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Bill S-227 - National Ribbon Skirt Day Bill - Second Reading

Honourable senators, I rise today to speak to second reading of Bill S-227, which would establish January 4 of each and every year as National Ribbon Skirt Day.

Through this bill, Canadians would have the opportunity to further their understanding and education of Indigenous culture and heritage, specifically the ribbon skirt, which is a symbolic piece of clothing used in Indigenous tradition.

I want to thank Chief George Cote of the Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan, as well as Isabella Kulak and her family for their strength and determination to be strong in who they are and their ways of being and knowing.

Colleagues, this bill represents an initiative that is very meaningful to many Indigenous people and communities across the country. Chief Cote of Cote First Nation, the home of Isabella Kulak, shared this statement with my office:

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.

Honourable senators, I would now like to read a statement that was sent to my office by Isabella Kulak herself, the 10-year-old girl whose bravery and resolve turned an unfortunate incident into a platform for change through understanding and education. Ms. Kulak said:

Dear Senator McCallum —

— and by extension to all the senators —

— 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 honor to my traditional ceremonies and pow wow’s. On December 18th 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 skirt 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 to thank Isabella for taking the time to provide such a profound statement so that her voice can be incorporated as part of the public record. I wanted Isabella to know that I wore my ribbon skirt today in honour of her.

I would also like to thank Chief John Dorion from Kaministikominahiko-skak Cree Nation — KCN — in Saskatchewan who wrote to our office to support the request to establish National Ribbon Skirt Day on January 4.

Colleagues, Bill S-227, while another step down the path to reconciliation, comes in response to an incident that occurred last December. As Chief John Dorion stated:

Just before Christmas in 2020, a school in Kamsack, Saskatchewan was protested because a 10-year-old student [Isabella Kulak] was shamed because she wore her ribbon skirt to school. After the shaming and due to hurt feelings, she went home, she took off her skirt and acted withdrawn. As a result of breaking news on the issue, the 10-year old has received support far and wide receiving skirts arriving from around the world. The young girl went back to school with members of her family wearing ribbon skirts and was drummed into the school. The division’s education director admitted that the incident was a major error and accepted full responsibility for what happened. Since then, the Good Spirit School Division has apologized for what was believed to be racially motivated.

Chief Dorion goes on to say:

Research shows that the ribbon skirt is a symbol of womanhood and it’s reflective of our identity and other Turtle Island Nations. The skirt is also sacred, spiritual and political. It gives strength to our young people and it reminds us that we are not alone and we are connected to our communities and generations of ancestors who are with us at all times.

Colleagues, in the article, “The Ribbon Skirt: Symbol of surviving cultural genocide” by Kelly Anne Smith, she interviews Tala Tootoosis, a Nakota Sioux, Plains Cree and Mohawk woman about her healing journey. Ms. Tootoosis is a social worker, addictions counsellor, motivational speaker, partner, daughter and mother. She states:

We are not submissive. We are not quiet. We are not waiting for our Indian Warrior to come and save us. Or our prince to come and save us. We are waking up. We’re getting up. We are taking care of our kids. We are getting degrees. We’re getting sober. We’re learning to sew, bead, quilt, paint, sing, dance, everything again.

We’re learning to heal. We’re lawyers. We’re doctors. We’re judges. And at the same time, we are women. We are capable of carrying life, creating life, with or without a man. But at the same time remembering the balance. The man has a purpose and we create a balance together.

She continues:

Ribbon skirt teachings are not about a woman learning not to get raped. It’s teaching them to be empowered and that they already are resilient. Women already have power. A woman is protection because she is a woman. And when you have that understanding you learn boundaries.

Tootoosis states that the ribbon skirt is almost a declaration of being a survivor of attempted genocide. She says:

They tried to murder my grandmother. They cut her hair. They tried to beat and rape the language out of her. But she still taught me that it’s okay to wear a skirt. She told me she was so proud of me. She was able to say that from her own lips. That’s resilience. That’s power.

She continues by saying that the power is in the ribbon skirt. She said:

You could be on your first day sober and put on the ribbon skirt and remember you are not what happened to you.

Honourable senators, this 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 family’s and community’s tradition and intergenerational knowledge is secure while they’re navigating modern Indigenous struggles. This bill would help to resist colonial images of Indigenous women, girls and transgender peoples.

The acts of resistance by women, including mothers, aunts, grandmothers, sisters and friends against ongoing violence and colonialism, is very important, as their resistive acts are models for young Indigenous girls. They are acts against cultural genocide. Both her mother and Isabella are no longer willing to leave their spirits at the door, and are ready to take that challenge to a different level; that is by bringing ceremony to everyday living, not only in their home, but taking it to the outside world.

In her paper, Red Intersectionality and Violence-Informed Witnessing Praxis with Indigenous Girls, Natalie Clark quotes Madeline Dion Stout in her powerful memoir of residential school. Within this, she describes how her parents’ resilience is working through her now, and how even her triggers give her life. She said:

Their resilience became mine. It had come from their mothers and fathers and now must spill over to my grandchildren and their grandchildren.

This knowledge transfer of resistance and activism to youth is vital and it’s ongoing.

According to Natalie Clark in her paper, she states:

Zitkala-Sa and other Indigenous feminists remind us again that again in their writing that violence has always been gendered, aged and linked to access to land.

Honourable senators, acts of resistance inform the Indigenous struggle for self-determination. Although Bella might have been unaware of her activism, she was already committed to actions that were anti-colonial and focused on the goals of transformation and liberation, free to express her cultural heritage and make people worldwide aware that she was helping to transform the colonial picture of Indigenous youth.

In the words of Indigenous scholar Linda Tuhwai Smith:

Storytelling, oral histories, the perspectives of Elders and of women have become an integral part of all Indigenous research. Each individual story is powerful. But the point about the stories is not that they simply tell a story, or tell a story simply. These new stories contribute to a collective story in which every Indigenous person has a place.

By doing what she did, Bella’s story is providing space in which girls can be seen in the circle, and allows the world to better understand her experience of violence. Her act of resistance and education is medicine for her and other youth, and allows them to practise from a safe space.

Natalie Clark goes on to say:

 . . . my mother-in-law [and I] . . . were discussing Indigenous girls who are strong, resilient young women in spite of the violence, abuse and ongoing colonial legacy that surrounds them. Together we questioned what made the difference in the girls who managed to navigate the “colonialscape” of adolescence and those who struggled. We both identified that in the health of the girls we knew the key role was played by their connection to culture and language, as well as by their strong female role models, including Elders.

Colleagues, Bella is to be commended for fostering a healthy resistance strategy and activism through wearing her ribbon skirt. I would also like to commend her parents, Chris and Lana Kulak, who have fostered these admirable values, in not only Bella, but in all of their daughters. Chris and Lana Kulak also provided a statement to my office regarding the ordeal that their daughter Bella endured. I would now like to read that statement:

Dear Senator McCallum, it is with great humility and honour that my family makes comment on the events regarding the shaming of my daughter Isabella Susanne Kulak of Cote First Nations Saskatchewan.

It has been a long road for the First Nations people of Canada since the landing of European peoples on our great shores. Much has happened since that has been of great insult and injury to many people in this country of Indigenous descent, and much of it to do with race and interpretation of what it means to be Canadian and Indigenous.

Through the events that led to my daughter receiving national and international attention in regard to her wearing of her sacred traditional attire, her ribbon skirt, to school and her subsequent shaming by her teacher’s aide, we have to come to a great crossroads that all of us as Canadians must recognize and come to terms with together as the great nation we are. We must face down and defeat the mighty enemy we call racism and intolerance. There is no time like the present to evoke change that will ultimately change the course of the history of Canada’s relationship with the people who are the original landlords, the First Nations people across this country.

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 strong 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-227 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.

In the words of the great artist Alex Janvier of my home province of Alberta, a true beacon of hope and perseverance and testament to the resiliency of Indigenous peoples of Canada, “The original landlords have returned to take back control of these lands. The Earth is us and we are the Earth.”

As a residential school survivor and a true warrior in the battle for equality, Alex has shown us through his art what is possible when you never give up even when told that certain things are not possible. He and Bella have shown that anything is in fact possible.

For all the people in this country who have lived through racial intolerance and fought to preserve the inherent rights of Indigenous people, we thank you as a family and as a First Nation. I am proud that my Bella is so supported by so many in this country and around the world, and it is our hope that all of this will evoke the change that is necessary to achieve true respect between nations and between peoples that reside here as Canadians.

‘Bella the Brave’ is how I refer to my daughter, and this has instilled a fiery resolve in all my daughters and my beautiful wife Lana who I love and respect very much. My family has taught me so much about what it means to be a daddy and a husband, and the ribbon skirt with its sacred cultural teachings and spirituality has galvanized us to be true change makers in our community and our country. I thank all of the native and Métis people as well as our Inuit family who fought so hard for so long to preserve and maintain our cultural traditions and identity. Without the sacrifice of our ancestors the Ribbon Skirt may have been lost long ago, and this National Ribbon Skirt Day is not only a testament to “Bella The Brave” but to all the brave warriors who came before her that never cease to amaze us when we read about them and the many obstacles that they faced every day of their lives because they were Indian. Let us always remember this National Ribbon Skirt Day as a true showing of the cultural and spiritual identity that is intertwined in the seams of the garment and the sacred hands that make them!

Kici Meegwetch — A great big thank you,

Christopher & Lana Kulak.

Cote First Nations – Kamsack Saskatchewan Canada.

Honourable senators, sacred stories move us deeply. They change us and they bring us closer together. Two essential elements of sacred stories; that these powerful vehicles tell us about ourselves and in that way transform us, while simultaneously connecting us to other fellow human beings. We are aware that some profound lesson has been imparted. As we continue to search for ways to heal ourselves, each other and Mother Earth, stories and storytelling will continue to flourish.

Colleagues, as listeners and receivers of the sacred story of Isabella Kulak, we in the Senate are essential partners in her resistance against the colonial presentation of Indigenous girls.

This bill, colleagues, is very short and very straightforward. Although being recognized federally, national ribbon skirt day would not be a legal holiday or a non-juridical holiday. To me, this bill is not only a helpful and important initiative of reconciliation, it is also a non-confrontational in its nature, scope and goal. It is my hope that debate on this can be swift and that, ideally, when the time comes, we can reach an agreement to have second and third reading votes occur back to back in the near future, without jeopardizing this bill by sending it to committee where it may face a prohibitive wait time. I will look forward to having the necessary conversations on this possibility in the days ahead.

Honourable senators, I urge all parliamentarians to join me in supporting this bill, as it shows that we collectively support youth through the healthy transitions into adulthood.

. . . we need . . . to offer them support to resist stereotypes and to replace these with strong and affirming messages and images of themselves. This includes naming and challenging negative cultural messages and abuse of power in society.

Thank you.

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