Sudbury book captures national tragedy and grief

·6 min read

The process of co-editing his new book with Elder Joyce Dillen was “painful, no matter how you look at it,” according to Michael Hankard.

A group of 13 authors dug deep into personal histories and unraveled old wounds to bring to light the stories of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and the families they left behind.

“One of the stories is about Anna Mae Aquash, the Mi’kmaq woman who was killed back in the 70s during her involvement with the American Indian Movement,” said Hankard, who is an assistant professor in the Department of Indigenous Studies at the University of Sudbury.

“The author delves into that whole story: what happened behind it, and what she found out about the people that actually did it, and how painful that was to the family.”

Hankard was also forced to come to terms with his own past, recalling stories about how his mother was nearly abducted as a young Indigenous woman in the city.

He had to think about how this issue has played out in his own life and how it has affected Indigenous communities for generations.

“Red Dresses on Bare Trees: Stories and Reflections on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls,” published by JCharlton Publishing in 2021, was launched virtually by Hankard and Dillen this week.

In an emotional Zoom call, the editors welcomed a circle of family, friends, and colleagues who shared not only in the joy of the accomplishment, but also in the grief of what it represents.

Included in the book are nine chapters written by both men and women and Indigenous and non-Indigenous authors that reflect upon the painful subject of colonialism and gendered violence and offer possible solutions that could lead to healing and reconciliation.

The book incorporates Indigenous knowledge principles about relationships and love and “seeks to bring balance to our collective, equally important and unique, roles and responsibilities.”

In Hankard’s own words, it was not an easy book to write.

“About six months before the 231 recommendations from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls were released in June, my publisher got in touch with me and we started having a discussion about putting together these stories,” said Hankard.

“As soon as I heard it, I said yes. This is really important, and we need to spread awareness and begin raising the profile of the discussions that are happening. We need to help anywhere and anyhow that we can.”

Hankard jumped on board and immediately began speaking to women elders, including Elder Joyce Dillen from Serpent River First Nation, who agreed to co-edit the book.

She set up a meeting with the Ngookimisnaanuk Grandmothers Council against Human Trafficking and both Dillen and Hankard traveled to Sault Ste. Marie to explore whether it was a worthwhile project to pursue.

Hankard, who lives in Serpent River First Nation and is a co-investigator on Indigenous homelessness through Laurentian University’s Social Justice and Policy project, said he had some reservations in the beginning.

“There was one female professor, an Anishinabe-kwe, at Laurentian who criticized me because she said I don’t think this is a project that a man should be taking on, it should be done by an Indigenous woman,” he said.

“But in the traditional teachings, men and women work together. You can’t have one half; you need the whole. When you sit in the teepee during ceremony, the women sit on one side and the men sit on the other. It’s all about balance.”

With the Grandmothers’ consent, Hankard left the meeting in Sault Ste. Marie to go home and start thinking about the project and how he would put it together.

“I can’t really say that I organized it according to a predetermined research outline or methodology or anything like that,” he said.

“My own background is rooted in traditional teachings. There’s a story that my mentor Elder Michael Thrasher told me years ago, and it’s about a bag of darts that he releases into the air and he allows the winds of Creation to organize them and determine how things are going to play out.”

Hankard said that he uses this approach when undertaking projects like these because if he tries to take control of it and push it in a certain direction, things tend not to work out.

“If I let those things work themselves out, everything seems to come together,” he said.

Hankard and Dillen brought together a group of authors who contributed essays to the book.

Each chapter offers a variety of perspectives on different issues that impact Indigenous women and girls, including colonization, reconciliation, genocide, and policing and homelessness.

The title is borrowed from the Red Dress campaign, created by artist Jaime Black, which seeks to raise awareness about missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.

“My chapter highlights the continuous inter-generational trauma that has impacted Indigenous women and girls since colonialism arrived across many countries, including Canada,” said Taima Moeke-Pickering, who fought back tears during the book launch.

Moeke-Pickering is a Maori woman of the Ngati Pukeko and Tuhoe tribes from New Zealand and an associate professor in the School of Indigenous Relations at Laurentian University.

“I chose to center my chapter on my ancestor Mere Hiki during a period of New Zealand’s horrific dissemination of Maori peoples during the 1860s,” she said.

“I wrote that she would have mended the wounds of her people from the wars. She would have gone into hiding, feared for her safety, stood in solidarity and defiance, and wept for her peoples. And yet, today, we are still doing the same.”

During the book launch, Dillen congratulated everyone on their contributions and thanked them for sharing their stories.

“I am very honoured to be named on the book, and I am very honoured for the work that Mike does,” she said.

“This is so important to our young people and our young women. I have worked tirelessly for many, many years to pick our women up off the ground, put them in the places where they need to be, in a good positive way, and I will continue to do that work whenever it’s necessary.”

“Red Dresses on Bare Trees: Stories and Reflections on Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls” is now available.

For order information, visit

The Local Journalism Initiative is made possible through funding from the federal government.

Twitter: @SudburyStar

Colleen Romaniuk, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Sudbury Star