Student art to fuel Drag the Red

A Winnipeg student’s artwork has since been transformed into a design emblazoned on T-shirts, owing to support from his principal.

A two-spirit teenager’s school assignment has spiraled into an advocacy campaign to raise both awareness about MMIWG2S+ (a tragedy he is intimately familiar with) and dollars to support families searching for loved ones.

Last year, when tasked with a project that required Kai Keeper and his peers to explore, investigate and act on injustice, the then-Grade 9 student picked up a paintbrush and dipped it in red.

Kai drew an outline of an Indigenous ikwe, inspired by the women who raised him, obscuring the right side of her face by casting a black shadow over it.

The female portrait is purposefully blurred to symbolize the reality that many stories about missing and murdered Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit people are overlooked, the 15-year-old said as he gestured to a canvas covered in acrylic paint.

“There’s a lot of Indigenous women in my life that I love. My grandma. My mom. My little sister. The thought of any of them going missing or (being) murdered, it just really scares me because it’s so common… Now that I’m older, I’m learning more and more about it,” Kai said.

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“I want to share more, get out the word more — that’s what I was thinking while painting this.”

Kai’s artwork has since been transformed into a design emblazoned on T-shirts, owing to support from his principal at Seven Oaks Met School and Winnipeg-based Red Rebel Armour clothing company.

The special apparel (available for $30 each via the local retailer’s online storefront) officially launched Friday to coincide with Red Dress Day.

Fifty per cent of all profits are going directly to Drag the Red, a grassroots group that organizes searches on Winnipeg’s largest waterway and along its riverbanks. The rest will be split evenly, between the student designer and Indigenous-run company (that employs people who have been previously incarcerated) printing the T-shirts throughout the month.

Kai spent the early years of his life in Little Grand Rapids before his immediate family moved to Winnipeg about five years ago. The Ojibwa student said conversations about MMIWG2S+ were normalized for him as a child because incidents happened so frequently between his community and neighbouring First Nations.

The Keepers continue to grieve the death of one of Kai’s aunts, who died several years ago after being struck by a driver who fled the scene.

The family suspected foul play, but police indicated there was not enough evidence to investigate the matter further, Kai recalled.

“This happens all the time. Our stories aren’t taken seriously, there’s no action being done to help us find our loved ones or find out what happened to them, and it makes me angry and upset because we’re people, too,” the teen said, adding he hopes sharing his experience makes others feel less alone.

This week marks four years since a national inquiry released 231 calls for justice to protect Indigenous women, girls and two-spirit Canadians in a report that defined the current situation as an ongoing “gender-based genocide.”

MMIWG2S+ activist Bernadette Smith said this youth-led initiative makes her feel hopeful for the future, because it calls upon all Winnipeggers, Manitobans and Canadians to get involved.

There was limited public awareness and virtually no support for families searching for justice and answers about their loved ones’ disappearances when her sister, Claudette Osborne-Tyo, went missing in 2008, said the NDP MLA for Point Douglas.

Smith’s experience prompted her to create Drag the Red, which is gearing up to begin its ninth year of search operations — powered by hundreds of volunteers and donations for fuel, equipment and training — in early June.

The searches not only offer families support and yield evidence of crimes, but they also serve as a preventative measure, the founder said. Smith added: “We want people to know that there’s people that are actively searching, whether it’s on the banks (or in the water).”

Red Rebel Armour is anticipated to complete two T-shirt print runs in support of Drag the Red on May 15 and 30, respectively. T-shirts can be shipped or picked up at Seven Oaks Met School (640 Jefferson Ave.).

This story was originally published in The Free PressIt is republished under a Creative Commons license as part of the Local Journalism Initiative.

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