December 6: First mourn, then work for change

It is now 28 years since Marc Lepine gunned down 14 women at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal simply because they were women.

As each year passes, I struggle with the best way to commemorate this day without it becoming a rote activity. How do we keep meaning about a date that has such personal meaning for so many of us but that is just another day in history for so many others? (I have to remind myself each year that most of the students now attending the universities and colleges that led much of the initial December 6th activism were not yet born in 1989.)

How can we keep December 6th and everything it stands for real?

Have we actually accomplished anything of substance in the struggle to end the misogyny and racism that create the framework within which violence against women thrives?

One step forward, two steps back

Ending misogyny often feels like a Sisyphean task: no sooner do we get that rock close to the top of the hill than it starts to roll back down again, knocking us out of its way as it goes. It can seem as though every positive achievement is followed by a backlash of equal or greater significance. And, sometimes it is hard to know whether what first appears to be positive is a step forward or a step backwards.

Do we see the women’s equality provisions in the Charter of Rights and Freedoms as a step forward when those provisions have yet to transform women’s daily lives?

What are we to make of the recent media frenzy about the behaviour of high-profile men in the entertainment industry ranging from sexual harassment to sexual predation? So many women are still not safe to speak out about the sexual violence they have been subjected to because the men who have sexually molested, abused and assaulted them are their fathers, their uncles, their bosses in small workplaces, their patients in hospitals where they work, guests in hotel rooms they are cleaning, coaches of their school sports team, leaders in their religious communities and won’t make headline news stories.

Do the provisions in Ontario’s Sexual Violence and Harassment Action Plan (SVHAP) intended to address sexual violence on university and college campuses matter if there is no accountability to see that they are properly implemented?

Does the legal requirement that courts consider family violence in custody and access cases mean anything if lawyers and judges are not educated to understand what family violence really means?

Will the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls (NIMMWG) really make a difference?

Nevertheless, we persist

There are reasons to doubt the effectiveness of any of these actions. However, that doubt should not become an excuse not to act. Without action, there is no possibility of change.

While the Charter may not yet have transformed women’s daily lives, it has created a structural framework that makes that transformation possible.

The Harvey Weinstein phenomenon opens the door to discussions about male power that need to happen; discussions that were started in this country as a result of Jian Ghomeshi’s abuse of women and that have led to some positive outcomes.

While the SVHAP has not ended sexual violence on university and college campuses, it has empowered students to become engaged in forging solutions.

Changes to family law alone will not keep women and children who flee abuse safer, but they can lead to the education that is needed for those who implement and interpret those laws.

The NIMMWG has forced all of us to pay attention to both historic and ongoing racism that frame much of the violence to which Indigenous women and girls have been subjected.

So now what?

Each of us will have our own plans for December 6, 2017. For some, it will be a time of private mourning and reflection. Others of us will join events in our communities or take the opportunity to talk to our children about why this is an important day. I will be spending the day in Renfrew County, where I have spent a lot of time since Basil Borutski murdered Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton on September 22, 2015.

When we stand together at the women’s monument in Petawawa, we will strive to put these three murders in the context of the violence directed at women everywhere, even as Borutski is sentenced for his acts.

But what happens after December 6th? Here are a few modest suggestions for what we might do:

  1. Call ourselves feminists out loud every day, even when people don’t seem to want to hear us say so.
  2. Call out misogyny and racism when it happens around us.
  3. Believe women. Trust women.
  4. Find beauty every day. It may not always be easy to find, but it is there, and in it we will find strength.
  5. Trust our rage. Rage is better than grief, and through rage will come action.
  6. Recommit ourselves to working together. Even when we have differences, we can reach across them to find our places of commonality.
  7. Dare to imagine – a day without violence, a week without violence, a lifetime without violence, a world without violence

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