After moving from Toronto to Winnipeg last September, 16-year-old Fariba found herself at a new school with a whole new group of girlfriends, many of whom are Indigenous. Immersing herself in her new environment, the 11th grader set out to learn more about the Indigenous people of her country and discovered an inconceivable truth about the staggering number of Aboriginal women and girls who are murdered in Canada each year. Moved to take action, Fariba made this national crisis the subject of a powerful, awareness raising project she recently unveiled at her school.

Aboriginal women and girls make up just 4.3% of Canada’s overall female population, yet account for roughly 16% of all female homicides. According to a 2014 report issued by the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP), there were 1,017 Aboriginal women and girls murdered between 1980 and 2012, and an additional 164 were missing.

These were the disturbing facts that Fariba uncovered through her research, which was driven, in part, by her knowledge of the murder of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old Aboriginal girl, whose body was pulled from the Red River in Winnipeg in August 2014. Tina’s death is said to have “sparked public outcry and renewed calls for a national inquiry into missing and murdered indigenous women and girls.”

There were 1,017 Aboriginal women and girls murdered between 1980 and 2012, and an additional 164 were missing.

Wanting to do her part to help raise awareness among her peers of the unacceptable rates of violence against Indigenous females, Fariba decided to use a “take action” based Global Issues class project as a platform from which to honor those 1,017 murdered women and girls. Her vision was to execute a large-scale art installation at Balmoral Hall School, the university prep school for girls she attends in Winnipeg. It would serve as a hope-filled memorial, while giving a visual presence to the magnitude of the pressing problem.

With guidance from a number of her teachers (Ms. Hedley – Humanities, Ms. Green – Activities Coordinator, and Ms. McGill – Girls For The World Club), along with invaluable input from Indigenous leader and activist Leslie Spillett, who started the Native Women’s Association of Canada’s Sisters in Spirit awareness and action campaign surrounding missing and murdered Aboriginal women in Canada, as well as 30 pairs of helping hands from her Girls For The World Club members, Fariba’s vision became a reality and was unveiled in her school.

Aboriginal women school project

Two weeks ago, Balmoral Hall’s atrium was filled with 1,017 red paper butterflies, one for each murdered Indigenous woman and girl. They were all individually hand-cut and hung (over the course of several days), so Fariba’s butterflies appear to float as light pours in to the grand space.

In a phone interview arranged through her school, Fariba told Women You Should Know that she used butterflies as they “symbolize hope.” Their red color and display style is a subtle nod to The REDress Project by Winnipeg based, Métis multidisciplinary artist Jaime Black who uses red dresses as a visual reminder of missing or murdered Aboriginal women across Canada.

By design, Fariba’s red butterflies lived on their own for several days for students to ponder with no explanation. She then added posters to the space that detailed their true meaning and purpose. The budding activist said that her goal was “to raise awareness of the issue before she could encourage people to take action.” Ultimately, she says wants the project to have “lasting impact.”

In the short time it has been live, the reaction to Fariba’s work has been “overwhelmingly positive” and is having ripple effects way beyond the halls of her school. Following a local CTV News piece on her project, an Aboriginal woman whose Aunt went missing five years ago called the school to express her heartfelt gratitude for what Fariba had done. Additionally, former classmates at her previous school have been inspired to want to recreate the project there.

Fariba’s powerful red butterflies also provided the perfect backdrop for the inaugural Equity Conference her school hosted today. In the works over the past eight months, the purpose was to give students at Balmoral Hall School “a better understanding of reconciliation, language, and culture through engagement with Indigenous peoples.” Among other activities, the conference included a letter writing session in support of the Amnesty International Canada No More Stolen Sisters campaign, during which each student penned a letter to Prime Minister Justin Trudeau urging him to take action on behalf of Aboriginal women and girls.

In a moment of serendipitous timing that speaks to how important Fariba’s project is, just yesterday, Patty Hajdu, Canada’s minister for the status of women, suggested “the number of missing and murdered indigenous women could be as high as 4,000, but a dearth of hard data means it’s all but impossible to pinpoint an accurate figure.” She added that “the government doesn’t have an exact number, but pointed to research from the Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) that puts it at 4,000, much higher than a figure near 1,200 the RCMP has previously stated.”

Lead Photo Credit: Fariba (right) with Mary, her friend and fellow Grade 11 student at Balmoral Hall School, who is Aboriginal (First Nations) and helped with the project.