We are here today to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre.
Twenty five years since 14 women were gunned down for no reason other than being women.
Twenty five years since this country was shocked and horrified; since governments and individuals alike said – never again.
One week since Zahra Abdille and her sons Faris and Zain were killed in their Toronto home by their husband/father.
This is the 25th year of speeches and vigils commemorating those murders, of remembering lost hopes and possibilities, of committing ourselves once again to working to eliminate violence against women.
But to what end?
We know the rhetoric: First mourn, then work for change.
We attend the vigils, we wear the rose button, we give money, we give our time.
And that matters. Our work has led to important law reform. It is our work that made stalking a criminal offence, that changed the legal understanding of consent in sexual assault cases, that changed the law so women’s private records stay private, that has made consideration of violence a mandatory factor in custody and access cases in family court, that has given teeth to Ontario’s restraining order regime.
Our work has led to the development of Victim Witness Assistance Programs across Ontario (here in Brockville, VWAP has been supporting victims in criminal court since 2002) and of the Family Court Support Worker Program, implemented across the province 3 years ago to provide assistance to victims of domestic violence in family court.
Our work has led to the funding of domestic violence coordinating committees like the Victims Issues Coordinating Committee started here in 2002, which has been able to facilitate the expansion, coordination and delivery of victim services in Leeds and Grenville Counties, including the creation of a domestic violence protocol and DV training for the community and police.
The list of accomplishments across the province is long, and this community has much to be proud of – not just in its response to violence against women but in its commemoration and recognition of the women who experience that violence. As the Women’s Monument unveiled on Blockhouse Island in 2011 says:
This memorial is dedicated to all the women and girls for whom violence is a daily reality, to those who have died as a result of violence and to all the women and men who work to end it.
Yet, here we are 25 years later, and women in our communities are still being beaten, raped, sexually assaulted, sexually harassed and killed in an ongoing misogynist war on women.
Remember Zahra, Faris and Zain.
One woman is killed every six days in Canada by men who claim to love them. By men who think they are justified; who think they are entitled; who think they deserve to wield that kind of power and control.
By men who sometimes use long guns that they no longer have to register.
Thousands more women are battered and beaten and emotionally abused. More still are routinely threatened with physical harm. Others are financially imprisoned and socially isolated to the extent that they know there is no point in even trying to escape.
And still, women are disbelieved, punished and silenced when we tell our stories of violence, whether we tell those stories to our families, friends, the police, in criminal court, in family court, on social media.
Rebecca Solnit talks about the silencing of women in a recent Harper’s magazine essay. Let’s think about her remarks in the context of the past few weeks in this country – the Jian Ghomeshi/CBC revelations, the suspension of two MPs and the suspension of two players in the OHL. She says:
Not uncommonly, when a woman says something that impugns a man, particularly a powerful one…. or an institution, especially if it has to do with sex, the response will be to question not just the facts of her assertion but her capacity to speak and her right to do so. Generations of women have been told they are delusional, confused, manipulative, malicious, conspiratorial, congenitally dishonest, often all at once.
She describes silence as having three concentric circles, each of which reinforces the other.
First come the internal inhibitions, self-doubts, repressions, confusions and shame that make it difficult to impossible to speak, along with the fear of being punished or ostracized for doing so…. Surrounding this circle are the forces who attempt to silence someone who speaks up anyway, whether by humiliating or bullying or outright violence, including violence unto death. Finally, in the outermost ring, when the story has been told and the speaker has not been silenced directly, tale and teller are discredited.
As Judith Hermann (Trauma and Recovery) says:
Secrecy and silence are the perpetrator’s first line of defense. If secrecy fails, the perpetrator attacks the credibility of his victim. If he cannot silence her absolutely, he tries to make sure that no one listens… After each atrocity one can expect to hear the same predictable apologies: It never happened; the victim lies; the victim exaggerates; the victim brought it on herself; and in any case it is time to forget the past and move on. The more powerful the perpetrator the greater is his prerogative to name and define reality, and the more completely his arguments prevail.
Writing about the Jian Ghomeshi story, Heather Mallick said in the Toronto Star:
[This incident] has revealed the huge spiked metal barriers women still face – even now in times we call modern – when they speak out about the hideous things that have been done to them… When it comes to redress for suffering a sexual assault, Canadian women might as well be in Saudi Arabia. We whisper quietly among friends and quietly trade stories or we shut up for our entire careers. The barriers start with institutional sexism and pile on with the almost impossible burden of proof for acts committed in private, the adulation offered to well-paid and well-connected men… When you read the violence, mockery and hate handed out to the unnamed women online who were already too scared to call the police, you might think feminism had never been invented.
November 11 is a national day to remember those who have been killed in military wars. Military war is a terrible thing, and the death of every soldier deserves notice.
But these soldiers were going to work. They had signed on for jobs and careers they knew carried a significant risk of injury or death.
When women get married, they are not signing on for a life-threatening career. However, given the statistics, it is no exaggeration to say that many women live in a war zone where every day survived becomes a battle victory. These women, who spend every day of their lives trying to outwit the enemy, stay one step ahead of him, protect the children, stay alive for just one more day, are heroes as much as any soldier serving in a military war.
These women, when they are killed, do not warrant an honour guard or the presence of the Prime Minister at their funerals, do not warrant the naming of a highway to honour their sacrifice, do not garner front page news coverage for more than, at best, a day.
December 6 provides us with the opportunity to remember and commemorate those injured on a daily basis and killed – one every six days – in the war on women in Canada.
Remember Zahra, Faris and Zain.
The best way to honour these women is to leave events like this one with a renewed personal commitment to take action to end violence against women.
The place to start is to dare to imagine – to dare to imagine something that seems unimaginable.
So – let us do just that. Let us all imagine a day without violence, a week without violence, a lifetime without violence, a world without violence.
You know, at times, the task of moving towards that vision seems monumental.
When I read about T-shirts at Carleton University, where there has been a hard-fought battle to have sexual assault on campus taken seriously, that say “Fuck Safe Space” with “Or Me” on the back, I wonder if we have made any progress at all.
But then I read that the Chancellor of Ottawa U has cancelled the men’s competitive hockey program because of a culture of sexualized violence and has instituted a task force to look at sexual violence on that campus, and I feel more positive.
When I watch the media try to blame Jayney Palmer for being beaten unconscious by her then fiancé Ray Rice, I despair.
But then I read Margaret Wente and Leah McLaren, Globe and Mail columnists not prone to feminist opinions, write powerfully about why women remain with abusive men and why they should not be blamed or judged for doing so, and I feel hope.
When I read Denise Balkisoon in the Globe and Mail, with her righteous and important rage, say that it is useless and thoroughly disappointing for women to report male violence because they are not going to be believed unless they are the “right” sort of women, I want to give up.
But then I read Owen Pallett, a musician and friend of Jian Ghomshi:
At no point here will I ever give my friend Jian’s version of the truth more credence than the version of the truth offered up by three women. Anonymity does not mean these women do not exist…. Let’s be clear. Whether the court decides that predatory men are punished or exonerated does not silence the voices of the victims. It does not make victims liars. Whether our culture continues to celebrate the works of predatory men is another issue. It does not silence the voices of the victims.
And I am ready to keep working.
When I see that the Miss America pageant is still alive and well in 2014, with women being awarded prizes and scholarships based largely on their appearance, I sigh.
But then when I listen to the new Miss America declare that she is a survivor of dating violence and wants to make domestic violence the issue she champions during her reign, I smile.
When I see the many ways in which the internet continues to objectify and sexualize women, I worry about the future of my 4 grandsons.
But then I see a YouTube video by a young man (17 years old) insisting that YouTubers hold one another accountable for online sexual assault, and I think maybe it will be okay.
When I hear the backlash to Emma Watson’s powerful call to boys and men to join with girls and women in working for women’s equality – backlash that called her every offensive misogynist name you can think of – I wonder what on earth we have all come to.
But then, I remember the final words of her speech. Emma Watson, hero to so many of my grandsons’ generation for her role as Hermione in the Harry Potter films, said, to those who are hesitant to join in the fight for women’s equality: “If not me, who? And if not now, when?” and I am inspired.
When I see a federal government that again and again denies the reality of women’s inequality in this country, cuts funding to women’s equality research and advocacy organizations, refuses to establish an Inquiry into murdered and missing Aboriginal women, I am angry beyond what words can express.
But then, when I hear the leaders of the other two main parties talk with passion about their commitment to women’s rights; when one of those leaders goes so far as to say members of his caucus will be required to vote pro-choice regardless of their personal beliefs, when that leader moves quickly to address allegations of sexual harassment against members of his caucus, I can move beyond my anger to action once more.
In 1941, Wonder Woman debuted. The press release announcing her arrival on the scene of super heroes said, in part:
Wonder Woman was conceived to set up a standard among children and young people of strong, free, courageous womanhood; to combat the idea that women are inferior to men, and to inspire girls to self-confidence and professions monopolized by men because the only hope for civilization is the greater freedom, development and equality of women in all fields of human activity.
We may not have exactly achieved the goal so ambitiously set out by the creators of Wonder Woman all those years ago, which is why we need sexual assault centres, women’s shelters, women’s advocacy organizations, and a government that is committed to women’s equality.
And, when we leave here today, we all need to ask ourselves, as Emma Watson encouraged:
If not me, who? And if not now, when?
Surely, this week`s victims in the war on women – Zahra, Faris and Zain – deserve no less.