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Prince George advocates say Red Dress Alert System could save Indigenous lives

‘It's something that's going to bring comfort to the families’
Highway of Tears advocate Brenda Wilson-John speaks about the proposed Red Dress Alert System.

Local advocates are in favour of a Red Dress Alert system that would instantly alert the public when an Indigenous person goes missing.

The House of Commons unanimously backed a motion May 2 declaring the deaths and disappearances of Indigenous women and girls a Canada-wide emergency — and calling for funding for a new system that would use cell phone networks to alert the public when Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQ+ people are reported missing.

“What they want to do is to be able to have a very similar alert like the amber alert, which is for children, but to have one for specifically for Indigenous people, our loved ones, so that it can be out there instantly and we don’t have to wait for posters to go up,” explained Brenda Wilson-John, who works as the Highway of Tears co-ordinator, a position hosted by Carrier Sekani Family Services (CSFS).

She has spent her career raising awareness for the murdered and missing along the 724 kilometre length of Highway 16.

Wilson-John’s sister Ramona went missing in 1994 in Smithers and her body was discovered a year later in a wooded area by the Smithers airport but her case is still unsolved.

“That way we can get the names out there and get things happening immediately, rather than waiting a day or two before things start happening,” said Wilson-John.

“It's something that's going to bring comfort to the families and also, I guess to myself, because it's just another tool that we can add. It's been very difficult to bring that awareness sometimes to our communities, to different people, to public places where they need to be.”

Wilson-John said the hope is that the alert would save lives.

“There might be a chance, a split second, where we'll be able to intervene because they’ve seen their picture.”

The motion was introduced by Winnipeg Centre MP Leah Gazan who previously led an effort for the House to recognize the residential school system as a genocide, which it did last fall. 

Statistics show Indigenous women continue to disappear and to be the victims of violence at a higher rate than non-Indigenous women.

Gazan and other advocates have continued pushing for a public alert system that would send a notification to phones, televisions and radios when an Indigenous woman disappears.

A similar system, called the Feather Alert Program, already exists in California after it was introduced through Assembly Bill 1314 and became law in 2022.

“The crisis of murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls has had a devastating impact on families and communities in our region,” said Skeena-Bulkley Valley MP Taylor Bachrach. 

“The Red Dress Alert will be an important tool to ensure when families’ loved ones go missing, they are found as soon as possible.”

Bachrach and Gazan held a virtual event on May 3 with constituents to discuss the push for the government to create a national Red Dress Alert system.

"I'm very pleased today that all members of Parliament are acknowledging the truth about the history in this country, as a way to move forward," said Gazan in response to Parliament adopting the motion.

"It's one thing to acknowledge the truth. It's another thing to act on it. We don't have the privilege to discuss and debate ... Our loved ones are going missing and the government needs to act now."

MPs Bachrach and Gazan said they will continue to push the government to make it a reality.

- with files from the Canadian Press