Lisa Perley-Dutcher. Women are the ones leading us through decolonization and reparation. They are whom I want to honour today, and they are whom this bill lifts up and seeks to celebrate by encouraging understanding and collective action.

On November 30, 2021, Senator McCallum delivered a powerful speech in the Senate regarding Bill S-219. She thanked Chief George Cote of the Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan, as well as Isabella and her family. Senator McCallum read a letter written to her by the chief describing what the bill means to the community. The letter states:

On behalf of Cote First Nation, we are honored to have January 4th as National Ribbon Skirt Day across our great Nation. Bella Kulak has demonstrated the importance of sharing our culture to other nations. Our First Nations, Metis, Inuit women are a symbol of life givers and their resilience in looking after the home fires is our strength to move forward. We thank Senator McCallum for bringing forward such a recognition and encourage all Parliamentarians to offer their support for this bill in the year of Truth and Reconciliation. Meegwetch from the Saulteaux First Nations of Treaty 4 Territory.

In the words of Senator McCallum:

[T]his bill aims to provide social justice for Bella and other young Indigenous youth who must struggle against racism, colonialism and gender violence in their day-to-day lives. By keeping this request for a national day of recognition situated within a framework generated from and led by the Cote reserve, it ensures that the families’ and communities’ tradition and intergenerational knowledge is secure while they’re navigating modern Indigenous struggles. This also helps to resist the colonial images of Indigenous women, girls and transgender peoples.

She went on to say:

[A]cts of resistance inform the Indigenous struggle for self-determination. Although Bella might have been unaware of her activism, she has already committed to actions that were anticolonial and focused on the goals of transformation and liberation—free to express her cultural heritage and make people worldwide aware that she’s helping to transform the colonial picture of Indigenous youth….

Her act of resistance and education is medicine for her and other youth, and allows them to practise from a safe space.

Isabella’s parents also wrote to Senator McCallum to express what this bill and the discussion around it means to them. They said:

Our hope in all of this is that all Canadians see the relevance of what has occurred, and that this forever define what is truly unacceptable in our public institutions and our society as a whole. We as a family feel a great sense of responsibility to all Canadians, both Indigenous and non-Indigenous, to create a safe space and a dialogue that will continue on in a mutual respect between nations that lasts for generations. The creation and discussion around Bill S-219 has brought hope that these discussions lead to a greater sense of pride for all our country’s Indigenous peoples, and foremost a greater sense of urgency as it pertains to the reconciliation process and the decolonization of Canada.

It should come as no surprise that Christopher and Lana Kulak refer to their daughter Bella as “Bella the Brave”.
To all the children out there like Isabella who might ever have been made to feel less than or unappreciated, I want them to feel respected, seen and loved by Canada on January 4 or any other day of the year and for ribbon skirts to be recognized and acknowledged for the symbol of power that they are. This bill would give us an opportunity to celebrate and stand with indigenous women, girls and gender-diverse people and their beautiful ribbon skirts. Every child deserves joy. Every child matters.
I invite all members to support Isabella and all the little ones with this initiative, so that we encourage them to grow up and be their true selves and happy and proud of who they are. We still have a lot of work to do to fight against these injustices and the many impacts of our systems that were built on racism and bias. Today, I invite hon. colleagues to take another meaningful step toward building a future where all nations across Canada are celebrated.
Madam Speaker, it is amazing to make those personal connections in each of our ridings across this country. It speaks to the work of reconciliation. It is complicated and far-reaching. It is going to take more than the federal government, our provincial and territorial governments. It is going to take every one of us to do the work that needs to be done on an individual basis. What I wanted to address as well is that responsibility.
Sometimes when we hear these stories, those painful stories of a little girl being ashamed to be who she is, we do feel that guilt, but again I want to impress upon my colleagues it is about action. We should turn that feeling into action and know we have that agency and will to make a difference in our home communities.
Madam Speaker, the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women is another example of our very complicated history, of the multi-faceted nature of reconciliation, and that is why I feel this bill is so important. It holds up indigenous women, girls and two-spirited peoples in such a positive way. It is about celebration, and that has its own role in addressing the issue of missing and murdered indigenous women.

I have been a bit frustrated by the pace we are taking as far as addressing these injustices is concerned, but again it goes back to our individual ridings. I have seen incredible support by local communities. Fredericton had an incredible funding opportunity with our local friendship centre. Monoqonuwick is going to be a new space for women to feel safe and to receive programming on intimate partner violence. There is also social enterprise there and there will be housing options.
Again, these types of projects are going to have far-reaching impacts that will also help to deal with missing and murdered indigenous women, but I want to see that task force get to the real work as well.
Madam Speaker, I enjoy so much working with my hon. colleague from Nunavut on the Standing Committee on Indigenous and Northern Affairs.
Representation is critical. It is also important to recognize the diversity that exists across the nation. There is often a pan-indigenization that happens with a lot of legislation that comes through this House. I would certainly be open to having those discussions and ensuring it is adequately representing the Inuit community and culture as well. It is certainly something we will look to when the bill comes to committee.