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

Honourable senators, I am speaking today at third reading of Bill S-219, an Act Respecting a National Ribbon Skirt Day.

I am going to begin by describing the origins of the ribbon skirt, which is the subject of the bill. The ribbon skirt appears to date back to the 18th century when relationships between Great Lake tribes and French settlers expanded. The practice of incorporating ribbons into Indigenous clothing seems to have become widespread after silk fell out of fashion following the French Revolution. At that time, more goods, including ribbons, were exchanged. Indigenous clothing makers in the Great Lakes and Prairie regions began to use the colourful silk ribbons in their work.

However, there is evidence that ribbons were used in Indigenous art work much earlier. In the east, 17th century Mi’kmaq women began replacing hides and furs that made up their clothing with cloth that they occasionally decorated with glass beads and silk ribbon appliqué.

According to the Milwaukee Public Museum:

The first recorded instance of ribbonwork appliqué was on a Menominee wedding dress made in 1802. Ribbonwork reached its peak in the last quarter of the 19th century, having moved out from its epicenter in the Great Lakes to several tribes in the Prairies, Plains, and Northeast.

Although the materials used to make ribbon skirts are not native in origin, the method of appliqué used to make the folded look of the ribbon has become a visual marker of identity for centuries.

Senator McCallum, in testifying at the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples, referred to a Métis elder who spoke about the significance of the shape of the skirt:

She says it’s like a teepee you wear as you’re walking, because it tapers at your waist. As you’re walking over the earth and wearing the skirt, it signifies protecting the Earth and connecting with her at the same time. It’s those kinds of teachings people will seek out as they move towards this conversation about the origin of the ribbon skirt.

It is important to recognize that the ribbon skirt holds a great significance to Indigenous communities and to the women who wear them. The ribbon skirt represents strength, resilience, cultural identity and womanhood. That background is necessary to understand the significance of an incident that occurred in Saskatchewan on December 18, 2020. While you have heard the story a number of times previously — and in addition to Senator Hartling a few minutes ago — it’s a story of inspiration that deserves retelling.

It is the story of Isabella Kulak, a 10-year-old First Nation’s girl from the Cote First Nation in Saskatchewan. On December 18, 2020, Isabella’s school sponsored a formal day. Isabella proudly wore a traditional ribbon skirt. Unfortunately, Isabella was shamed by an educational assistant who was unaware of the significance of the ribbon skirt. Sadly, Isabella removed her ribbon skirt, placing it in her backpack. When she returned home, she told her parents what had happened.

As details of the incident became known, Isabella received support from her community and from around the world. As Isabella said at the Aboriginal People’s Committee: “It’s like the world woke up.”

The following month, on January 4, 2021, Isabella returned to her school for the first time since the incident, accompanied by her nation’s leadership and many women in her community, all of whom walked her to school wearing their own ribbon skirts, hence the significance of establishing January 4 as national ribbon skirt day.

On January 4, 2022, Isabella’s school celebrated their first Ribbon Skirt Day as an act of reconciliation and education, and encouraged other students from other nationalities to wear something that represented who they are. As Isabella said, “It turned out to be the best day ever.”

Last month on March 21, the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples met to study Bill S-219, an Act Respecting a National Ribbon Skirt Day. Bill S-219 conveys to us the importance of ribbon skirts, educates us and provides us with the opportunity to learn more about Indigenous cultures and heritage.

Lisa J. Smith, a senior director at the Native Women’s Association of Canada, said during a committee meeting studying the bill that:

Indigenous culture must be celebrated in the way that Isabella demonstrated. . . . there are currently no federally recognized days of celebration of Indigenous culture during winter. NWAC submits that recognizing January 4 as national ribbon skirt day will be a welcome means to advance reconciliation.

. . . this is truth and reconciliation in action. . . .

As Senator McCallum said during her testimony at a committee meeting:

. . . having January 4 of each year set aside to recognize the ribbon skirt is fundamentally both an action of reconciliation and conciliation. It not only upholds and honours a highly important cultural item for many Indigenous people in Canada but simultaneously acknowledges and values our self-determination.

Before I conclude, I would like to reference the Pope’s historic apology of April 1, which received much media coverage. There were a number of videos on media sites showing women wearing ribbon skirts, while another site had a photo gallery that also included photos of women wearing ribbon skirts. I would not have recognized the ribbon skirt had it not been for this bill.

Bill S-219 proposes to establish January 4 as national ribbon skirt day. I encourage my colleagues to support the bill.

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