A time to reflect

In 1989, I was a second-year law student at Queen’s University. December 6 began like any other Wednesday in our busy household. In other words, it was not memorable. I assume that, as usual, I rose before the sun to get in a few hours of studying before anyone else was up. I imagine that quiet time was followed by the usual chaos of getting kids fed, school lunches made, hats and mitts organized and everyone out the door. I don’t remember what happened in the following hours, but I will never forget the evening.

My partner and I had retired to our quiet neighbourhood pub for happy hour to take advantage of the two for one appetizers while we relaxed and caught up with one another away from the eager ears of our four children.

Before we could even place our order for nachos, though, the large screen TV behind the bar announced that a gunman had shot some women engineering students at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal.

Life changed forever that night for many of us living in Canada. Until then, most people thought of violence against women as an individual act perpetrated by one man against one woman. While those of us who worked in the field understood that this violence existed within a framework of systemic misogyny and sexism, few of us had imagined that, in our country, women would ever be targeted collectively by a stranger.

The 32 years since the Montreal Massacre have shown us the extent and depth of misogyny and what that means for women and children. The list of children killed by their fathers — in what must be the most horrific form of intimate partner abuse — is too long to include here. In September 2015, Basil Borutski killed three women, with whom he had had intimate relationships, in one morning, in rural Renfrew County. We have seen men who describe themselves as incels engage in acts of mass killing (for example, the 2018 Toronto van attack), justifying their actions as a response to having been rejected by women. In 2020, the direct line between intimate partner abuse and mass killing was drawn in Canada for the first time, when Gabriel Wortman, who had a history of partner abuse, killed 22 people in rural Nova Scotia. There are more stories, of course; too many to tell here.

From toddlers to elders

I sat down yesterday to write about December 6th, but after staring at my computer for an hour, I left my desk with not a single word on the screen. What could I write or say that had not been written or said already?

But this morning, when I thought about the sheer numbers of women and girls whose lives are ended or otherwise destroyed by misogynist violence, I realized I had to write something.

According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, housed at the University of Guelph, 159 women and girls were violently killed in Canada so far this year. Their data shows another 18 suspicious deaths. The Ontario Association of Interval and Transition Houses’ 2021 femicide list shows that 58 women and girls were killed in Ontario in the past 12 months. Two of those victims were under five years old; three were in their 80s.

Femicide is difficult to document because police forces have not historically collected the detailed data required to allow researchers to assess whether the killing of a woman or girl was because she was a woman or girl – which is what makes it an act of femicide – or whether the killing was not connected to her gender.

Two steps forward, one step back

It would be disingenuous to say that nothing positive has happened since 1989. There have been important systemic changes. But if often feels as though we step forward only to step back. The pandemic has shone a brutal light on the reality of intimate partner abuse in Canada, the rate of which increased dramatically in the early months of lockdowns and has yet to begin to fall.

Police are better trained and there have been some improvements to criminal laws, but still only about 25 percent of women report abuse by their partner.

Despite recent positive changes to family laws, too many court decisions continue to reflect the notion that children are always better served if both parents are equally involved in their lives, even when the mother has been (and often continues to be) abused by the father.

The National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls should have made it impossible for anyone to deny that change needs to happen, and happen quickly. However, governments at all levels still fail to acknowledge or be accountable for the impact on Indigenous women and girls of the history of colonization and ongoing racism in this country.

Community-based supports and services continue to scramble for sufficient funding to keep their doors open and their waiting lists short.

We have much yet to accomplish before our communities offer truly safe space for the most vulnerable who inhabit them. Although progress is slow, I hold onto hope that we are inching our way in the right direction.

Unlike for me and others of my generation, December 6th now stands as a historic event rather than a lived experience, but it is still an important occasion for us to stand together, reflect and recommit to action to end violence against women and gender-based violence.

Together we will rise.

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