Nineteen-year-old Kiarra Leggo always had an affinity for Indigenous cultures. When she was 12, she found out why. Though she’d grown up in Medicine Hat, AB, her family were members of the Mi’kmaq Nation in Newfoundland. They’d hidden their heritage in the 1940s to avoid being persecuted.
That discovery ignited a passion for Indigenous rights in Kiarra that changed the way she saw herself and her relationship to her community.
“My knowing made me that much more passionate, more loyal to my people,” says Kiarra.
She joined the Miywasin Friendship Centre, an Aboriginal service program in Medicine Hat, and began volunteering for various Indigenous rights organizations. In 2015, the centre incorporated WE Schools resources and programming into its existing volunteer efforts, helping Kiarra create unexpected impacts in those around her. As she’s learned more about her own background and history, Kiarra has become a powerful voice in her community. She has also learned that sometimes, to honour those who can no longer speak, one can be silent.
In 2016, Kiarra organized a WE Are Silent campaign with other Indigenous youth, going silent for four hours on behalf of more than 2,000 of her missing and murdered sisters.
“We wanted to tell Medicine Hat that this is what’s going on and that this is an issue in our culture,” she says.
"I'm creating a safe space where people can feel like they can tell their stories to me."Kiarra Leggo
For the young people of Miywasin Centre, 2016 had been a tough year.
That March, during the Miywasin Centre’s Healing and Reconciliation Week, they’d heard the stories of community elders who had survived Canada’s notorious residential school system. Later that week, they’d also learned of the thousands of unsolved cases of Indigenous women who had gone missing or turned up dead—including a former volunteer at the centre.
In October, Kiarra and 15 other youth from the centre attended WE Day Alberta in Calgary. On the drive home, they stopped for pizza and brainstormed various campaigns that they could undertake over the coming year.
“I think it was just seeing all those people being passionate about what they wanted to do that kind of brought out a passion in me,” says Kiarra.
The WE Are Silent campaign was a top pick for the group. Its message of going silent as a way to represent those who are voiceless and denied their rights resonated with the teens who had just learned about the thousands of Indigenous women and residential school students who had never made it home. After all, who is more silent than the dead?
"There's so much more they could be doing. They could be putting resources into this they could be making more people aware."Kiarra Leggo
The campaign took over a month to plan. They decided to hold it during the city’s Midnight Madness event, a holiday celebration in the first week of December where businesses stay open until midnight. The centre would set up a table to sell traditional foods and crafts, and during the event, 15 members of the group would remain completely silent for four hours.
The group wrote signs to explain the campaign to visitors. They also cut out all the news articles they could find about the missing and murdered Indigenous women and mounted them on a board, which they prominently displayed as visitors entered. On the day of the event, those who were to take the vow dressed in red—to honour the REDress project, an art installation designed to draw attention to violent crimes against Aboriginal women—and wore red buttons with the words “No more stolen sisters,” written on them.
For four hours, their table sat silent in the middle of the city’s festivities. Only two members of the group remained speaking, so they could explain the campaign to visitors.
“It was harder than we thought it would be,” recalls Kiarra. “Some people knew sign language, others didn’t, so we had to find different ways of communicating what we needed with each other.”
Despite the challenges, the event was a success. One member of the group was inspired to continue her vow for an additional 24 hours, extending it into the following day at school.
“The vow of silence brought us together,” says Carol Syrette, the coordinator of the youth program at the centre. “Initially when we were getting ready and thinking about it, it set us in a mood. But as we were going about it and trying to communicate, it became a lot of fun.”
People in the community talked about the event for months afterwards. A year later, when one of Kiarra’s aunts got a job at Medicine Hat College, she invited Kiarra to give a presentation on the campaign.
“My closing sentence was about how what happens to our culture matters. This isn’t just an Indigenous issue, it’s everyone’s,” says Kiarra. “I ended up bringing the whole room to its feet and most of them were crying.”
The euphoria didn’t last long. A day later, Kiarra and her friends watched in stunned silence as the Supreme Court of Canada decided the case of Tina Fontaine, a 15-year-old First Nations girl who was found dead in 2014. On February 22, a jury acquitted the man, Robert Corimer, who was accused of killing her.
“It felt like all I was doing just backfired, basically,” says Kiarra. “Like the government was saying, we don’t matter as Indigenous women.”
In the end, Kiarra rallied and resolved to continue her fight for awareness and action. Today, she is enrolled in Medicine Hat College in the Social Work program. She credits her involvement in the centre, and in WE’s programming, for her choice of career.
“I could come down here and be having the worst day of my life,” says Kiarra. “But then I see all these youth and it brightens my day immediately because I’m doing what I love to do, and that is helping people.”
Chinelo Onwualu is a writer, editor, and shameless dog person. A communications consultant who's lived in 7 countries, she loves a good story whether she's the one telling them or not.