20 Years Later, Violence Against Women Prevails

Twenty years ago on Dec. 6, 1989, a lone man walked into Ecole Polytechnique intent on killing women. Fourteen women were singled out for their gender and murdered. Before turning the gun on himself, the shooter reportedly shouted, “I want the women. I hate feminists!” The gunman’s vitriol and hatred of women shook Canada to its core. While many saw this act as an isolated incident, something not likely to occur again, the past 20 years have shown we still have a long way to go in recognizing the reality of violence against women.

The aftermath of what became known as the Montreal Massacre was a public outcry to acknowledge the full extent of misogyny and violent acts towards women and girls. In response, Canada’s government proclaimed Dec. 6 as a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Women across Canada recognized the Montreal Massacre as a misogynistic act and an example of the everyday sexism that women are subjected to, whether by strangers, intimate partners, family or friends. Dec. 6 gives us an opportunity to reflect on the violence that many women and girls endure every day and to remember the impact of the horror that still resonates 20 years after the massacre at Ecole Polytechnique.

The government website regarding The National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women says that this is a “day on which communities can consider concrete actions to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.” While positive dialogues and changes did emerge from the horrific tragedy of Dec. 6, concrete changes to eliminate violence against women are long overdue. Although Dec. 6 has come to represent a day of mourning and sisterhood for many women in Canada, it is a day in which all Canadians should acknowledge the extent of this violence and demand that changes be made.

According to Statistics Canada, between April 1, 2007 and March 31, 2008, 101,000 women and children were admitted to 569 shelters across Canada. In 2007, four times as many women were killed by their partner than men. When spousal abuse is taking place, women still represent 83 per cent of those being abused. While the rates of family violence and violence against women have been on the decline, the reality is that these rates are still far too high and women, especially immigrant, disabled and women of colour, are far too over-represented in domestic violence, assault and homicide.

In 1995, in response to the Montreal Massacre, the government introduced The Firearms Act, requiring permits and registration for all guns. The shooter had used a semi-automatic weapon during the Massacre and it was hoped that by registering all guns, such horrific acts of violence would not be repeated. Although the registry does not prevent people from owning guns, some can be denied firearms if they have a record of violence. Now, only weeks before the 20th anniversary of the murder of these women, Canada’s Long Gun Registry could soon be a thing of the past. Whether or not the private members bill that hopes to abolish the Long Gun Registry passes, it will not be seen until sometime in 2010. Regardless, the act was put in place to help curb violent assaults, particularly in situations like the massacre. One of the few long standing concrete measures to help protect women may be pulled out from under us by the current Conservative government.

In the 20 years since the shooting at Ecole Polytechnique, besides high rates of domestic violence and assault, we have seen a number of shootings in public places and schools. Typically, little attention is given to the gender of the victims in these shootings. While many see such acts of misogyny as “isolated incidents,” we only need to look back at the last five years to see evidence to the contrary.

Since 2006 there have been at least four shootings that targeted women in schools or public places. In September 2006 a man entered Platte Canyon High School in Colorado and took six female students hostage, sexually assaulting them before killing a 16-year old woman. In October 2006 a gunman walked into the schoolhouse of the Amish community, Nickel Mines. After ordering the boys and adults to leave, he shot and killed five girls aged 6-13, and injured seven others, before killing himself. On March 11, 2009 in Albertville, Germany a teenage boy walked into a school killing eight girls, one boy, and a female teacher before later being shot by police. Finally, on Aug. 5, 2009 a man walked into a Woman’s Fitness Centre in Pittsburgh and killed three women, injuring nine others before killing himself.

The fact that these “isolated incidents” continue to occur is further proof that Canada and the world has a long way to go in combating violence against women and girls. And yet so little attention is given to the fact that, in each of these cases, the shooter was either suspected of or knowingly targeting women and girls. It is time to wake up to the reality that these incidents will not disappear if nothing is done to stop them. Canada needs to take responsibility for fostering an environment where misogyny and abuse are the norm. It is time to take actions to educate society about healthy relationships and respect, and to enforce zero tolerance for abusive, misogynistic, and oppressive behaviour.

A number of vigils and events will be taking place in Winnipeg surrounding both the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women and the 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. I urge you to take part and use this day to engage in discussions with family, friends and politicians about the impact of violence against women. You can take part in the annual candlelight vigil held at the Women’s Memorial Grove on the Legislative Grounds at 7 p.m. on Dec. 6, 2009.

In memory of Geneviève Bergeron, aged 21; Hélène Colgan, 23; Nathalie Croteau, 23; Barbara Daigneault, 22; Anne-Marie Edward, 21; Maud Haviernick, 29; Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31; Maryse Laganière, 25; Maryse Leclair, 23; Anne-Marie Lemay, 22; Sonia Pelletier, 28; Michèle Richard, 21; Annie St-Arneault, 23 and Annie Turcotte, aged 21.