Actions and Commitments

Call to Action # 41: Justice (25-42)

Consultations begin on Parliament Hill about Red Dress Alert system

March 19, 2024

MP Leah Gazan urges Parliamentarians to move quickly to implement an alert system. 

APTN News: Jennifer Jesty grabs a glass of water and sits down to speak to a House of Commons committee about the Unama’ki Alert System she developed.

“Since its inception, 183 alerts have been run through our system, 67 have been found with 96 per cent of those found are found within an hour of our alert,” Jesty told MPs on the Committee on the Status of Women.

Jesty, who is from Eskasoni First Nation, told MPs that she developed the system for five Mi’kmaq communities in Cape Breton, N.S.

Started in September of 2020, 4,000 people have registered in the system, said Jesty.

The Unama’ki emergency alerts go out to users immediately, while the police require 24 hours or imminent danger before determining whether to put out an alert.

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The Unama’ki alert messages are sent by text, email and landline for those who don’t have a cell phone or stable internet service.

Jesty said it cost her less than $8,000 to set up the app.

“I have run into several barriers along the way, including the police questioning why our alerts would reach communities before a police alert, making them look slow,” said Jesty. “What I hear is that public safety is not as important to you as your reputation.

“The initial set-up was tedious but through Everbridge [the app developer] I now can have a system in any community set up and running within an hour. I’d love to go to each Indigenous community in Canada.”

Red Dress Alert system
Jennifer Jesty from Eskasoni First Nation outside the committee room in Ottawa. ‘I’d love to go to each Indigenous community in Canada,’ she says. Photo: Kerry Slack/APTN.

The committee is studying alert systems designed to protect Indigenous women, girls and Two-Spirit people across Canada.

According to the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, Indigenous women and girls are 12 times more likely to be murdered or go missing compared to non-Indigenous women.

The inquiry found they are subjected to sexual assaults at a rate three times higher than that of non-Indigenous women, with a significant portion of women and children trafficked within the country.

The root causes of this crisis were extensively studied during the inquiry, which concluded that colonization, racism and sexism play significant roles in perpetuating the violence.

The inquiry’s comprehensive report demanded immediate and persistent action, recommending 231 corrective measures.

To combat this ongoing issue, NDP MP Leah Gazan introduced an initiative urging the government to adopt a national “Red Dress Alert” system.

This system, comparable to Amber Alerts, aims to swiftly notify the public when an Indigenous woman, girl, or Two-Spirit person is reported missing.

In a press conference on Parliament Hill earlier in the day, Gazan stressed the need to come together and make this initiative work, now.

“There is more work to be done but I feel that at this point it’s moving in the right direction,” said Gazan.

“We know from the national inquiry into murdered and missing indigenous women and girls, calls for Justice 9.1 to 9.11 that current systems that are there to protect us aren’t. This is a critical initiative.

“There are other considerations to the regular Amber Alert, sometimes women don’t want to be found, particularly if they are fleeing violence. It is a critical system that needs to be done well and done safely,” said Gazan.

According to the Ontario Provincial Police, “Amber Alerts have specific criteria and are only issued if an abducted child is believed to be at imminent risk of bodily harm or death.

Between 2012 and 2022, 95 per cent of Amber Alerts have resulted in the safe return of the abducted child. Public information is an important source of information during the search for abducted children.”

Liberal MP Pam Damoff, who is working with Gazan on the alert system, defended the speed at which the government is acting on the matter.

“In early February, Indigenous leaders, partners, and the largest gathering of ministers across federal, provincial, and territorial jurisdictions ever assembled for discussions on MMIWG2S came together to discuss the development of a Red Dress Alert.

“It was a privilege to be part of these meetings with my friend and colleague MP Leah Gazan,” said Damoff in a statement to APTN. “I am really pleased with how quickly the government has moved on creating a Red Dress Alert as a key and urgent priority for our government, including investing $2.5 million in Budget 2023.”

Pelmorex, the company that provides the software and system that runs the Amber Alerts, said its company will work with Indigenous communities to provide what is needed.

“We understand the need to want to keep this within the communities in question, but we also see the value in having these alerts go national,” said Kurt Eby, director of regulatory affairs and government relations with Pelmorex Corp.

Conservative MP Anna Roberts asked Jesty to provide them with information about the app she’s using.

“We need to learn to become more effective and cost-efficient and by listening to your (Jesty’s) story, you’re amazing,” she said.

Leslie Varley, executive director of the British Columbia Association of Aboriginal Friendship Centres, would like to see alerts complemented with other communication methods.

“Unequal access is why we would love to see the old-fashioned billboard model also integrated. In many of our communities in B.C., specifically along the Highway of Tears, it would be effective for communities outside of the reach of dependable internet,” said Varley.

“We need a variety of applications.”

Talks resume on Thursday with family and friends of missing people giving testimony.

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