Forum remembers Ecole Polytechnique, fights violence against women today

The 14 women killed at École Polytechnique in Montreal 22 years ago were remembered by over a hundred participants at a public education forum for ending violence against women, which took place at The Cultch on Vancouver's East Side on Dec. 3, one of many such events across the country. 

Fourteen other people, 10 women and four men, were also injured during the Montreal Massacre, which took place on Dec. 6, 1989.

Those gathered talked, listened, and strategized around women's resistance to violence against women. The day was filled with sadness and strength, inspiration and frustration, as women discussed the power of women and the difficulties of combating gendered violence in a patriarchal world.

Many stories shared were very personal and while it was impossible not to connect one's own lived experiences to that systematic abuse, the thread that ran throughout the day was about the responsibility political authority. As Daisy Kler, a member of the South Asian Coalition on Ending Violence Against Women, said: "Violence against women is a political issue. A question of power and domination, not an individual pathology."

During a panel called "The State Betrayal of Battered Women," Angela Marie MacDougall, of Battered Women's Support Services (BWSS), pointed out that "colonization is at the heart of violence against women." It was something participants were reminded of throughout the day as women discussed experiences of marginalization and violence directly related to Canada's legacy of racism and of marginalization of Aboriginal women's voices.

This point seemed particularly pertinent in light of B.C.'s Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Women, which continued, even after a number of women's groups pulled out when funding for legal representation was denied.

That the voices of Aboriginal women and many of those who live in the Downtown Eastside were left out of the inquiry has led many to question whether or not the process would provide anything in terms of preventing further violence to marginalized women. Lee Lakeman, of Vancouver Rape Relief, said: "It's important that you realize this is set up by the provincial government... and they could have, at any point, improved and expanded it. They still could." This inquiry has continued without the voices of the women most affected.

So while, on one hand, women and women's organizations desperately need state support in terms of funding, in terms of the way in which systems and processes are set up, in terms of dealing with violence against women, and in terms of simply naming this abuse as gendered, the state has never been a friend to women. Women rely on a system that has abandoned them many times over.

"At BWSS, there are over 9,500 requests each year and the requests of battered women remind us very much that it is the most pressing social issue of our time," MacDougall said.

Women are made to, out of necessity, reach out to the state for help, she said, for safety and for justice and yet, when they do they are betrayed. We have, somehow, erased gender relations and power dynamics in areas like family law, which has adopted an approach of gender, class and race neutrality that makes it an extremely dangerous place for women to go for help, as often, it can compound the feeling of helplessness and silencing women already experience in situations of abuse.

"No state apparatus is working in favour of women," Kler responded.

A panel which looked at prostitution as a form of violence against women, concluded the day. Lakeman said this gender neutrality which was in the process of infiltrating the law and state systems was also being forced into conversations around prostitution.

She said, in relation to the missing women inquiry, that some wanted the term "prostitute" replaced by the term "sex worker," skipping over what she described as the key word: "woman."

Lakeman added that police are required to acknowledge categories in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms, and, therefore, pay extra attention as well as offer protective support to women and, in particular, Aboriginal women.

"There is no category in the law called 'sex worker.' It may look like they're pretending to be co-operative or respectful but what they're really doing is getting out of their Charter obligation," she said.

"When people press you to say 'sex worker' it's really important that you know it isn't just a matter of opinion -- one [term] gets the authorities out of any accountability and one holds them accountable for the status of women and the status of Aboriginal people."

Meghan Murphy is the host and producer of The F Word radio show and the editor of www.feminisms.org. She is a Master's candidate in the Department of Gender, Sexuality, & Women's Studies at Simon Fraser University and is completing a graduate degree at the UBC School of Journalism.

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