Whose deaths warrant public grief?

On April 6th, a collision between a bus carrying the Humboldt (Saskatchewan) Broncos Junior A hockey team and a semi-trailer truck resulted in 15 deaths and 14 injuries.

This is a tragedy for the families and friends of those killed and injured as well as for the small community of Humboldt; a tragedy that will be felt for a very long time.

But is it a national tragedy? Did it warrant hospital visits from the Prime Minister? A nationally televised vigil? Commentary from sportscasters and athletes from across the country and beyond? Headline media coverage for a week (so far)? Why do so many need to make this their tragedy?

Keeping private grief private

I have sincere respect for the grief of family members and friends of those injured and killed and hope I never have to feel such pain. However, their loss and grief are not mine.

And, when I compare the media, political and public response to this accident with responses to other tragic events in Canada and around the world, I question how we set our priorities when we define tragedy and decide which deaths to mourn.

Let’s not forget about dead women

The 15 femicide-related deaths in Ontario in the first 11 weeks of 2018 were acknowledged individually in short media reports that ran for a day or two.

The only media coverage I was able to find that noted the pattern and unusually high number of these deaths appeared in an op-ed piece I co-authored and in a piece I wrote for my website.

To the best of my knowledge, the CBC did not broadcast any vigils held to mark these deaths, and politicians did not visit with family members, extend condolences in Parliament or Queen’s Park or attend the funerals of those who had died.

These deaths form part of an ongoing, systemic culture of violence against women. Public recognition, acknowledgement and grieving would have been appropriate, and yet these deaths were treated as individual and private tragedies.

Is it only a tragedy if it happens here?

A chemical gas attack by the Syrian government on the community of Douma earlier this week resulted in the deaths of at least 42 people, including children and babies, in their homes.

On April 3, 17 Palestinians, mostly young people, armed with nothing more than rocks, were killed and another 1,500 wounded by Israeli soldiers as the Palestinians demonstrated along the Gaza Strip’s eastern border. Another nine people have been killed in subsequent demonstrations.

These are public tragedies, even though they took place far from Canada. They warrant as much or more media and political attention as do the Humboldt Broncos deaths. And yet, almost without exception, they are not getting that attention.

Few Canadian politicians are making public comments about the killings of Syrian citizens by their own government or of Palestinian young people by Israeli soldiers. There is little ongoing media coverage.

One exception to this silence has been NDP MP Niki Ashton, who wrote earlier this week:

“At this point, I’m sure we’ve all seen and read the horrifying stories coming out of Palestine – 1416 injured and 18 dead for protesting. . . .  Many of you have called for more to be done, [and] you’re right [to do so].

Settlements must end.
The blockade must end.
Indiscriminate violence must end.
The occupation must end.

Politicians can no longer remain silent. The deafening silence from the Liberal government is putting to shame our reputation as a country that defends peace and justice in the world.”

Vicarious grief

When something tragic happens in my personal life, I don’t expect or want it to become fodder for national attention and vicarious grief by strangers. My grief is not lessened by having it shared with others I don’t know and who have no personal connection to what has happened.

On the other hand, when terrible things happen that could be prevented by public or political action, making those tragedies public and sharing the grief creates an opportunity for us to come together and, collectively, mourn then work for change.

6 thoughts on “Whose deaths warrant public grief?

    • Well said. I have been struggling with a similar sentiment of competing realities. What made me feel shameful for thinking this? Thank you for sharing and permission to question.

  1. Spot on Pam! I feel terrible for the family, friends and neighbours of those killed and injured but the wall to wall mourning really did silence so much relevant political policy that can shape a more secure Canadian landscape for all who still walk it! Just think if all that energy was channeled into improving social security for youth who fear their future is grim, with or without education.

  2. I appreciate this article very much Pamela. On Thursday I was at an event with a large group. A number of folks in the room were wearing hockey jerseys to show support for Humboldt. While I would never challenge any form of support that people want to show for others in grief, I couldn’t help but wonder why we don’t have this kind of solidarity and profound sense of loss for the fifteen women killed in Ontario that you reference. And we know that more have been killed since March. Women being killed is a number that will only increase as the year unfolds. Also in the room on Thursday were Indigenous leaders, some of whom were wearing jerseys to show their support. I couldn’t help but reflect on the high numbers of Indigenous girls and women whose deaths go unremarked in the public sphere. Last evening, I overheard two women talking about the death of a friend. They were planning a memorial to give tribute to her life and to acknowledge her death as a loss that goes unrecognized in the community because she was a sex worker.

    Your title is a powerful question that begs thoughtful reflection – whose deaths warrant public grief? What do public outpourings of grief tell us about ourselves as a society? What if every death was felt or acknowledged as the loss that it is? How might that change us?

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