An online fitness challenge is getting a thumb’s up from participants, encouraging them to “hold in their hearts and minds” missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG).
Tsow-Tun Le Lum, a trauma and substance treatment centre in Lantzville, came up with the idea of a daily fitness challenge, a motivational approach to develop awareness and prevention of violence.
MMIWG Red Dress Awareness 60X60 training has participants walking, running, cycling or paddling into shape, 60 minutes a day for 60 days leading up to May 5, a national day of awareness for MMIWG also known as Red Dress Day.
The society issued the challenge March 5 on its Facebook page, not expecting to trigger a sudden groundswell.
“We were shocked at the response,” said Nola Jeffrey, executive director of the centre. So far, more than 1,300 have signed onto the challenge. “We got flooded with entries,” Jeffrey said. We couldn’t even keep up.”
People across the Island and beyond have responded with commitments, some posting the precise details of daily workouts. Some exercise on their own, others with close family members, keeping within pandemic social bubbles.
“This is only for Canada?” asks one commenter on the Tsow-Tun Le Lum web page. “And can children participate?”
The challenge extends far beyond the usual physical and mental hurdles of building strength and stamina, drawing inspiration from a higher sense of social and spiritual purpose.
“What I encourage people to do is to have that intention of holding missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls in their minds, to hold them in their hearts,” said Jeffrey, who has also taken up the challenge.
“The 60X60 challenge is just something to help people get started, to motivate them,”
said Leisa Hassell, a Tseshaht woman training with her sister, Anika Jensen, 12.
“She’s one of my biggest incentives,” Hassell said.
Several of her friends are doing the same. Using social media, they’ve been encouraging others to join in. Each community has its share of 60X60 participants.
“It’s exciting for me and my sister,” Hassell said. “Getting family on board is pretty exciting, too.”
The challenge inspired her partly because it speaks to a traditional source of strength and guidance, the power of traditional prayer, Hassell said.
“This is something I have been focused on. People are grieving out there, and using our cultural traditions is powerful, especially in your own language,” she added. “Prayer is the most powerful tool you can use.”
Tsow-Tun Le Lum (Helping House) has operated a trauma and substance abuse centre overlooking Nanoose Bay for the past 34 years, serving Aboriginal, Metis and Inuit. Not long after the centre opened as an alcohol addiction treatment facility, emphasis shifted to address underlying causes of addiction among its clients, principally residential school experiences, Jeffrey explained. As the residential school settlement developed, the centre began a residential health support workers (RHSW) program, assisting residential school survivors and families through the hearing process.
“We also had a huge cultural support team and we kept team on (after the settlement) and went around to the Truth and Reconciliation Commission hearings,” Jeffrey explained
In 2013, when First Nations Health Authority assumed responsibility for Indigenous health from Health Canada, it was clear to people in B.C.’s Indigenous health services community that much work had to be done, Jeffrey said. Tsow-Tun Le Lum hired a support worker dedicated to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
From the outset of the COVID-19 pandemic, the centre was enlisted to provide cultural support in addition to regular services. Despite a busy schedule, Jeffrey has personally kept pace with the challenge. She hopes others will join in the effort to honour missing and murdered women and girls as well as their families: “I’m sending them love, I’m sending them peace. I’m sending them good energy, even if they are in the spirit world.
“It’s not just for the ones taken; it’s for the ones who may be taken,” she added.
Women of all backgrounds — as well as men and boys — are subject to violence, yet the risk is much greater, about 12 times higher for Indigenous females, Jeffrey stressed.
“We have a target on our backs already,” she said. “There’s a reality I have to teach my grandchildren about.”
That is the galvanizing challenge behind Red Dress awareness: How best to prepare and safeguard a younger generation. As they train together, Hassell is teaching her young sister, a Haahuupayuk School student, to let her know that she’s not alone.
“I’m a person who likes to think in terms of prevention, so when I’m teaching my sister about this kind of movement, I’m teaching her about protection,” Hassell said. “Having family members know where she is, focusing more on preventive measures, mostly being aware of her surroundings. People are creating awareness in all of our communities.”
Red Dress Day originated 10 years ago as The REDress Project, a series of art installations by Metis artist Jaime Black. Black collected 600 red dresses through donations and installed them in public spaces across Canada, indoors and outdoors with the aim of encouraging public dialogue on violence against women and girls. The red dress grew to be a powerful symbol, one of a variety of ways used to build awareness of issues contributing to violence against Indigenous women.
Whether 60X60 participants commit five minutes or 60 is not important. The key message they hope to convey is a universal one, Jeffrey said. She described it as “loomsk,” which means honour and respect in the Tsimshian language of Sm’algyax.
“All of us are human beings,” Jeffrey said. “Every man and woman. We are all indigenous to creation. If we treated each human being with respect and honour, we would never cause harm to one another.”
While there can be no final public gathering to culminate the challenge this May 5, due to pandemic safety precautions, Tsow-Tun Le Lum sees potential in future years.
“Just from the response we’ve gotten, I think it is something that will continue,” Jeffrey said.