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APPA - Standing Committee

Indigenous Peoples



OTTAWA, Monday, March 21, 2022

The Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples met with videoconference this day at 2:01 p.m. [ET] to study Bill S-219, An Act respecting a National Ribbon Skirt Day.

Senator Brian Francis (Chair) in the chair.


The Chair: Honourable senators, I wish to welcome all of you and our viewers across the country who may be watching the Standing Senate Committee on Aboriginal Peoples on

Before we begin, I’d like to acknowledge that we are meeting today in the Senate of Canada Building, which is located on the traditional unceded territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe peoples.

I am Brian Francis. I’m a senator from Epekwitk, also known as Prince Edward Island, and I am the chair of the committee. I would like to introduce the members of the committee who are participating in this meeting: Senator David M. Arnot, Senator Michelle Audette, Senator Patrick Brazeau, Senator Daniel Christmas, Senator Pat Duncan, Senator Nancy J. Hartling, Senator Sandra M. Lovelace Nicholas, Senator Yonah Martin and Senator Kim Pate.

Today we are here to study Bill S-219, An Act respecting a National Ribbon Skirt Day. I would like to introduce our first panel of witnesses. With us today we have the Honourable Senator Mary Jane McCallum, senator from Manitoba and sponsor of the bill. Additionally, we have Chief George Cote of the Cote First Nation.

During our first panel, we will also be shown a video presentation from Isabella Kulak, an 11‑year‑old girl and member of the Cote First Nation, who will speak to us about her experience, which led to the tabling of the bill before us today. Your steering committee felt that it was important to hear her testimony; however, we are mindful of her status as a minor and the sensitive nature of her experience. We felt this video would enlighten the committee on her experience.

Senator McCallum and Chief Cote will provide opening remarks of up to five minutes each, which will be followed by a question‑and‑answer session of approximately three minutes per senator. I will let witnesses know when they have 30 seconds left on their allotted time.

If senators have a question, they are asked to use the “raised hand” feature on Zoom to signal this to the clerk. They will be acknowledged in the Zoom chat. Please note that committee members will be given priority on the list of questioners.

We will now play the video and then turn it over to Senator McCallum.

Isabella Kulak, as an individual: Dear senators, Anīn. Hello. Isabella Kulak nitišinihkas. Isabella Kulak is my name. I am 11 years old and from Cote First Nations but live in Kamsack, Saskatchewan.

December 18, 2020, is a day I will never forget. It was Formal Day at my school, KCI. I woke up extra early that morning because today was the day I was going to wear my ribbon skirt. It took me forever to get ready because I never really wear dresses or skirts. I changed my shirt over and over again so that I would look perfect. I felt so excited because I was wearing my ribbon skirt that was gifted to me from my auntie Farrah Sanderson.

I remember walking to school with my older sister Gerri Leigh. We were both wearing our ribbon skirts, and I couldn’t wipe the smile off my face. I was so happy to be wearing something that represents my culture.

Once I arrived at school, everything took a turn for the worse. An educational assistant commented on what I was wearing and said, “Your outfit doesn’t even match. And maybe next year, you should wear something else!” I immediately felt shamed. As soon as I had a chance, I took off my ribbon skirt and put it in my backpack. No person should ever have to feel the way I did that day.

A year has passed now, and a lot has changed. It’s like the world woke up. On January 4, 2022, we celebrated our first Ribbon Skirt Day at my school and encouraged other students from other nationalities to wear something that represents who they are. It turned out to be the best day ever. I was so overjoyed to see my culture throughout the school, as people were wearing ribbon skirts, ribbon shirts, and my chief and the neighbouring chief were wearing their headdresses. A Cote councillor‑member sang an honour song, and then we all held hands and he sang a round dance song. My people were standing proud once again.

In regard to Bill S-219 and the creation of a national ribbon skirt day, I would like to lend my voice and the voice of my First Nation as a call to action with respect to reconciliation and a long overdue show of respect from the provincial and federal governments alike. For far too long, my family and my ancestors have lived in the shadows in this nation, but the day of the Indian has come. No longer will we sit idle and complacent with systemic racism.

The recognition of a national ribbon skirt day will go a long way to heal some wounds in this country that might have otherwise not have been healed. I feel a great responsibility to all Canadians with the words I’ve spoken today. I hope Indigenous and non‑Indigenous Canadians see the great importance of January 4 being a national ribbon skirt day in Canada.

I hope my great‑grandmother, deceased, Pauline Pelly will hear my words as I speak them to you today. She was a strong speaker and knowledge- and language‑keeper for our First Nations long before Canada was listening to her words.

It was a true honour to address the Senate today, and I thank you for your time, senators. Kīcī‑Miigwetch. A great big thank you from Isabella and her family and on behalf of Cote First Nation and the Federation of Sovereign Indian Nations (FSIN).

Hon. Mary Jane McCallum, Senator, Senate of Canada, sponsor of the bill: Today I am speaking about ribbon skirts and self‑determination.

I entered residential school as a little girl who already had a spiritual connection. This spirituality was a way of life by my family and my people – the Crees and Dene in Brochet. There was always bannock and tea on the table for visitors. The men took off their hats at the door, which signified respect, and the guests were seated at the table. After the guests were fed, there was conversation, storytelling, teasing and laughter. The spirituality of hospitality, nurturing, laughter and sharing brought closeness to family and community. When my mom died I took to hanging around an Elder, Carol, who took me to many places. This gentle, caring woman and I would get into a canoe and paddle to islands to go berry picking. As we walked through the land, she found a black kettle left behind by people. She said, “How can people throw away a perfectly good pot?” I remember how she cherished and cooked many good stews in that pot. Her silence, when she paddled, taught me mindfulness. The sound of the paddle slicing through the water then the drops of water as they hit the water from the paddle was mesmerizing. Her slow methodical search for food demonstrated her patience. The spirituality that influenced even the smallest of her actions revealed her belief in a higher power. Daily activities like these were demonstrations of the spirituality within my people.

I wrote this in a chapter entitled “Bless Me Father for I Have Sinned” in 2014.

I tell this story as it symbolizes self‑determination. Self‑determination is a skill and mindset that is learned throughout one’s life, starting early. You first learn self‑determination through play with thoughts, skills, tradition, hospitality, values and seeing your family model behaviour. Before residential school, I remember playing and feeling very important and wise as I practised the life skills — including clothing — that were being taught to me.

Self‑determination uses and hones the skills of critical thinking, introspection, self‑regulation and self‑advocacy. It helps to develop the belief that one has control over outcomes that are important to life and the conviction that one can successfully execute the behaviour to produce a given outcome. These are the core concepts of self‑determination.

These concepts were systematically removed when I was in residential school and replaced by blind obedience. In the communities on the reserves, these concepts were systematically removed by the Indian agent.

However, giving yourself the option to wear a ribbon skirt; the option to be proud of your people, your culture and yourself as a squi‑sis, which means “girl”; the option to see yourself as the beautiful person that you are; the option to go out your door without hiding who you are and embracing those options — that is self‑determination.

Colleagues, having January 4 of each year set aside to recognize the ribbon skirt is fundamentally both an action of reconciliation and conciliation. It not only upholds and honours a highly important cultural item for many Indigenous people in Canada but simultaneously acknowledges and values our self‑determination.

It is also my hope that this day will be an additional annual prompt for non‑Indigenous Canadians to learn more about their Indigenous brothers and sisters: their culture, their knowledge and their ways of being and thinking. By opening the door to these types of conversations, what is a relatively simple bill will have a very profound and long‑lasting impact toward healing a societal divide.

Moreover, colleagues, we are dealing with much more than a decision to wear a skirt. We are dealing with the future lives of our First Nations girls, wanting them to be armed with the skills needed to navigate the violent life course that comes with being First Nations. Young girls like Isabella will continue to wear their ribbon skirts as they continue on their earth journey — beautiful, courageous, vocal, bright — with the knowledge that they are carrying on their ancestors’ cultures, knowledge and wisdom. For every time they do, they regain some of the power and spirit that our people were forced to give up in our lifetimes.

Thank you, Isabella, for being a mentor for me, and thank you to the committee for the chance to appear today. Kinanâskomitin, thank you.

George Cote, Chief, Cote First Nation: [Technical difficulties] I welcome you from Treaty 4 Territory, Saskatchewan. I would like to thank the Senate for this opportunity to speak on behalf of a band member from our community who has brought attention not only locally, provincially and nationally but globally.

I thank Isabella for the video that she has made and the powerful words she has spoken from the heart. A young lady like this has really opened up the doors for a lot of people. I thank her mom and dad for turning this into a positive instead of a negative. We decided to move forward here, meet with the Good Spirit School Division and address the systemic racism that’s in the schools — as we speak — in the spirit of truth and reconciliation. This young lady has opened up the hearts of our nation and other nations as well as other nationalities within the community.

January 4 being recognized as Ribbon Skirt Day — I give thanks to the Senate for acknowledging this very special day. It brings healing to this young lady to know that we care. The ribbon skirt is a symbol of resilience and perseverance for our women in our First Nations communities, who are the child‑givers. They bear our children, and our children will have an opportunity to live in this world that we have shared with the non‑First Nations from other European countries.

Our language is very important to us. Through the residential school system, this has been taken away from us. Now we are here to reinstate that language that we have lost and the culture that was stripped from us. Isabella has opened up the doors for her peers, and those who are unborn as well, to ensure that this doesn’t happen again.

Last January 4, Ribbon Skirt Day, a young girl of Ukrainian heritage stood beside Isabella with her mother’s dress, acknowledging Isabella’s culture while Isabella acknowledged her Ukrainian culture. We had such a great get‑together with the teachers and the Good Spirit School Division representatives, along with the chief of Keeseekoose First Nation, who is uncle to Isabella.

In speaking with the teachers, we acknowledged that we have forgiven this teacher’s assistant for the ignorance that she had toward Isabella. We forgave her and we had to move forward. We have to bring the teachings of our culture into the school system. That’s what we hope to do: teach non‑First Nations the identity of the Anishinaabe people in our territory and also learn about the other cultures that our young First Nations students are going to meet when they go to the non‑First Nations schools.

We had such a great outpouring of support, not only locally, provincially and nationally but internationally. We see a lot of women from different nationalities wearing ribbon skirts. Ribbon skirts are a symbol of the culture of our First Nations women. We really respect our First Nations women and the teachings that were given to us from them: love, respect, honour, courage, wisdom, humility and truth. These are the teachings that are based on our First Nations people that we share amongst one another.

There is so much going on ever since they discovered the gravesites of these young children that never made it home. It really had an impact on the mothers, knowing that these little children were buried at these residential school sites. There’s really no answers that we can speak about today as to what happened to these individuals.

I thank you. I thank the Senate. Thank you to Senator McCallum for bringing this to light. Once again, we give the creator all the glory. Meegwetch.

The Chair: Thank you, Chief Cote.

We will now begin the question‑and‑answer session, starting with Deputy Chair Senator Christmas.

Senator Christmas: Thank you very much for the presentations. Thank you, Senator McCallum, for bringing this to our attention.

One of the potential benefits of designating a ribbon skirt day is to help all Indigenous peoples of Canada to strengthen their own culture. I assume as well that it will bring a lot of understanding to our non‑Indigenous brothers and sisters. My question is to you, Senator McCallum. What role would ribbon skirt day play in strengthening First Nations and Métis cultures and making the contributions of Indigenous women and girls known to all Canadians?

Senator McCallum: Thank you for your question. Thank you for your remarks.

As Chief Cote stated, there are already interactions that are happening in the schools in Saskatchewan towards addressing and building awareness of ribbon skirts.

I had a call from a university. I’m going to be speaking with the Indigenous Peoples’ Centre in that university. They’re looking at bringing knowledge keepers together in the community and looking at what ribbon skirts signify. When this does come about, we would reach out to all the people that we work with across Canada to let them know that this is coming about and that people are ready to make presentations and hopefully meet in person.

There is a lot of activity already ongoing at a grassroots level. There are discussions with different groups of people, including women’s groups, off‑reserve people who live in Winnipeg and also people on the reserve and the different groups that represent them.

There are a number of linkages that we have as senators in raising this issue. When you look at any work that is directed at anti‑racism, then we start looking at the concepts of health, self‑care, inclusiveness, understanding of equity, equality and diversity. In the Senate, we have the honour, significance and opportunity in our roles as senators to bring the discussion to wider audiences in Canada, including SENgage. When we get to a place where we have a platform, or some kind of power and influence, we reach out and bring the voices of the marginalized to the Senate floor.

It is important to understand and see the practice of equity, equality and justice in action for young people. Restoring them has such far‑reaching effects, not limited to children in care but the rights of women, Indigenous people and the effects it has on mental health.

There are a lot of policy areas where people can speak about the ribbon skirt and what it does because it is so much more than wearing a dress.

Thank you.

Senator Christmas: If I may, I would like to ask another question.

Senator McCallum, one thing that struck me about the ribbon skirt is that it is a celebration of culture. It is a celebration of expression of Indigenous women. But it also struck me that it lends itself to a lot of fun, and I wondered about that. Do you see this offering of the ribbon dress as a gift to Canadians that could bring a lot of enjoyment and perhaps a lot of building of relationships between our cultures?

Senator McCallum: Yes, I absolutely can see that. With the university that we’re going to be meeting with, there is already excitement.

When I pick my colours for ribbon skirt, there is the bright colours, the ribbons that came with it, and then the making of the skirt and the social interaction between women and girls, just their getting together. One woman from back home sells ribbon skirts, and she has a store in Winnipeg. She teaches ribbon skirts, or she helps people make ribbon skirts. She takes six women at a time. She said they will have tea. They will bring food. There is laughter. There is humour. It was always part of our culture to have that humour, the laughter and the healing and the power that goes with spending an evening in that kind of a positive relationship.

Thank you for bringing that to light.


Senator Audette: Thank you very much, Isabella. If people could give her a message, it would be that this young woman is able to bring out a part of Canadian history that has remained hidden for too long. Thank you, Isabella. I also thank your family, as well as Chief Cote, who has shown leadership and has guided this family virtually. I also thank our colleague Senator McCallum for talking about things and teaching us, once again, about parts of our history we did not know about.

I had the privilege of meeting young Indigenous people of Quebec who were part of a group; this is an important idea. How can we ensure to include in this bill a mechanism to help First Nations and Canadian society understand its origins? How can it help us also understand the reason behind it, despite the brainwashing, and help people who are members of nations with those skirts understand the symbolism, but more importantly, as you said, Senator McCallum, understand the connection with our inherent rights, our Indigenous rights?


Senator McCallum: I believe that building awareness and education in small baby steps is the best way, and that’s what we do in the Senate when we look at the bills and how they impact our people. I think that it will start to grow from there, and the elders who have practised this, and the significance that bringing them through SENgage and other types of media, could impart that significance.

For example, one of the Métis elders from Manitoba, Mira, speaks about the significance of the skirt as a tent. She says it’s like a teepee you wear as you’re walking, because it tapers at your waist. As you’re walking over the earth and wearing the skirt, it signifies protecting the Earth and connecting with her at the same time. It’s those kinds of teachings people will seek out as they move towards this conversation about the origin of the ribbon skirt.

As you know, we didn’t have beads and ribbons a long time ago, so they used animal hides and the natural pigments that existed to paint pictures. Then we modified and adapted our culture as time went on and celebrated with brighter colours, ribbons and beads. I used to see my mom doing beadwork. I have beads. I just lay them out, and they remind me of my mom’s spirit and the love that she put into everything that she did.

Those kinds of conversations will play out across Canada, and we will make ourselves available to speak to them.

Senator Hartling: First, I want to thank you, Senator McCallum. You are such a role model for us. You’re so persistent, and you make sure that we understand things. Thank you. I’ve learned so much.

I remember last spring when we talked about this in the Senate. It’s such an interesting idea, and the visual of the ribbon skirt is certainly a good way to educate people about your culture and for us to learn about it.

I also want to thank Isabella. She was so well spoken. In the future, what a leader we’ll have in her. I felt sad that she was hurt by what happened to her.

Moving forward, I’d like to ask you, Senator McCallum, what impact you think ribbon skirts will have on the two‑spirit LGBTQ+ community. Do you have any idea about that?

Senator McCallum: No, but I believe that we have a presenter who will speak to that. I do know that two‑spirit Indigenous people have adopted the ribbon skirt, as they should, and that they practise our culture the same way that we do, whether they do it in their male, female or — I don’t know what the term is — their two‑role system. That’s not a question that I can answer, because I haven’t been able to reach out to very many two‑spirit people. When it comes to third reading, I will make certain that I have done due diligence on that part.

Senator Hartling: I know you will. I hope one day we can see some ribbon skirts in the Senate and that we’ll be able to participate in some kind of a celebration. Thank you so much for all you do.

The Chair: I would like to note that we do have a witness in the next panel from the LGBTQ+ community who will answer your question, Senator Hartling.

Senator Duncan: I’m speaking to you today from the traditional territory of the Kwanlin Dün First Nation and the Ta’an Kwäch’än Council. I’m grateful to be here and to speak with you today. I’m substituting for the Honourable Senator Mary Coyle.

First, I’d like to express my heartfelt thanks to Isabella for her courage and her leadership in addressing us today. It was a wonderful presentation.

I’d also like to express my thanks to Senator McCallum for this bill. I believe it has truly opened a discussion that is important to the Senate and to all Canadians.

I’d like to share a personal story with Isabella. I often wear a kilt, which is traditionally worn by people of Scottish and Irish descent. My father was from Scotland, and my last name is associated with the tartan that I wear as a kilt. I was serving as premier of the Yukon and giving a media conference when one of the members of the media came in and made a remark about me wearing a kilt. I didn’t respond, but his fellow members of the media chastised him and told him how inappropriate it was. I only wish that fellow teachers had stepped in when that educational assistant had made her remarks that hurt you so deeply and were so incorrect.

In reviewing this bill and preparing for the discussion, I’ve had several conversations with First Nation elders, women, in my community of the Yukon. I would like to ask Senator McCallum about something Isabella shared with us. This January 4, there was a celebration of the ribbon skirt, and she was next to a young woman of Ukrainian descent, and that fellow student was wearing, I believe, something that represented her culture. The ribbon skirt is not as prevalent in Western Canada. In Western Canada, the Yukon and Alaska, our Indigenous elders will often wear button blankets, and that is representative of their culture. Our First Nation graduating students will wear regalia — that’s what it’s referred to as — representing their clan, the Crow clan, and we often see this regalia at different events. I’d like to ask Senator McCallum about how, as Isabella indicated, the other cultures were welcomed and celebrated in the ribbon skirt day on January 4. How are other First Nations’ cultures’ regalia represented in this bill, and how are they acknowledged?

Senator McCallum: Thank you for the question.

When I look at a ribbon skirt, it’s one type of dress or regalia that Indigenous people have across Canada. The bill represents a time of celebration. It doesn’t mean we’re imposing ribbon skirts on people. We’re simply building awareness of the potential to use ribbon skirts or other regalia as a weapon. I believe it would extend naturally to people thinking about their own regalia.

I see how mobile people are in Canada. My daughter lives in B.C., and she took her ribbon skirts there. When she went to the Yukon, she took a ribbon skirt. People dress in their own regalia. We see people here who are from B.C. and wear regalia that is distinctly from there. When we get into it, I see everything as cultural. It’s not about making a distinction.

When I look at what precipitated this bill, it was the lack of knowledge that led to that incident, and with this will come an awareness to opening conversations to what is important to you. Naturally, it will extend beyond the ribbon skirt. It’s a day of celebration, but it certainly isn’t one of assimilation. If that school thought for themselves, “We’re going to include Ukrainian regalia here,” do you not think that other places in Canada would start to think the same way? That’s how it should be thought of.

Senator Pate: I’m pleased to join you from the unceded, unsurrendered territory of the Algonquin Anishinaabe.

I want to thank you, Mr. Chair, for this, and also Isabella for being an incredible youth leader already, Chief Cote for the support that your band and the FSIN writ large and others have shared, and in particular Senator Mary Jane McCallum for your constant leadership in ensuring that we focus on the importance of self‑determination.

In addition to declaring January 4 ribbon skirt day and doing the kind of education you talked about in the schools, I’m interested in how you see this might help to address other issues of reconciliation. In particular, I think of the implementation of the Calls for Justice of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls and the need to redress the social, economic and health inequalities that are disproportionately experienced by Indigenous women and girls in this country.

Senator McCallum: I had started to touch on that. Youth as young as Isabella have already started to practise self‑care, which includes knowing where your borders are and where others start. When she was challenged, she knew she was challenged and she rose to the occasion and did that by giving voice, to take time out and then realize this was something that she wanted to bring attention to.

It’s not only nationally; it’s internationally, globally. When our young people start having those concepts of self‑determination and goal setting, they are so far ahead of where I was as a young girl in residential school. I’m very encouraged by it. They’re already understanding and saying, “No, you do not do that to me.” That ability to say “no” is so important when you’re looking at abuse of any kind. Doing it the first time is the hardest, and then it becomes easier each time. Our children can be our teachers when they model this for us.

What are the ramifications toward children in care? What are the ramifications toward over‑incarcerated people? Because those people in prisons were once children. They ended up where they are because of the oppression that they’ve gone through. Every chance we get to fight anti‑racism, oppression and assimilation brings us more power and more justice to others. Look at what it’s done for senators in realizing how far‑reaching this acknowledgment of ribbon skirts is.

Senator Arnot: I’m speaking today from Treaty 6 territory in Saskatchewan. Today, the sun is shining, the grass is growing and the river is flowing. That’s the way it should be in treaty territory.

I want to acknowledge Isabella for turning a negative into a tremendous positive and a tremendous opportunity. I really commend her spirit and courage for doing that.

I also want to acknowledge Senator McCallum, who brings knowledge, understanding and a real commitment to educating non‑Indigenous Canadians about the need to reconcile and what reconciliation means in a modern context.

My question today is for Chief Cote. Chief Cote, in Saskatchewan, in 2008, the Brad Wall government made teaching treaties, the treaty relationship and the components of treaty mutual benefit and mutual respect mandatory in every grade in every school in Saskatchewan, yet I was shocked, appalled and ashamed, like many people were, that this incident happened in Saskatchewan some 12 years after that kind of mandatory education was mandated. Chief Cote, do you believe that the Government of Saskatchewan needs to recommit to treaty education, the treaty relationship in a modern context and to support and promote that kind of treaty education so that the understanding required in the general community and in the First Nations community will be amplified so these kinds of incidents or this one that Isabella experienced would not occur in the future?

Mr. Cote: Thank you for that question.

For the last five years, we’ve been meeting with other chiefs and other school divisions in regard to the curriculum they have, which is kind of not acknowledging the territory that they’re on and the types of First Nations communities that are around them so that they have an opportunity to learn about their culture and relationships. Treaties is one of the things that we encouraged to be put into the curriculum in schools so they have a better understanding of what our treaties stand for in the nation of Canada.

With the Province of Saskatchewan and their curriculum, I was disappointed with the lack of knowledge in the curriculum they put out for communities and non‑Indigenous nations. That’s why we met with the Good Spirit School Division. Now we’re working on a different curriculum that will benefit not only First Nations but the non‑First Nations. We also want to teach them our language. They’re very interested in learning our language as we are learning their language, so we can have that mutual respect for one another.

Isabella, with what she went through, opened the eyes of her fellow students, knowing that this has to stop. The teachers and the parents of First Nations and non‑First Nations had this big march in Kamsack, and they supported what we were putting forward to show truth and reconciliation for one another. Even the mayor of Kamsack, which is non‑First Nations, wears a ribbon skirt to acknowledge that they want to build that community relationship. Now our schools are talking and we’re integrating one another. I really thank you for that question.

The Chair: The time for this panel is complete. I wish to thank Senator McCallum and Chief Cote for meeting with us today and Isabella for sharing her story with us.

I would now like to introduce our next panel of witnesses: Melanie Omeniho, president of Les Femmes Michif Otipemisiwak; Lisa J. Smith, Senior Director of Governance, International and Parliamentary Relations of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, or NWAC; Chevi Currie Rabbit, founder of Walk a Mile in a Ribbon Skirt; and Katherine Swampy, councillor for Samson Cree Nation.

Ms. Omeniho will have opening remarks of up to five minutes, followed by Ms. Rabbit and Ms. Swampy, who will jointly speak for five minutes. Then we will proceed to a question‑and‑answer period that will last approximately three minutes per senator. If senators have a question, they are asked to use the “raised hand” feature to signal this to the clerk. They will be acknowledged in the Zoom chat. Please note committee members will be given priority on the list of questioners.

I now invite Ms. Omeniho to give her remarks.

Melanie Omeniho, President, Les Femmes Michif Otipemisiwak: Good afternoon, everyone. I’m with Les Femmes Michif Otipemisiwak, and you did a really good job of trying to say that, so thank you, chair. I’m actually coming to you from the unceded territory of the Anishinaabe people in Ottawa today.

I want to begin by thanking the standing committee for inviting Les Femmes Michif Otipemisiwak to provide some comments and remarks on Bill S‑219. Bill S‑219 is an opportunity to hold space for Métis women and girls and, in fact, for all Indigenous women, to embrace the important part of their culture and tradition.

When Isabella spoke in her video today, she clearly articulated how she took something that was nothing short of systemic racism and changed it into a positive to educate and change how people look at and consider young people who are expressing things of their culture and their pride of who they are. As we all know, a staff member singled her out and made her feel ashamed, and we should never have that for our children. It is an experience we’ve all known and we’ve all had some experiences with in our lives, and we want to change that.

As Indigenous women or young persons, we are looking to connect with our culture and our roots and our ancestors. There’s no place for shame in any of this. We’ve worked really hard, and we watch our young people expressing their pride in their culture by showing things like wearing ribbon skirts or various other icons of their culture, and we need to continue to encourage that.

Colonization has worked extremely hard to separate Métis people, especially Métis women and girls, from their culture, things we have lost because of residential school systems and the Sixties Scoop, scrip policies and through acts of gender‑based violence and racism. We hope that one day all these practices will stop so that everyone can demonstrate pride in who they are.

I want to tell you that our Métis grandmothers all wore ribbon skirts. It was part of their daily attire. It wasn’t just meant for celebrations. If you look at pictures of our Métis grandmothers from days gone by, they all wore tartan shawls and ribbon skirts. They may not have been as colourful and bright as some of them are now, but it showed a great sense of pride in who they were and how they walked together.

Today, wearing and making ribbon skirts are ways to help us teach and pass on our traditions and culture, even for our gender diverse folks, and embrace the cultural expression of our regalia. Ribbon skirts are a part of a movement of being proud of our heritage, of honouring our culture and teachings, and also as a positive symbol of resilience and power. However, we see the ripple effects of Indigenous pride that reverberate when First Nations, Inuit and Métis women and girls and gender‑diverse folks proudly share their culture. We can only change the ongoing systemic discrimination that Métis women and girls experience when we work to change narratives at an individual level, just as this young lady has done.

Passing Bill S-219 as an act of respecting national ribbon skirt day would demonstrate to all Canadians that this government and our country are committed to reconciliation and to empowering Indigenous women and girls and gender diverse people across our country. I thank you.

The Chair: Thank you, Ms. Omeniho. I invite Ms. Smith to give her remarks.

Lisa J. Smith, Senior Director, Governance, International and Parliamentary Relations, Native Women’s Association of Canada: Good afternoon, honourable senators. Thank you for the invitation to come here today to speak to Bill S-219.

I would like to give a special thanks to Senator McCallum. I’m always impressed by Senator McCallum’s advocacy and knowledge. The discussion so far has been so multilayered, and I thank her for that. I thank all the committee members for that.

I recently stepped into a new role at NWAC as senior director. I should say that I am based in NWAC’s national office in Quebec, but I am speaking today from my home in St. John’s, Newfoundland and Labrador, the land of the Beothuk.

NWAC celebrates and lifts up Isabella, an inspiring youth. The strength that she has demonstrated has united a nation. She has become a champion of cultural resiliency, and for that I thank her.

Honourable senators, ribbon skirts are both a spiritual symbol and a political statement, speaking to the ways Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people have survived massive and coordinated attempts to wipe out their culture. It is an expression of cultural vibrancy.

In addition, NWAC supports and commends the bill for grounding its preamble in the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples, UNDRIP. Implementation of UNDRIP is paramount, ensuring that the rights that constitute the minimum standards for the survival, dignity and well‑being of the Indigenous peoples of the world are upheld.

In 2004, NWAC launched the Sisters in Spirit initiative, a campaign that raised awareness about the high rates of racialized and sexualized violence against Indigenous women and girls and gender diverse people. The Sisters in Spirit initiative was an effort to research and document the statistics of violence against Indigenous women and girls in Canada. It also sought to heighten awareness and education regarding the treatment of Indigenous people and to demand action from the state.

Fortunately, NWAC’s urgent call was heard. On June 3, 2019, the final report from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls was released. It concluded that the acts of violence against Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people in Canada constitutes “genocide.” The inquiry made 231 Calls for Justice. NWAC is pleased to see that two of those Calls for Justice are in the preamble of this bill.

The importance of being able to engage in ceremony and in cultural practices is an important way to heal. We heard Isabella say so succinctly that this bill can “heal some wounds” — her words. Great words.

Ensuring access to these supports for all Indigenous people who need them, as well as for families of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls and gender diverse people, is of vital importance for the journey forward, a journey that hopefully all Canadians can take together.

Indigenous culture must be celebrated in the way that Isabella demonstrated. In addition, there are currently no federally recognized days of celebration of Indigenous culture during winter. NWAC submits that recognizing January 4 as national ribbon skirt day will be a welcome means to advance reconciliation.

I would like to say that this is truth and reconciliation in action. We’re watching it.

On June 2, 2021, NWAC released its own action plan in response to the national inquiry. It is called Our Calls, Our Actions and consists of 65 actions that the organization will take to address the Calls for Justice. The core of the plan — and I’m seeing a theme here today — is healing.

The core of our plan is to establish land‑based resiliency lodges across Canada for healing Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people. One lodge already exists in Chelsea, Quebec, and has been offering virtual programming during the pandemic, with a second slated to open in New Brunswick soon. All the resiliency lodge’s services online workshops, virtual elder support or in‑person services are geared to violence prevention and empowered healing intervention.

Like Isabella, Indigenous women and girls around the world are drawing attention to their realities and championing their resiliency by amplifying their voices and ceremonies. NWAC is encouraged by Isabella’s brave leadership in celebrating her Indigenous culture at her school, and in so doing, educating not only youth and her peers but Canada as a whole.

In sum, honourable senators and panel members, the ribbon skirt is a source of cultural resiliency and pride for Indigenous women, girls and gender diverse people. We fully support Bill S-219, An Act respecting a National Ribbon Skirt Day.

Thank you.

The Chair: Thank you, Ms. Smith.

I will now invite Ms. Currie Rabbit and Ms. Swampy.

Chevi Currie Rabbit, Founder, Walk a Mile in a Ribbon Skirt: My name is Chevi Rabbit. I am a gender diverse, trans woman and currently transitioning here in Alberta. I am here to talk about Walk a Mile in a Ribbon Skirt.

First, I will tell you about who I am. I am from Montana First Nation, one of the four First Nations that make up Maskwacis, formerly known as Hobbema.

My family has been in politics for over 100 years, since the establishment and inception of the reserve. I come from a very inclusive family. My uncle Leo Cattleman was the longest‑serving chief in Canada. My aunt Rima Rabbit was a councillor when there were no women at the table. My grandpa Joe Rabbit was also a councillor. I come from a lot of people who use their voice to advocate for community.

I’ve always been included in my family, and inclusivity is our way. Everyone has a role and was included in culture. I grew up with my aunties and uncles, with my aunties owning the first Montana band arts and craft building. They owned many stores and grew up in a rich culture. I was fortunate that way. Many have not had that luxury because of residential schools and because we’ve been robbed.

My father was brutally murdered in the community, and I never grew up with my father’s side. I grew up with my stepfather’s side, and they have been doing great work. My grandmother Sarah was an elder for the government here in Canada. My auntie Marlene was impacted by the residential schools and also the Sixties Scoop, and they were all missing and murdered Indigenous women.

When I came to the University of Alberta, I was assaulted in my fourth year. That’s why I am here today. I am an advocate. I was going to be the first in my family to get a degree. This was a decade ago. I ended up being assaulted, catcalled and beaten up for being a trans woman here in Edmonton. I have spent a decade of my life advocating. I didn’t choose to be an advocate. I recognize there was a need so we can raise our family in love, but when we come into some communities, there is hostility, systemic discrimination and covert racism. There is all of this going on. So no matter what we do, even if you are raised in love and support, you are still traumatized, victimized and hurt. I spent a decade of my life advocating through Hate to Hope here in Alberta and Edmonton.

Walk a Mile in a Ribbon Skirt is an extension of that. In 2020, I was here with my aunties and my niece CeeJay Currie who helped found this. We were eating here in the city, and we got made fun of for our dresses. This dress right here, inclusivity, is a ribbon skirt in rainbow. My niece CeeJay Currie could not come today because she has anxiety. A lot of us have anxiety. She started Walk a Mile in a Ribbon Skirt. She had that idea after I came back home. I said, “What would you do in that situation?” We got made fun of for our ribbon skirts, my mom and my sister. And I said, “What would you do?” She said, “I wish they would have known the resiliency it took just to even wear our skirts.”

So from that interaction and conversation, we created Walk a Mile in a Ribbon Skirt. That is why Katherine Swampy is here too. She helped amplify it. I can tell you that many trans women and transgender diverse are suffering from the effects of colonialism and the effects of residential schools that are pushed out of some First Nations communities that have high symptoms of hate from the colonial effects of residential schools — a very gendered world.

I happened to be fortunate enough to grow up in a family that supported me. Through my decades of work, I can tell you right now that lots of transgender diverse people have been robbed of their teachings and their lessons. They have been robbed of that love that we were supposed to have growing up because you have residential schools that came in there and taught our ancestors how to hate, taught some elders how to hate and taught some people how to be discriminatory.

When we come into the cities, when some transgender people escape the reserve because of the violence they received there, they experience violence and exploitation as well. For me, the ribbon skirt is about inclusivity, empowerment, how we have come so far and survived so much, and we are still surviving. That’s what the ribbon skirt represents to me.

My sister, CeeJay’s mother, passed away, and this is for her. We all have one, and it has a really deep meaning in our culture and family. I would like to have Katherine Swampy to speak about this as well, but I wanted to make sure that transgendered people have their voice because they are facing double discrimination. Whether you weren’t raised in love or were raised in love, you are going to experience violence. That’s just the fact and reality of the world we live in. As soon as you walk out to the grocery store to get makeup, it’s a gendered and political landscape. It is so scary sometimes just walking to get groceries, trying to live your life and go to school or work. You’re always being hunted and targeted for your gender and your nationality. It is double discrimination. The ribbon skirt would educate Albertans and Canadians on what it means and how far we have come from this cultural genocide.

Thank you for your time. I think it’s amazing that we’re all here trying to create change. We have come so far in this state called Canada.

Katherine Swampy, Councillor, Samson Cree Nation, Walk a Mile in a Ribbon Skirt: [Indigenous language spoken]

Hello, everyone, I am Katherine Swampy, and I am an elected leader for Samson Cree Nation. Thank you, senators, for being here today and for granting us this time and space to share.

I am here to talk about the ribbon skirt. This is the ribbon skirt that I brought with me today. I have a number of them. Each one has a representation, and this one represents family members that I have lost. I have two sisters and two nieces who have been murdered, and this dress was made for me by a local elder to give me strength and resilience to go on, because it’s difficult when you lose people that you’re so close to.

I have been gifted the ribbon skirt story, and I would love to share that with you today, but it is far too long a story to share in a very short period of time. I will share some of the stories. Mind you, this is also a story that requires protocol and ceremony for sharing, so I will sum up part of the story for you today.

The ribbon skirt is not just a beautiful article of clothing. The history behind why we wear this skirt is vital to understand. There was a tribe of Indigenous people who went to live in the mountains to get away from the ongoing troubles of genocide. One of their keepers, their medicine woman who protected their tribe, had a granddaughter whom she taught the traditional ecological knowledge of medicines, where to find them and what they were used for. One day, the grandmother became ill, and it was up to the granddaughter to go out to retrieve the medicine, because many people in their tribe were dying. Along the way, she faced many horrific and life‑threatening situations. She almost died several times. When she succeeded and made it home from her journey, along the bottom of her skirt were colours from the rainbow, from the flowers, from everything she had crossed. The ribbons across the bottom of her skirt had a huge significance. So the skirt represents resilience, protection and love. Even now, with many who are not familiar with the history, the skirt represents repatriation.

I want to share some of the current struggles that we face today as First Nations people. We have overcrowded houses, and many of those houses are in failing condition and look like shacks. We have houses that need water wells and that have been on boil water advisories for well over 20 years. We have high unemployment rates on reserves due to the population being really high and very limited jobs. Here in Samson, we have 9,000 people but only 700 available jobs. We face extreme poverty and basic needs not being met, things like no food and the inability to pay our electric bills. Many houses lack beds for sleeping, have broken fridges, broken stoves, no washers and no dryers. When COVID hit [technical difficulties] over‑incarceration rates, the highest population of kids in care, no elders homes, no long‑term facilities for care or resources for people who have disabilities living on reserve, and transportation is an item of luxury. Most people don’t even have the financial capacity to buy a vehicle, or in some cases even get their driver’s licence. We have high intergenerational trauma, forced from the encampments and reserves, residential schools, the Sixties Scoop, the over‑incarceration, the high population of children in children and family services, and systemic racism on a daily basis, forcing us to live in extreme poverty leading to addictions like alcohol or drugs, or suffering from gang violence, or suicide. We have not only the highest rates of missing and murdered Indigenous women but also men and boys. We have the highest statistics for everything bad, and we don’t want to. We deserve better.

You have been gifted an opportunity. Yes, when I was explaining some of the hardships we face, it sounds very difficult, and yes, we are resilient people. Our people survived everything that was thrown at them, and today, we have exactly who our ancestors prayed for — our Indigenous people advocating and fighting just to live, just to be seen. I wear a ribbon skirt almost every day. Having a single day for everyone across Turtle Island to share the significance of the resilience of the ribbon skirt is a very small ask. [Indigenous language spoken]

The Chair: Thank you, Ms. Rabbit and Ms. Swampy.

Senator Duncan: My profound thanks to all our presenters this morning.

There has been representation and discussion about many of the truths that came to the forefront during the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls inquiry. One of the recognitions of the inquiry that Canadians have adopted across the country is the symbol of the red dress, and posting the red dress in our windows and in our communities. I would like the panellists to address how they see that symbol, that recognition, of the red dress in Bill S-219. How do they see that recognition?

Ms. Rabbit: I think the red dress is significant because. Although I did not grow up with my father’s side of the family, my auntie Marlene Currie was brutally murdered in Montréal [Technical difficulties] in Vancouver. Although I was not raised with my family, as I became aware through the process of reconnecting with my family, it became very emotional to know my family had been impacted by the Sixties Scoop. They came in and took my family and were supposed to help them, but my dad’s entire side of our family had been murdered. I have other family members like Samuel Currie, whom I found out about through a councillor, helped with the Red Paper. So I’m learning my family’s history on my dad’s side. The red skirt is significant. It’s symbolic for our struggle, and also a red skirt with maybe a rainbow to show that there are diverse struggles. There are oppressed people, and we are fighting for a space within a system that systematically discriminates against us. As I’ve gone through hormone therapy, the health care system has not been as inclusive as I thought it would be. A lot of work needs to be done. If a dress with a rainbow starts that conversation, I think that’s a small step forward.

Ms. Omeniho: The REDress Project is actually an art installation created by artist Jaime Black, and the red dress represents the missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls from our country. Many of the women, during the various ceremonies and processes that have occurred with the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, wear ribbon skirts, and many of them are red ribbon skirts or with red ribbons to represent the number of Indigenous women and girls that have gone missing who have never had a resolution to their death or closure for the families. I do believe the ribbon skirts are a reflection of and coincide with the REDress Project’s message, but I also really want to tell you that many of those red dresses are still hanging today because of the number of Indigenous women and girls that are still going missing and who have been murdered.

Senator Lovelace Nicholas: Thank you for your comments today. I would also like to thank Senator McCallum for this bill.

My question is, would it be an honour for Indigenous people if people from other backgrounds wore the skirt?

Ms. Omeniho: There are many people who come and share with us as Indigenous sisters and the LGBTQ2S community in wearing skirts. I do believe that we all see it as an honour and them acknowledging the celebration of our culture and respecting it. From all the work that we have done and from what we see, I think it only helps us to educate people on who we are, where we come from and the importance of the walk we’re walking.

Senator Lovelace Nicholas: Thank you. I’d also like to acknowledge that I am speaking from the unceded land of Indigenous people.

Senator Pate: Thank you to all the witnesses for appearing.

I have a comment, not a question. Chevi, if you could please pass along our thanks to CeeJay. Thanks to both of you for initiating the walk and reinforcing the message that Isabella is trying to bring forward. Please let CeeJay know that while it can be intimidating to do these sorts of things, we value her leadership and look forward to meeting her on another day.

Senator McCallum: My question is for Ms. Swampy. How can one’s spirit name, which itself has a significant ceremony, impact the ribbon skirt — the design and the colours? Could you share the teachings with us?

Ms. Swampy: Thank you so much for your question. Again, this is a question of protocol and ceremony, but I will do my best to answer with what I can.

One of my Cree names — and you’re gifted four throughout your life — is Pîsimoyâpiy Iskwêw, which means rainbow woman. When we look the rainbow, it has a lot of different meanings. Within the Cree culture, because I am from the Samson Cree nation, I am gifted in not only leadership and resilience but also in the power of healing and being able to share that with others. That’s the significance behind my name. The rainbow itself means I am able to put that type of imagery on my regalia and share it with others. It is more powerful to share the gift than to keep it to yourself. For example, the women speaking earlier today were telling me their Cree name was Ahcahko‑osk‑îskwêw, which means a spiritual woman. They would use colours like white or blue, and they could put some spirits on their skirts. It would hold a very powerful significance, a gift they can share with others. That’s just one of the many ways to explain how your Cree name could be upheld on your skirts or regalia.

The Chair: Thank you. That brings us to the end of the questioners, and I would like to thank our witnesses for being with us today. Thank you all.

We will now go to clause‑by‑clause consideration of Bill S-219. Are there any objections that the committee now proceed to clause‑by‑clause consideration of Bill S-219, An Act respecting a National Ribbon Skirt Day? Seeing none, agreed.

Are there any objections that the title stand postponed? Seeing none, agreed.

Are there any objections that the preamble stand postponed?

Senator Duncan: I absolutely am supportive of and honour and celebrate the initiative of this bill. I appreciate the wording in the preamble in reference to the United Nations Declaration on the Rights of Indigenous Peoples and the final report of the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

I’m struggling to represent my region, with the advice of the elders that I sought a discussion with about this, in understanding how all of the cultures and all of the regalia are represented, because we specifically spelled out ribbon skirt. I understand from the previous panel that, for example, the red dress is incorporated. I wonder if I could ask Senator McCallum to address — because words are so important — how this wording is all‑encompassing of all the different regalia through the country. Could I ask that she might address this, if it’s the appropriate moment, Mr. Chair?

Senator McCallum: There is no attempt to be all‑inclusive. This is about addressing a problem that became a national and international conversation. It’s just like when we were looking at the rules and trying to define what a prop is. It will be unending. This bill is aimed at the incident in Saskatchewan, and if other people would like to bring other days forward for recognition, they have the option to do that as well. However, it was not meant to — I would never, ever do something like that. Where would we even start to speak about them across the country? This was a moment that had to be taken — a moment of action — to support our children, youth, young women and the transgendered and to bring their issues to the floor. That’s how I saw it — that we bring these voices to the floor. It’s a moment of teaching. That is why I labelled it as such. Thank you.


Senator Audette: I understand the scope of the bill. I think that, for our family friends who are Inuit, as well as for certain nations in other territories, ribbon skirts were not involved.

I understand that we want to represent as many people as possible. However, let’s remember a girl, a family, a nation, symbols and protocols. I encourage all of you to be more representative with those we come across and to know what the symbols found here would be for them. We don’t want to end up with a bill that will lump everything together and that will be easy to get lost in. I understand what you are saying, but I am more comfortable proceeding with that project.

At the risk of repeating myself, my concern is that we don’t have the privilege to have among us the keepers of knowledge and all its symbolism, its history and its protocols. What are we doing for those who are part of that reclamation? I think the government or the governments also have a responsibility when it comes to indigenization, and I don’t feel it in the bill, unless I have missed something.


Senator Duncan: I wasn’t sure I caught Senator Audette’s point. Please understand that I was not suggesting I didn’t support the bill. My concern is that it’s my role to represent my region. In my region, the elders were telling me that the ribbon skirt is not theirs. It is not representative of their Indigenous culture. I just wondered if there was some wording that we could include that might make the bill more inclusive. I heard the witnesses say that they felt the red dress, for example, was incorporated in this. That was my question.

Senator Audette: Thank you, Senator Duncan. It’s not what I meant. What I’m trying to say here is that there are many other nations in my part of the country too that won’t feel represented because either we didn’t have that or we lost that, et cetera. I was trying to say that it’s a beginning. Think about the Inuit here that didn’t have that. Maybe we can have a discussion with them — or if they ask us — about what would be the most representative for them. But I don’t want to stop this, and I didn’t mean that you seemed to be against the bill. Thank you for giving me the time to clarify.

Senator Duncan: Mr. Chair, is it a possibility that while the ribbon skirt day opens up an idea, opens a discussion and shares and starts something and recognizes such an important day and so on, if we didn’t use the term “national,” then maybe it would open the discussion and be more inclusive? That’s just a suggestion. I’m not moving an amendment. I’m just throwing out an idea for consideration. That’s all. Thank you for your time.

Senator McCallum: When I look at calling it the “national” skirt day — if we removed it, I don’t think it would make people feel more inclusive when you’re looking at other regalia that is out there. This issue has gone international already. She’s received letters from all across Canada to support it. The support is there already, so I don’t think removing the word “national” from the title will make a significant contribution. I think it’s important that it stay that way.

Why don’t you make an observation with the bill on other regalia and how it’s an opportunity for them to then speak about even non‑Indigenous people? People are doing that already. It’s not to exclude people. Like I said, this was just an opportunity to bring the voice of this young girl to the floor and to support other young people that are looking at what’s happening.

The Chair: I don’t see any other hands raised. Back to the clause.

Are there any objections that the preamble stand postponed? Agreed.

Are there any objections to clause 1 being carried? Agreed.

Are there any objections to clause 2 being carried? Agreed.

Are there any objections to the preamble being carried? Agreed.

Are there any objections to the title being carried? Agreed.

Are there any objections to the bill being carried? Agreed.

Does the committee wish to consider appending observations to the report?

Senator Duncan: I believe it was Senator McCallum’s suggestion that we consider appending. In representing my region, I would like to make an observation that there is regalia throughout Canada that Canadians should make — must make — every effort to appreciate, recognize and learn the history of in keeping with the preamble of the bill. It’s just a suggestion for consideration by the committee.

Senator Pate: Would Senator Duncan accept something like, “Nothing in this bill would preclude other days or other First Nations or other Indigenous groups from representing their specific culture, ceremonies or norms” — something like that? Maybe the wording could be improved upon by our fantastic analysts and clerk.

Senator Duncan: The suggestion was not that they also bring forward days of recognition, because some concern was expressed that that may dilute days that we are recognizing. The suggestion is just proactive in terms of an observation that the bill recognizes national ribbon skirt day and recognizes the importance of the ribbon skirt and encourages Canadians to recognize other regalia specific to their region. I am struggling with the “nothing would preclude.” I would suggest more proactive language.

Senator Pate: Okay.

Senator Duncan: That’s my only suggestion of an observation, and it comes from the First Nation women in my community whose recognition and regalia is different and is steeped in the history of the Tlingit people. We have the Inuit, and we saw our Governor General wearing her traditional clothing, which is more traditionally sealskin, and we also see Dennis Patterson wearing his in the Senate Chamber, so it varies throughout the country. While I recognize this initiative is national ribbon skirt day, the inclusivity could perhaps be included in an observation.

The Chair: Does the committee wish to discuss this observation in camera?

Senator Audette: I don’t want to delay. I think it’s powerful and important. But at the same time, I’m here to learn. So what do we do? What do you mean when you say we would go in camera?

The Chair: The in camera is just to be able to speak more freely. It’s out of public mode.

Senator Audette: I would go if we need to go there. I invite us to be inclusive if we can, if you have the magic wording to make sure that many nations or many knowledge keepers across Canada will feel represented. Either way, I’m open.

Senator Arnot: I have a question or an observation that may be best dealt with in camera, out of an abundance of caution.

The Chair: We’ll suspend and go in camera.

(The committee continued in camera.)

(The committee resumed in public.)

The Chair: Are there any objections that I report this bill with observations to the Senate?

Hon. Senators: Agreed.

The Chair: Thank you, everyone.

(The committee adjourned.)

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