[ SkipToMainMenu ]

Bill S-219 - An Act respecting a National Ribbon Skirt Day - Third Reading

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to third reading of Bill S-219.

I would first like to thank my honourable colleagues for their support in having this bill sent to committee. In doing so, you helped to facilitate and hold space for youth.

This case concerns a young First Nations girl named Isabella Kulak. We hold space for her and, in doing so, we also hold space for other youth. This is so for two reasons: The first is to explore and understand why that violence occurred. The second is to focus on Isabella’s responses, of which there were two: Shame initially, followed by a swift movement toward peace and conciliation.

I would like to begin my remarks today by explaining why I say that a violent act was committed. The gender violence committed was, and continues to be, transmitted through to future generations.

In her PhD entitled A Feminist Poststructural Analysis of Aboriginal Women’s Positioning in a Colonial Context: Nehinaw Iskwewak E-pikiskwecik, or “Cree women’s speak,” author Dr. Marlene Elizabeth McKay stated:

This group of women was interviewed to give them an opportunity to share how they see their lives being produced for them. Aboriginal women’s marginalization has become normalized through the systems, practices, and institutions that have materialized through the Indian Act, Christianity, Indigenous knowledges, and colonial relations with non‑Aboriginal society. Discursive practices located in these structures establish and maintain ideas of how and who these women are supposed to be. How these women are positioned is largely a product of our Canadian colonial history.

The work of Michel Foucault informed this research. Foucault’s rules and norms served as a lens to demonstrate how Aboriginal women are produced as unimportant and inferior. The notion of rules and norms is a social production that requires effort, and in this way these rules and norms are continuously being reproduced.

This socialization is learned and reproduced and therefore, appears normal and natural. . . .

. . . the outright daily racism that is imposed on them as a result of the social production that they do not matter, are unimportant, or are disposable. . . .

The discourse of the “dirty squaw” has become a dominant marker of Aboriginal women’s identities.

Honourable senators, this is the reality that we are born into as Indigenous girls. We are marked even before we are born. Young Indigenous girls have to overcome the perception of the dehumanized Aboriginal woman as a dirty squaw. Intergenerational trauma experienced by First Nations girls and women is unique and it is violent.

I know this first hand, because I have had to deal with it all my life and continue to face it to this day.

As Dr. McKay states:

The political implications of producing the Aboriginal subject as subordinate have been immense, leaving Aboriginal people with the task of undoing the damage done by colonialism.

That is why Isabella’s response is remarkable and points to the progress made by her parents, elders and the community. Women have continuously resisted oppressive systems to work toward a better future for themselves and their children. It speaks to the unrelenting power and spirit of First Nations women.

Colleagues, holding spaces is a concept that has been long practised and modelled by my people. For generations, holding spaces allowed children to learn from the land and nature with the ability to do so with fluidity, safety and purpose. It allowed children to learn traditions and life skills through land-based teachings and to learn collective laws.

Some of these teachings from Elder D’Arcy Linklater include the following: wakotowin, or social capital; Nehetho Tipethimisowin, the exercise of sovereignty, belonging to yourself and the responsibility of decision-making roles that come with this exercise; and Kistethichikewin, the idea that the conduct of a person must be based on the sacred responsibility to treat all things with respect and honour.

I was taught by my elders, in the past and today, to be intentional about the conversation brought forward in these spaces. I have also been taught to encourage the asking of big questions and to sit with brokenness and discomfort, but also with joy and resolution. I would like you to join me and do the same as we create space for youth through this bill to give them voice at the national stage.

Honourable senators, Donald Winnicott is quoted in author Heather Plett’s book The Art of Holding Space: A Practice of Love, Liberation, and Leadership where he states:

. . . “holding” is what teachers and parents do when they create safe and supportive environments for children to learn while not jeopardizing the autonomy and individuality of those children.

Colleagues, while holding space was developed in a teaching and home environment, we, as senators, also have a vital role to play in bringing the voices of the marginalized to Parliament. This is, at times, a complex and difficult proposition. We are part of a public institution that is currently holding space to spotlight deep-rooted prejudice and racism. As a Senate whose role is, in part, to speak for the marginalized, we need to look at ways of addressing and challenging the ongoing victimization of women and girls in a timely and responsible manner.

Honourable senators, I would now like to bring forward a matter that was raised during this bill’s study at the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples. Specifically, it was brought forward that the ribbon skirt is not regalia common to all First Nations, Métis, Inuit and non-status women and girls, as well as the LGBTQ community across Canada.

I would like to address this issue by saying that we must remember the focus of the bill, that being to highlight, then combat, gender violence while also promoting reconciliation and familiarity with Indigenous culture and tradition. It was never the goal of Bill S-219 to try to accommodate all of the various regalia worn across the country. That would be an impossible task. Attempting to do so would fundamentally alter the bill and detract from its initial intents: to understand the impact of violence against Indigenous women and girls, to celebrate the family’s subsequent actions toward inclusion and to facilitate dialogue between Indigenous and non-indigenous citizens of Canada to encourage small and large acts of reconciliation and relationship building.

I would like to stress that I am not trying to convey the message that the ribbon skirt is pan-Canadian regalia. Conversely, it would be encouraged for other Indigenous nations, communities and groups to use January 4 as a day to bring forward their own forms of dress and regalia and to educate Canadians on their origins, use and importance.

This is what happened this past January 4, 2022, when Isabella Kulak was joined by a young Ukrainian schoolmate who also modelled her country’s own regalia. What better way to demonstrate reconciliation? Isabella and her family helped to create space and mentorship to allow other youth to do the same. We cannot stand by and fail to support her and other youth in their journey toward self-determination, which this bill aims to do.

Isabella is facing her and other Indigenous girls’ difficult history of colonialism, and in doing so, she is writing a different ending. She is entering a different world, one I could never have imagined was possible when I was her age. Isabella’s individual right to self-determination was supported by the collective determination that is the leadership, family and community that rallied around her and helped to turn a contentious issue into a positive movement. They embraced this issue and have used it as a tool for teaching and connecting with the surrounding non-Indigenous community.

Moreover, it should be remembered that culture is dynamic across Canada and throughout the world. It is not stagnant. We were made aware by Senator LaBoucane-Benson that First Nations adopted the scarf as part of the regalia from the Ukrainian community. People, for generations, have embraced and celebrated other cultures as will continue to happen.

Said to have its roots in the 18th century, the symbol of womanhood tells a story of adaptation and survival – showing that tribal communities have adopted western culture and made it their own.

Several museums report the materials used to make ribbon skirts aren’t Indigenous in origin, “but the method of applique done to create the folded look of the ribbon has become a visual marker of identity for centuries.”

Honourable senators, there are many intersectionalities that exist with the regalia of ribbon skirts. Race and gender are closely connected to self-care and self-determination. It is critical to understand that the liberation of oppressed peoples begins with the critical understanding of how they are oppressed.

In her 2012 article entitled “Self-Determination and Indigenous Women’s Rights at the Intersection of International Human Rights,” author Rauna Kuokkanen states:

Self-determination (both individual and collective) and gendered violence are among the most important and pressing issues for indigenous women worldwide.

She further contends that for Indigenous self-determination to be successful, it must also “address the question of violence against Indigenous women” and girls.

This violence hasn’t been addressed in Canada but continues to infiltrate into the lives of our women and, of greater consequence, our youth. Left unaddressed, this violence will continue to impact negatively and cumulatively on the future of their civil, political and cultural rights.

Colleagues, violence is a health issue. Health is a basic human right and is an enabling right that, when respected, allows for the fulfillment of other human rights, including self-determination.

In her 2016 article entitled, “Red Intersectionality and Violence-informed Witnessing Praxis with Indigenous Girls,” author Natalie Clark states:

. . . I have joined the voices of other Indigenous scholars . . . in calling for a more complex understanding of policy and programming as it affects Indigenous girls. Carolyn Kenny describes the impact of what she calls the “double bind” . . . in the lives of Indigenous women and girls of being silenced in key decisions and policies that have an impact on their lives while, at the same time, their participation is essential to social change, leadership, and healing in their communities.

Honourable senators, Isabella Kulak made a “key decision” to wear her ribbon skirt and that is an act of self-care. Being silenced in this “key decision,” made in her private life, had the potential to lead to being silenced in public and political life. We have witnessed the silencing of Indigenous voices on issues that impact health and self-determination in our own committees. We must not continue to be complicit, as silencing will eventually filter to the intergenerational group.

Author Natalie Clark continues:

Furthermore, any social justice action or outcomes must be situated within a framework that holds onto tradition and intergenerational knowledge while making meaning of modern Indigenous struggles. . . .

To this point, the solutions that Chief and Council of Cote First Nation — Isabella’s home community — devised were rooted in the community and in their traditions. This was affirmed in Chief Cote’s committee testimony wherein he said the community’s hope is to:

. . . teach non-First Nations the identity of the Anishinaabe people in our territory and also learn about the other cultures that our young First Nations students are going to meet when they go to the non-First Nations schools.

In this way, Cote First Nation is already modelling what this bill seeks to accomplish — valuing and practising tolerance, acceptance and understanding of cultures and traditions that are different from your own.

Colleagues, author Natalie Clark also speaks about violence and safety as it relates to Indigenous girls, writing:

Community-based approaches, such as models of . . . ceremonies, are important since they provide spaces in which girls can be seen in the circle, and because they allow us to understand their experiences of violence, as well as naming and situating their resistance to such experiences. . . .

The author continues:

. . . the so-called trauma industry has continued a colonial legacy of labeling and pathologizing Indigenous girls that manages their behavior through criminalization, medication, and talk therapy programs which ultimately serve “to reinforce a sense of powerlessness and undermine women’s ability to resist”.

Honourable senators, I cannot help but wonder if Isabella and her family had not dealt with the shame she felt, could it have been internalized as a festering wound that would have resulted in the need for medication and counselling in the years to come? It might seem a small incident to some, but I will tell you that the cumulative impacts of racism and violence from a young age do lead to soul wounding. Such disproportionate impacts have the capability of having long-term and far-reaching consequences if not addressed.

In Isabella’s situation, her family and community were proactive, which deserves acknowledgment and celebration. At the same time, we also need to highlight and bring the perspective of the youth who are less supported because they have fewer resources. Bill S-219 provides an opportunity to promote gender equality and a more inclusive society, with women and girls at the centre of this effort. The earlier that girls and boys understand equity, equality and inclusiveness, the better for their future as well as the future of Canada.

Colleagues, inequity is one of the most pervasive problems in Canadian society. Inequity has a multitude of causes with the result that it creates differences in access to schooling, health, opportunity, food, water, housing, geography, self-determination and quality of life. Equity is very important in understanding and practising self-care and self-determination.

These inequities do not occur naturally. They are the result of laws and policies that do not consider equality and equity. When youth find little meaning in social policies, they tend to disengage from the system. If we do not act accordingly to address this serious issue that affects youth throughout Canada, our systems will be doomed to continue to reproduce social and economic inequity, further disenfranchising large segments of Canada’s youth population.

Society is used to seeing and hearing about the Indigenous youth who suffer the most inequity, that is, they have few or no resources or supports to be able to think and act positively, let alone to do what Isabella did. These youth have undergone and continue to undergo a different history and hence a different trajectory in their lives.

There have been countless reports on Indigenous youth, whether they focus on children in care or in juvenile centres. There have been many reports, inquiries and commissions on Indigenous women — reports that were built on their bodies. While these reports have had varying degrees of publicity, whatever knowledge and awareness they have raised have not resulted in timely, meaningful policy reform. Moreover, the subject of juvenile justice for these Indigenous youth has largely gone ignored. Such inaction positions Indigenous youth, including Indigenous girls, in a severe deficit. All the while, our laws and policies refuse to address the root cause, namely the legacy of colonial structures, whether they be legal or otherwise.

Honourable senators, history tells us that Indigenous peoples needed to be tamed from their savage ways. This was accomplished by Christian missionaries who blatantly refused to accept the legitimacy of Indian culture and religion. As a child going into residential school, for the 11 years I was there, all our clothing and property were removed when we entered on our first day. We were given clothing that would take away our uniqueness. We were all dressed the same with the same bowl haircut. We were forced to adopt a foreign language. We were meant to see ourselves as invisible, with no history, no culture, no traditions.

Something as simple as removing your right to dress in a way that expresses and celebrates yourself does have lasting impacts. It starts that road towards dependence, blind obedience, shame and learned helplessness. In reality, government and religious organizations took children with rich culture and unilaterally created impoverished cultures.

Colleagues, this bill celebrates the resistance to violence and the promotion of peace in its stead. Within the December 2020 news article “’It’s like armour’: A look at the resurgence of ribbon skirts” by Kathleen Martens, Ms. Isabella Kulak states:

I didn’t want it to turn into ugly hate for the (educational assistant). She’s a person. Maybe she made mistakes with what she said. I’m sure she regrets it.

Isabella’s father said his family was invited to help improve the education-system knowledge of First Nations issues, including clothing.

In the same article, Helene Cote of Kamsack states:

As an educator I know the importance of accepting students for who they are. . . Empowering students and building confidence is what molds successful students.

Grandmother Ketchemonia-Cote said, “What happened shouldn’t have happened. But let’s see something good come of it.”

Colleagues, I have spoken to many people and heard of their initiatives directed at the ribbon skirt and in support of Isabella. Some of these include ribbon skirt classes held at a Turtle Island business where they teach six women at a time the wisdom behind the ribbon skirts; ribbon skirts being made for choir members and the choir mistress for an upcoming arts festival this spring in Prince Albert, Saskatchewan; and ribbon skirts for a bride and her grandchildren; and a Canadian university’s Indigenous people’s centre initiated by women will look at this bill and discuss the spiritual components of the ribbon skirt.

Honourable senators, holding space for Isabella Kulak and other youth has been a multi-layered endeavour for me. All who spoke, commented on or questioned Bill S-219 inside and outside of the Senate added a layer to the collective understanding of the impacts Canadian history has had on Indigenous youth. In doing so, we thereby develop compassion and move towards reconciliation and conciliation. These conversations added contour, depth, colour and clarity to this issue through both second reading and committee study as well as through the debate and vote yet to come.

I would like to close by reiterating that the goal of Bill S-219 is to bring people together and not to divide. The bill names the ribbon skirt because that was the regalia used as a conduit of violence against young Ms. Kulak and by extension against all Indigenous women and girls who proudly wear and honour their own cultural dress. The intent now is to use this one moment of prejudice, racism and discrimination as a springboard from which we can encourage understanding, respect and reconciliation. We thank Isabella, her family, the leadership and community for their strength and determination to turn this challenge into a positive experience.

Kinanâskomitin. Thank you.

Back to: Speeches