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  • Writer's pictureVigilance

Red Dresses and Clear-Cuts: A Settler Bears Witness.

Updated: Sep 26, 2021

By Gillian Ashley-Martz

Introduction by Karen Moe

The Red Dress Memorial Site, The Fairy Creek Blockades. Photo by Gillian Ashley-Martz


settlers—descendants of and continuations of colonial rule in Canada—are beginning to know what their culture is built upon. They are beginning to feel something of what Indigenous peoples have suffered for well over a century. They are beginning to grieve what they have benefited from. I am one of these people. As is Gillian Ashley Martz, who has written her experience of the most necessary opening of this wound that is Canada’s shame.

In 2021, because of the thousands of corpses of Indigenous children found in unmarked graves under and around residential schools, Canadians know now, to varying degrees of acknowledgement, that even before the confederation of Canada in 1867, genocide was wreaked upon the Indigenous peoples in a variety of insidious and effective ways. In keeping with our heritage of British etiquette that serves to fancify savagery, Canada has always been very polite. These prettified acts of genocide that got the colonizing culture off the hook because of their corresponding propaganda of ‘betterment’ obfuscated the brutality of the taking.

With the Indian Act of 1880, we forbade the potlach, the ceremony where the passing of names, titles and responsibilities of one chief to the eldest heir, distribute wealth, and establish rank[1]; we created the residential schools where Indigenous children were taken from their families for what was proclaimed 'for their own good' and, to quote John A. MacDonald, the first Prime Minister of Canada and the father of Confederation, to “get the Indian out of them”; we created the Indian Band Council, a system of hierarchical governance that mirrors the European and, as really a puppet of sovereignty, is beholden to the Canadian nation-state; we created the RCMP to enforce what, in the neoliberal context of accelerating greed, is becoming a police state as it continues to feign good-will.

Unlike other colonial nation-states internationally, Canada didn’t overtly slaughter the people whose land we stole (out in the open anyway). Ours were clandestine killings. Smallpox-infected blankets were given to First Nations as 'gifts' with deadly intent; Indigenous people with smallpox were forced to leave Fort Victoria, accompanied by gunboats, and that act alone delivered smallpox to nations as far north as Alaska, killing tens of thousands; Elder Bill Jones has said that all the Pacheedaht people over the age of 14 died of smallpox, which he calls the Plague. Deliberate, 'experimental' starvation of children in residential schools were acts of extermination that were bizarrely justified as science. [2] A doctor in the early 1900s found that nearly half the children he saw were dying over three years, tried to have changes made, and was ignored.[3] Unlike the all-out slaughter of Indigenous peoples in Latin America by the Spanish Conquistadores, in Canada, these were acts of covert genocide that were more easily kept hidden and, as such, more readily able to continue through a racist police force and a government that is either silent, in denial or literally lying, today.

With the prioritization of an extraction economy and its ideology of take, the legacy of Canada's covert colonialism is especially alive-and-killing not only as our country rapes the land and doesn't effectively investigate the epidemic of Missing and Murdered Women and Girls, but also by refusing to make the connection that genocide against the first peoples is also genocide against their unceded land and all of the other species who live there. This double-genocide cries its irreverent truth at the Red Dress Installation in a clear-cut at Fairy Creek, BC.

Karen Moe, Editor.


Photo by Karen Moe

Gillian Ashley-Martz, Fairy Creek Blockades July 8th, 2021.

At one of the forest defense camps near Fairy Creek, near Port Renfrew, BC, Indigenous and non-Indigenous Forest Defenders created a memorial on June 21st, National Indigenous People’s Day. Red dresses and red handprints signify the murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls (MMIWG), estimated to be over 1,000. Police make little headway in investigating their disappearances. The event also commemorates the 215 graves of Indigenous children that had recently been found under a residential school in Kamloops BC that was closed in 1978.[4]

The author came across The Red Dress Memorial days afterward, and shares her experience here.

Photo by Karen Moe

We come across The Red Dress Memorial suddenly,

my partner and I, on a chilly, grey July morning while driving a steep logging road between Fairy Creek Head Quarters below, and River camp above, where for months now Indigenous and Settler Forest Defenders have successfully protected an ancient old-growth forest from industrial destruction.

On the misty hillside we are met by tall poles, the tops dipped in red paint like bloody spears, each one wearing a red dress draped from hangers. The poles are planted like tree-farm saplings on the hillside, within dead and dying limbs abandoned amongst amputated tree stumps and slash piles of decaying tree carcasses.

A fresh clear cut is a grotesque sight of violence against the land, making it the perfect canvas for this powerfully dramatic scene of floating red dresses. Each one is unique, some glamorous, others plain, all silently swaying in a and ghostly dance with the cool mountain breeze. But it is the little red party dresses with their jaunty ribbons and playful lace that unmoors the grip I didn’t know I had on my emotions. These disembodied red dresses are dancing all the way up this disfigured mountainside into a chasm of grief.

Photo by Karen Moe

Someone has painted a small wooden heart with #215 dating the memorial. These little party dresses whisper stories of children stolen from their panicking families, abused and murdered and hidden in unmarked graves. My mind strains to look away from the horror but is pulled back by the imprints of the blood red stains of the dresses against the savage clear cut. I know I need to bear witness to the immense suffering symbolized on this hillside.

It occurs to me then in this beautiful and terrible scene that perhaps the souls of the trees who lived for thousands of years on this hillside know the pain of the empty dresses and find solace in their shared experience of colonial atrocities inflicted upon the land and the people. Perhaps they find healing, too, in this defiant red dress dance, these waving sirens of sorrow. Some dresses compel me to unhook them from snags on the poles so that they, too, can dance with their kin and entrance us into remembering how to be free. The poet in me imagines that these amputated stumps watch the dancing dresses, and remember how their canopies used to dance in the winds, singing their ancient songs to each other before the ships arrived in the coves, before the chainsaws whined in the woods and the children were stolen.

Photo by Karen Moe

Across the valley from the clear-cut are hectares of tree farms in various shades of darkening green in a kind of K-to-12 forest family of orphans grown in tree nurseries far from here. Scattered across the hillside stand a few towering Douglas Firs like lonely stilt walkers hovering unnaturally above the carpet of replanted monoculture trees farmed for maximum profit, bereft of biodiversity. There is nothing natural or wild in this landscape of “seed” trees left behind to supposedly promote reforestation in a nod to sustainable forestry. Maybe twenty now, where thousands once stood nurturing their forest families and the immense diversity of life that thrived in these ancient forests and streams. Again, my mind wants to look away from the reality of their extinction. Again, I need to bear witness.

Photo by Gillian Ashley-Martz

I grieve for these elder trees, the left behind, and the loss of their forest families ripped out of the earth and away from sheltering limbs and nurturing roots, for the loss of the complex fungal-facilitated social networks of reciprocity and cooperation that took millennia to develop underground, and for the species lost in the unexplored tree canopies yet to be discovered.

As I look at this tree-farmed valley on one side, and the clear cut stained by the blood red dresses on the other, I realize that what I am really seeing writ large is the past, present and future of genocide and ecocide, the evil twins of colonial rule. Grief gives way to rage as another tsunami of emotion rises.

All I have are my tears and I let them fall into the parched earth, so it knows I am not afraid to bear witness; I will not look away as I tap into the bottomless well of shame at what it really means to be a Settler on this land.

Photo by Karen Moe

At the side of the road is a very large circle of carefully placed stones in a concentric design in a patch of cleared hardscrabble ground. Its symbolism feels sacred and ceremonial, perhaps an attempt to begin healing. This simple circle of stones has its own geometric beauty and seems like a deliberate design of balance and comfort amidst this industrial carnage. I find myself walking inside the circles towards the center and the motion is soothing and grounding. Something sacred happened here. I begin to breathe again.

We head back down the mountain instead of grinding our way up to River Camp. We are silent in the car, each of us stunned and broken open in our own ways. We have a long day ahead following police wagons dropping off arrestees all over this territory. We shepherd them back to the safety and community at HQ for support and sustenance. The RCMP refer to them as prisoners. This strikes me as ironic as I watch the police hide behind their guns and their tasers, grim and severe in black glasses and camo gear, hot and sweaty in their dark heavy uniforms, bearing the burden of executing colonial law against peace-loving Grandmas, college students and teenagers all drawn to this movement to be part of building a better future.

The arrestees we pick up are flush with the success of holding down Waterfall camp for another day despite overwhelming odds. They tell stories of singing, dancing and reading poetry while being extracted from their dragons.[5] The dusty car fills with their vitality and passion, their youthful pride and the dogged determination to prove that they may have broken the law but they are most certainly neither criminals nor prisoners.

Later I think about tree rings and the heartwood at the center. The strongest wood. I think about our descendants and wonder, when they look at what has become of the ring of the human tree of life on earth in 2021, will they shake their heads in sorrow or sigh with relief that we finally began to listen to the wisdom of the Elders and set foot on the long journey back Home?

Photo by Mary Bahn


About the Writer:

“As a middle aged mother living a comfortable, quiet life on Saltspring Island, Fairy Creek upended my life when I came to see the big trees at Eden Grove and River Camp. I fell in love with these ancient forests and was pulled inexorably into the orbit of this movement to save them. First I came to witness and grieve and then I got mad and unleashed a warrior Self who has thrived on the front lines. I have never felt so alive or purpose driven. I wanted to write about everything I was experiencing as a way to capture and communicate it so everyone could feel this intoxicating mix of emotions and fall in love with the forests and the people of this movement. I wrote letters to newspapers, dispatches to my family overseas and then this article which is my first published piece."

Gillian Ashley-Martz September 2021.



[1] Indian Act of 1876, which in turn, ushered in the era of colonization and enforced cultural assimilation. … True assimilation could only be attained through the abolishment, by law, of all cultural practices. Hence, under the Indian Act, the Potlatch Law, which included other ceremonies such as the Sun Dance, came into effect in 1880.Potlatch ceremonies, depending upon the culture, could for example be held to celebrate the passing of names, titles and responsibilities of one chief to the eldest heir, distribute wealth, establish rank; to mark the passing of a chief or the head of a house; to celebrate weddings and births. Recognized as integral to the culture of coastal First Nations, the potlatch was targeted with particular force. The government and missionaries viewed potlatch ceremonies as excessive, wasteful and barriers to assimilation.

[3]; thank you to Grace of the Rain Forest Flying Squad for giving me this article.

[4] The last residential school in Canada was closed in 1996.

[5] Dragons (also known as sleeping dragons) are hard-blocks where Forest Defenders dig holes, put a pipe the length and width of an arm in it, surround the pipe with concrete and lock their arms into the pipe while lying across the logging road. Recently, as Teal-Jones and the RCMP pressure has escalated, the Forest Defenders are using trench dragons where they lock themselves into the pipes while lying in the bottom of a 4'-5' deep trench that has been dug across the logging road.


Editor's Note:

With 1082 arrests to date, the Fairy Creek Blockades are the largest act of civil disobedience in Canadian history.

Since the writing of this essay, the RCMP-mercenaries-for-industry have managed to break through all of the defense camps along Granite-Main that were protecting an old-growth forest containing 1000+ year old trees, rare speckled lichen that—among other benefits—absorbs carbon from the atmosphere and directly counteracts climate change. This lichen only grows in old-growth, pristine ecosystems. Along with the destruction of this planet-saving lichen, the forest between Heli-River and Ridge Camp is also home to the endgangered Marbled Murrelet.

When awarding Teal-Jones 60,000 hectares of forest on Southern Vancouver Island to clear cut (including 2080 hectares of old-growth) no study was done on the affects to rare and endangered species who reside in the pending cutblocks.

As of September 25th, 2021, there are still Forest Defenders at Heli-River fighting to keep the loggers from destroying this forest. Teal-Jones has been bringing loggers in by helicopter. Despite NDP premier John Horgan's uniformed or wicked statement of otherwise, logging has begun. During the week of September 20th, the RCMP have made more headway in opening the logging road for Teal-Jones machinery that will, as always with extraction forestry, fully destroy a millenial old ecosystem in order to extract the priceless trees. However, the Forest Defenders are not giving up and the Red Dress Memorial to the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women still stands.

As expressed on the Fairy Creek Blockade on September 24th, 2021:

"Over today and yesterday Heli Camp and River Camp were both destroyed. Nearly everyone was kicked off of the mountain and all of our supplies were stolen by the RCMP. Loggers are at Heli Camp now. Be a part of history. Come to camp."

... and bear witness to the Red Dress Memorial Site along the way.

"The Grandfather Tree," an ancient yellow cedar on the cutblock. Photo by Karen Moe


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