Nearly 30 years later, the problem still persists.
On Dec. 6, people across Canada gathered to commemorate one of the greatest Canadian tragedies of the last century – the Montreal Massacre. Here in London, the Womens Events Committee took to Victoria Park, holding a sombre vigil to both remember the women lost at Ecole Polytechnique three decades ago, and to recognize the women and children who still fall victim to violence to this day.
Year over year, as each of the names of the 14 women who lost their lives are read, silence always follows – an intense moment of reflection on how far we’ve come to ending gender-based violence and how far we still have to go.
Shelley Yeo is one of the founding members of the Womens Event Committee. She has been attending the memorials since the beginning, and said she is saddened by the necessity of the vigil, but encouraged by the growing support.
Just for being women
What made the 1989 murder of 14 women so tragic is the victims were murdered simply because they were women. In Canada, a woman is murdered every two days – mostly at the hands of men and often by their intimate partners.
Sadly, even as more people attend the vigil year over year, the names of victims continues to grow as well.
Whether that is due to an increase in instances or because more people are reporting these crimes, there is no denying that nearly 30 years after the Montreal Massacre, the lesson still resonates with far too few people.
“I know some of the people who lost their lives,” Yeo said. “How long do we have to continue until it ends?
“How do we ensure our kids and our grandkids don’t forget?”
Tragedy brings a community together, but it’s what they do once the ceremonies are over that makes the biggest difference. In the #metoo era, there is an increase in people seeking support, counselling, and sharing their stories.
“I think it’s very much that feeling of ‘finally people are listening.’” Yeo explained. “Their story is valid. They are no longer alone. Everybody’s story is unique and different – (people) are finally understanding that it’s important.”
For Samantha Whiteye, facts and statistics really only go so far.
Whiteye spoke from the heart about Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women (MMIW) in Canada, putting human faces to the mothers, daughters, aunts and sisters that for to long have been overlooked.
It’s easy to think of MMIW as a national issue, far from home – something that’s particularly prevalent on the west coast or the prairies. However, Samantha said the problem is closer to London than most realize.
“To be honest, you always think that it’s not going to happen around you,” she said. “There have been a few stories that are starting to pop up in this area. That’s alarming to me. This area has a large Indigenous presence.”
Awareness of the issue is spreading, helped in large part by social media. However, the numbers of missing and murdered women also continues to increase.
Whiteye said safety is of utmost importance for women.
“I can’t stress that enough, especially for Indigenous women,” she said. “When you’re going out, let people know where you are and when you’ll be returning.”
However, there is much healing taking place with the First Nations communities – an approach that encompasses both men and women and the roles they play.
Dennis Whiteye, manager of community and support services at Atlohsa, said while it’s impossible for him to speak to the pain or the experiences of First Nations women when it comes to violence from men, there is headway being made within the male community.
The I Am A Kind Man initiative allows men the opportunity to be part of the healing process, addressing the lack of balance prevalent in the system.
“This program is available for men to participate and be a part of,” he said. “To share and help and be the healthy Indigenous male in the city.”
Dennis has been to Smithers, BC, and seen the Highway of Tears. It is easy to see how vulnerable First Nations women are, he said, and how dangerous it truly is with a transient working population and no accountability. Male privilege – specifically white male privilege – goes unaddressed.
“All of these hotels were filled with timber trucks and hydro trucks – and these are several non-native men working in a secluded area, probably away from their families,” he said. “Damned if you don’t see native women walking on those roads at night.”
Unseen among us
That isolation often goes unnoticed, and has a strong affect on women locally. Poverty, a lack of family and friend support, and the fear of losing their kids can keep women suffering in silence.
“Our community appears to be safe on the outside but we need to continue to be vigilant for the safety of women and children,” Yeo said.
As for how people can help end violence against women, the first step is straightforward – talk to the victims. Don’t judge. Don’t tell them what to do. Just listen, and lend your support to those services who help people in violent situations.
Call people out if and when it is safe to do so.
“I wish I could think of something magic – ‘if you do this, it will end’ – but there isn’t anything,” she said.
And so another Dec. 6 comes and goes. People will be out the next year and the next, remembering, reflecting, healing and hoping that we can see an end to violence against women.
Feature photo by Emily Stewart.