Choosing which wars we remember

As Remembrance Day rolled around this year, once again I found myself thinking of how selective our country’s commemorations of the war dead are. On November 11, there are many wars this nation does not commemorate: the colonization of the country we now call Canada and the ongoing war, called racism, against Indigenous peoples, the apparently never-ending violence to which women and girls are subjected and the devastation of the environment, to name just three.

All of these are surely worthy of the kind of attention paid to Remembrance Day. While not a statutory holiday, it is recognized as a national holiday in the Holidays Act. Federal employees have the day off. In Ontario, provincial government offices are closed, as are banks, while schools and most businesses are open. Towns and cities large and small across the country hold commemorative ceremonies at cenotaphs, in schools and in churches. The CBC runs endless stories about the heroes of wars past. Inevitably, wars and those who lived through them are valourized.

Let’s take a minute to consider just one of those other wars; one that does not qualify for such attention.

Friendly fire at home

Never have as many women in Canada been killed by men who profess to love them as this year. The annual average of 65 has been far surpassed: with two months still to go before the end of the year, 120 girls and women have been killed by men in acts of femicide. This number does not include women who are missing or whose deaths have been deemed “suspicious” by police.

It is no exaggeration to say that women who suffer abuse and violence at the hands of the men who claim to love them live in a war zone where every day survived becomes a battle victory. Unlike military soldiers, though, these women did not sign up for combat duty; they did not understand that there was an inherent risk of injury or death when they became involved in an intimate relationship.

As Brian Vallee has written:

“We pay tribute to these fallen men and women [in the military and law enforcement], often with national television, newspaper and magazine coverage. . . . There is another war – largely overlooked but even more deadly – with far more victims killed by “hostiles.” But these dead are not labelled heroes, nor are they honoured in the national media or in formal ceremonies. . . . This war is the War on Women.”

Time for change

It is time that governments, the public and the media give the same attention as is given to other heroes and casualties of war to women injured and killed by the men they know and loved. If we did this, perhaps then we would see that these women – who spend every day of their lives trying to outwit the enemy, stay one step ahead of him, protect their children, stay alive for one more day — are just as much heroes as any soldier serving in a war in another land. 

We need to make December 6th, already designated as a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, a day that resonates with Canadians in the way that Remembrance Day does. The events of December 6, 1989, should be embedded in history, politics, law and social studies classes so that what happened is as well-known as the wars that are commemorated on November 11.

We need to talk about all wars – not just the ones fought on other countries’ land — on November 11th.  We don’t need to stop commemorating the injured and dead from those wars, but we need to find a new way to do it. We need to find a way that goes beyond the day of poppies and bugle calls and continues throughout the year: the PTSD and other long-term injuries experienced by women who have been abused as well as  soldiers need more than one day a year of attention.

We need a Highway of Heroes for those who have died in the War on Women.

Lucy Decoutere, a Canadian soldier and former actor, spoke at my grandson’s school’s Remembrance Day event this year. We live in Kingston, a military town, so Remembrance Day here is a big, very military event, even in the elementary schools. Lucy Decoutere, who many of you may remember as one of the women who accused Jian Ghomeshi of sexual assault, asked the kids to think about when they had had to be courageous, giving them a chance to understand that courage, strength and heroism are not limited to those who don uniforms and weapons.

Congratulations to Central Public School for stepping outside the box of traditional Remembrance Day programs and to Lucy for stepping up: thanks to both of them, these kids got to hear from a woman who showed courage and integrity throughout her own experience with war right here on Canadian soil.

It’s a big step in the right direction of turning November 11th into a day that commemorates all those harmed by all wars.

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