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December 6th, 2019 marks 30 years since the Montreal Massacre at École Polytechnique, when Marc Lepine lined up 14 women engineering students and executed them for being feminists. Since that horrifying event, every year vigils are held on December 6th to commemorate the lives of the women killed that day, simply because they were women, trying to get an education.
So what exactly, if anything, have we learned since then? It seems to me like every time, as a society, we think we've progressed, another man comes along to brutally remind us that we may not be any further in addressing violence against women than we were 30 years ago. While our language may have given us some clarity in the terms 'sexual violence' or 'bystander intervention', our actions have not changed in any significant way. In fact, a recently released report by the Trail RCMP found that domestic violence reports actually increased in 2019. While it may indicate higher counts of reporting due to better available resources, the issue remains a big problem in Canada.
Sexual Violence Is Rampant In Canada
It's no secret that sexual violence is an important issue, but just how bad is it? According to the report on gender based violence by the Canadian government's Status of Women, when all other risk factors are taken into account, women are at a 20% higher risk of violent victimization than men; of all sexual assaults, nearly half were against young women under the age of 25; and women with a disability are sexually assaulted nearly twice as often annually.
The problem becomes much more dangerous for women when men feel a perceived threat to their power, or when women stand up for themselves. In this report for NPR last year, the UN study showed that over 50,000 women were killed by intimate partners, with another 27,000 murdered by men outside the family for religious or cultural reasons. In Canada, a woman is killed every 2.5 days, with the vast majority of the perpetrators being men they knew as either a current or former intimate partner.
Why Doesn't The Law Protect Survivors?
According to the graphic above, only .3% of all sexual assault incidents in Canada ever make it to a conviction in a court of law. Should it come as any surprise then, that male perpetrators are emboldened to continue punishing women? There seem to be little, if any, deterrents to sexual violence. The most high-profile case in this country in recent memory was that of Jian Ghomeshi, the disgraced former CBC radio personality who was charged with four counts of sexual assault, including one count of overcoming by choking. He was acquitted on all charges, and 4 years later penned an essay in the New York Review of Books. In that essay, he maintained his innocence, and while he said he was 'emotionally thoughtless in the way I treated those I dated', he never took full responsibility for his actions.
The other issue compounding the problem with sexual violence in Canada is the way in which trials can be conducted. Elaine Craig, a law professor at Dalhousie University, wrote a book after years of researching this issue. Entitled Putting Trials on Trial: Sexual Assault and the Failure of the Legal Profession, the book details the gruelling and often embarrassing cross-examinations of sexual assault victims. It also contains examples of misconduct by a number of legal professionals, including judges, prosecutors, and defence lawyers. Remember Robin Camp, the "keep-your-knees-together" judge? He's in that book, so that should be reason enough for you to read it. Oh yes, and one more thing about Robin Camp. He was reinstated as a lawyer in Alberta a year later.
We Need To Talk About Stalking
One statistic in Canada that is often overlooked is that of stalking. While sexual violence is usually viewed in terms of physical attacks or online abuses such as revenge porn, stalking is very insidious and is still not widely understood or discussed, even in feminist circles. According to Stats Canada, 1 in 20 people in Canada has been stalked by a current or former intimate partner, with 1 in 3 leading to physical violence. In addition, abusive partners will sometimes use 'stalkerware' to monitor women's smartphone activities.
It does appear that some good news is on the horizon. Last month, the Manitoba provincial government amended their Employment Standards Code to include all victims of sexual violence and stalking regardless of whether they know the assailant. However, while legislation like this is a good idea, there remains a huge gap in the resources required to assist women who are attempting to leave abusive spouses. A recent report by Nelson House in Ottawa found that over the past year, nearly 700 women were turned away from the shelter due to lack of funding and/or beds. I had the opportunity to speak with Julie Lalonde, a public speaker and educator on sexual violence, about her own personal journey with stalking, as well as the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre.
Vigils Remind Us To Be Vigilant
So on the 30th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, what can we do to honour the memory of the 14 women slain at their school, and the hundreds of thousands of women globally who have been murdered in the years since that fateful day? Well for starters, we need to say their names. Let's start with the 14 women who were killed at École Polytechnique:
Next, go to a vigil if you can. Stand with the women in your life and let them know that you support them, that you will remember and honour the memories of these women, and all women, who were killed simply for being women. There are vigils being held across the country, and you can likely find them on Facebook and/or Twitter by searching any of these hashtags: #December6 #MontrealMassacre #EcolePolytechnique
Finally, do some reading online and educate yourselves on violence against women, the Montreal Massacre, and what it means to the survivors then and the next generation of women who live now under the shroud of sexual violence. I recommend starting here, here, here and here.
We can and must do better for the women in our lives, whether we know them personally or not. It cannot wait another 30 years.
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