Voices for change: Reflections on the 25th anniversary of December 6

| December 5, 2014
Voices for change: Reflections on the 25th anniversary of December 6

It was 25 years ago this weekend on December 6, 1989 that 14 young women were separated from their male classmates before being shot and killed. The gunman said it was because they were all feminists, all women.

That event brought a new awareness of discrimination against women into the media and into daily life. On this anniversary, rabble called on a range of women to talk about what the events of that day have meant in their own lives and what it means for women today and in the future.

 

Lucia Lorenzi, anti-violence blogger and doctoral candidate in English at the University of British Columbia:

As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the senseless and brutal deaths of 14 vibrant young women, I feel the intense grief, anguish and anger that Canadian women continue to face because of gender violence. Each year seems to carry its own horrendous cycle of news stories: rape chants; murdered spouses; missing and murdered Indigenous women; sexual assaults; sexual harassment. Our calendars continue to be marked by violence. We feel it in our bones, our flesh, our hearts.

December 6, however, is an opportunity for us to renew and re-gather our strength, to draw upon the wisdom and the passion of our communities and to honour the lives of women who have suffered at the hands of a patriarchal and colonial system which fails to value their lives, their bodies and their experiences. On this day, our grief is tempered by our hope; our righteous anger is empowered by honouring the lives of women and girls. 

If we are to achieve change, it will require bureaucrats and politicians to see violence against women as more than a mere issue of statistics and policies. It will require those in power to see incidents of violence as more than data that collects dust in annual reports, but as visceral, lived issues that are affecting the collective capacity of our nation to afford equal human rights to all citizens. 

 

Julie Lalonde, social justice and feminist advocate:

For 25 years in this country, we've spent the sixth of December remembering misogyny in its purest form. December 6 should serve as a yearly reminder to be vigilant in resisting sexism and violence against women in all its forms. And yet, every year, there are detractors who tell us to "move on"; who insist December 6, 1989 were the actions of one man and in no way represent a broader cultural issue. We have endured 25 years of "Shut up, go away, move on" and yet, the violence continues.

I implore everyone to take the time to stop and remember. Remember what misogyny looks like when it goes unchecked. Remember that speaking out against violence is a revolutionary act that is not always safe. And know that every time you blame, shame or silence a survivor, you are forgetting. Every time you rush to defend abusers and ostracize survivors, you are forgetting. On December 6, remember. We must remember that misogyny kills and only we can stop the violence.

 

Mercedes Allen, trans activist and freelance writer:

It has been 25 years since the Montreal Massacre, and yet gender-based violence remains an urgent, persistent issue. Canadians might hope that things are changing for the better, but there are signs that this is not the case, or at least not entirely. This year alone brought a recent upsurge in "men's rights" groups that portray womens' equality and enfranchisement as being somehow unfair and threatening, while colleges and institutions still had issues navigating consent, and a public figure attempted to use BDSM as an excuse for abusive and predatory behaviour.

There also remains the problem of how intersectionality amplifies the potential for violence. Our government still has no will to examine the systemic roots of the ongoing phenomenon of missing and murdered Indigenous women. Sex workers and trans* people still face high rates of violence, which are then minimized or erased entirely because of stigma. Lines of race, class and ideology continue to increase risk while sometimes also generating exclusion within womens' spaces as well.

The National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women is more than simply a memorial. It is also a call to look outward to address the ways in which violence against women is institutionally entrenched and rationalized. It is also a challenge to look inward at ways that collective movements can overcome divisions in order to ensure that we can one day achieve justice for all women. 

 

Aalya Ahmed, labour and feminist advocate:

I was an 18-year-old woman that December 6. I vividly remember how the corridors of my high school seemed to close in on me when I heard the news. Then, I did not call myself a feminist, but now it's painfully obvious, as it began to seem at that time, that capitalist patriarchal culture exalts violent masculinity and everywhere restricts the freedoms of women and girls, including our right to occupy public spaces and institutions -- workplaces, universities, schools, public transportation, etc. All over the world, girls are being attacked, raped and kidnapped for going to school, for riding buses. Aboriginal women and girls in Canada are being murdered.

Much-needed infrastructure that would help women and girls escape oppression, venture into public space and realize their dreams -- child care, affordable education, shelters and social assistance -- gets slashed and goes begging while we offer yet more tax cuts to wealthy men.

December 6 marks a moment to talk about these issues, about men's violence against women as well as the glorification of violent masculinity and using aggression as a solution to life's problems. More men now are opening up to the idea that their cultures' notions of conventional masculinity are harmful. It's now no longer about lamenting "violence against women" as if VAW were, in the words of Jackson Katz, the "weather" that women have to endure all our lives. I call on all men to take responsibility for and actively work towards putting an end to the violence by supporting feminism and fighting for change.

 

Ethel Tungohan, community advocate and the Grant Notley Postdoctoral Research Fellow at the University of Alberta:

As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Montreal massacre, we need to remember that hatred against women is more pervasive than ever. Such hatred masquerades as love for women and their communities and families, as seen through policies that purportedly protect women from "Barbaric Cultural Practices" and from the "dangers of being exploited through prostitution," and that supposedly give women more choices within a revamped Caregiver program and Temporary Foreign Worker program, to name but a few examples. These paternalistic measures actually enshrine gender inequality by vilifying men of colour and entire cultural communities for being 'barbaric,' by increasing worker precariousness and detentions and deportations, by disregarding the thousands of women who have repeatedly said that these actions disregard their safety and negate their needs, and by ignoring the interlocking and intersecting effects of structural and systemic forms of power.

If we truly desire change, it is insufficient to pass legislation to "help" women. We need to put at the centre the perspectives of the women and the communities who are most affected by egregious changes. We need to conceptualize and work towards creating alternatives to neoliberal capitalism, to settler colonialism, and to border imperialism. We need to understand how each of these power structures are entwined and connected. We need to see how the different struggles we face, from Indigenous land dispossession to workers' calls for permanent and secure status to migrants' battle against deportation and detention to environmental rights campaigns are all part and parcel of the same fight. Most importantly, we need to listen to each other, to support each other, and to love and nurture each other. Only by practicing a politics and praxis of love -- a love born out of mutual respect and support, and not paternalism -- can our goal to create a more socially just world be achieved.

 

Meghan Murphy, freelance writer, founder and editor of Feminist Current:

When 14 women were murdered at École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989, the gunman said he did it in the name of feminism.

Twenty five years later, hatred towards feminists is still real. Those who speak out against male privilege and power are punished through harassment, threats, ostracization or even violence. We lose jobs, friends, intimate partners, our sense of safety and sanity, our communities, our credibility and sometimes our lives when we speak out against male violence.

The women who remained silent about the assault or harassment inflicted on them by former CBC host, Jian Ghomeshi, know only too well how difficult it is to come out against a man -- particularly a man who is a celebrity or in a position of power. So do all women and girls who have spoken out (or been too afraid to) about the emotional, sexual, physical or psychological abuse they've experienced at the hands of men.

Those who challenge men's right to buy sex from marginalized women and girls -- who dare to say that women deserve more than to be bought and sold as things for men to use and abuse -- are called "man-haters," "sex-haters," bigots, and any number of slurs dreamed up to hound and silence us into submission, as though the mere notion that women don't exist to be fucked is hateful or "anti-sex."

Feminism is unpopular because it challenges the very foundation of society. Feminists force people out of their comfort zone -- to see the harm patriarchy does to all women. If you think this fight will be fun or easy or that you will be rewarded for saying something as seemingly benign as "blame the perpetrator," you're wrong. But doing the right thing is rarely congruent with doing the easy thing. And as long as there is patriarchy, there will be those willing to do anything in their power to shut us down. 

We desperately need one another -- we need solidarity. Until we win.

 

Kim Stanton, Legal Director, Women's Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF):

I will never forget the day of December 6, 1989. I was just leaving for my classes at the University of Calgary when I heard about a shooting at the École Polytechnique in Montréal. I heard that the shooter had separated women from men in the classroom of engineering students, and had then shot the women. Because they were women. Because he hated feminists. I had a class that day in the U of C Engineering building. I wondered if it would be safe to go. If there would be other such attacks against women. At that time, I was a member of the Women's Collective and Resource Centre at the University of Calgary and we received violent threats, including death threats, because we were openly, actively feminist on a campus and at a time when there weren't too many of us proudly calling ourselves feminists. We had created a women-only space because at the time women needed a safe space on campus. The threats we received as a result only reinforced that need. I remember the first memorial we organized at U of C the following December 6, the inevitable threats we received, and how we wondered if we would be safe when the misogynists making the threats knew where we would be, and at what time, due to the posters we put up all over campus.

Over the last 25 years, we in Canada have slowly (far too slowly) become aware of the fact that at least 1,181 Indigenous women and girls have gone missing or been murdered in roughly that period of time. They have been targeted because they are Indigenous, and because they are women and girls. There is no safe space for them until we call out and challenge the sexism and racism in our society and insist on the right to life and security of Indigenous women along with our own. We must never forget the 14 women. We must never forget the 1,181 women. On this National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, let us remember, and let us act to create the conditions for safety and equality of all women in the days and years to come.

 

Julie Kaye, Director of Community Engaged Research and Assistant Professor of Sociology at The King's University in Edmonton:

Reflecting on the massacre at École Polytechnique 25 years ago, I alternate between grief and anger at ongoing violence in this country. Another year has brought more violence that specifically targets Indigenous women: Lauretta Saunders, Tina Fontaine, Rinelle Harper, Marlene Bird and more than 1,180 families and communities missing a woman from their lives. The year has also brought more inappropriate responses that perpetuate the problem.

Commentators and policy makers, including the Prime Minister, continue to decontextualize systemic violence, claiming it represents little more than specific criminal acts. From this stance, policies and recommendations are devised that blame Indigenous women for their vulnerability, limit their choices and reinforce colonial government systems, while ignoring the role these systems play in Indigenous women's lives. Consider, for example, the two police officers and the child and family service worker who failed to intervene when they saw Tina Fontaine the day she was brutally murdered or the disproportionate and discriminatory over-representation of Indigenous incarceration. And these responses continue today as new prostitution laws come into force. Though many will celebrate the new law, evidence suggests it will further stigmatize, marginalize and criminalize sex workers and will perpetuate violence against Indigenous women involved in sex industries. I grieve the stories that will come, but grief should not distract our attention from the fierce Indigenous women fighting for safe spaces. Today, on December 6, support their acts of resistance. #itendshere

 

Joyce Arthur, Executive Director of Abortion Rights Coalition of Canada:

Violence against women is rooted in gender oppression. The basis of patriarchy is controlling the paternity of children, which means controlling women's sexuality to ensure they remain "chaste" and punishing non-conformity. Some cultures still mutilate girl's genitals to reduce sexual desire. Some cultures kill women who are raped or have sex outside marriage -- so called "honour" killings to save the family's reputation. 

Abortion is still criminalized in many countries, killing 47,000 women a year from the violence of unsafe abortion. Lack of access to contraception and forced childbearing are both violence against women. Sex workers are abused and murdered with impunity as "fallen" women because they are stigmatized and criminalized. Trans people are maligned and attacked because they challenge assigned gender roles. And when women dare to reach for equality and opportunity, they can be shot down like the 14 women at École Polytechnique in 1989. 

Women's rights are human rights, and feminism is the radical idea that women are people. I long for the day when both these sentiments become self-evident cliches. But we're not there yet. 

 

Anne Thériault, feminist advocate and creator of The Belle Jar:

I was a little kid when the Montreal Massacre happened, and all of my life I've heard, "never again." It was like a promise made to me and all the other girls growing up in the shadow of that awful day. Go ahead and live your lives, girls, because it will never happen again. Study hard. Get good jobs. Marry someone nice and have a family. Don't worry too much about being a girl, because we as a community swear this will never happen again. We won't let it.

Except it's 25 years later, and we're still having the same conversation. This year, the headlines have been dominated by men like Jian Ghomeshi, Ray Rice and Elliot Rodger. Less than two months ago a talk by Anita Sarkeesian at Utah State University was cancelled because someone threatened to carry out a "Montreal Massacre style attack" against Sarkeesian and anyone who attended the talk. It's 25 years later, and violence is still being used to terrorize women into silence. 

Over and over again, we're told that this violence is never actually about women. It's not about living in a culture that still views women as less-than; it's about ethics in games journalism. It's about loneliness, compounded by mental illness. It's about BDSM, and he has videos to prove it. It's about making a mistake, and don't forget that even good people make mistakes.

On this National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, I want us to recognize how many challenges -- including intersecting forms of oppression, like racism, ableism, transphobia and others -- women still face. I want us to acknowledge how very far we still have to go before women can live without the looming fear that colours so many aspects of their lives. I want us to name the real reason why these violent acts keep happening; I want us to accept that misogyny, as a societal and institutional force, is an actual thing, and not just some feminist bogeyman. Finally, I want us to renew the promise that our parents' generation made to us: never again. We commit ourselves, our words and our actions to making sure that this never happens again to the generations of girls that come after us." 

 

Charlene Sayo, transnational feminist and creator of MsRepresent podcast:

When Elliot Rodger went on a shooting spree this past spring, killing six students and injuring 13 more, he did so with the intent to punish the women that had rejected him. Comparisons to the 1989 Montreal Massacre quickly rose to the surface: the misogynistic tones not only ripped through two decades of history, but the belief that men are entitled to women's bodies has risen to a level of profound and irrational violence. Moreover, the notion that women are disposable and are of lesser value, has never been more evident in an era of rapid technological advancement, consumerism and rabid individualism. 

The devaluation of women and their bodies is linked to capitalism's need to penetrate and exploit resources of all forms: from the pillaging of the environment to the pillaging of women's labour and the trafficking of their bodies. The rise of misogyny consolidates the power of patriarchy in relation to the acute world-wide economic crisis -- a crisis that continues to alienate men and women of their humanity.

As men attempt to reassert and reinvent their masculinity in the most desperate and violent ways possible, violence against women and children escalates -- the weekly disappearances of Indigenous women and girls; the deteriorating reproductive rights of women in North America; the lack of genuine, safe and affordable child care across the country. Misogyny pulsates within subcultures such as the gaming community where a critique of sexism within video games is enough to get a woman to flee her home. Misogyny creeps across urban streets where ignoring catcalls and unwanted advances can get a woman beaten, set on fire, or killed within steps of her home. 

The rise of misogyny is also a reflection of the growing feminist movements and political leaderships of women world-wide. It is not simply the individual assertion of women in public spheres, but the unshakeable collective leadership of women that threatens the very structure of patriarchy. It is also the commitment to not forget about historical traumas such as the Montreal Massacre that threatens the foundation of patriarchy. This is what December 6 means nationally: As a day to mourn and as a day to renew our commitment to feminism and to the construction of a humane and liberated society free of exploitation and violence against women and children.

 

Amira Elghawaby, rabble contributing editor, journalist and human rights advocate:

Storytelling is an important way for women to come together and share their collective experiences. It is also a way to empower and strengthen women in their quest for social justice, agency and change. As we commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Montreal massacre in which 14 women lost their lives simply because they were women, it is incumbent upon all of us to remember their stories.

While we cannot be weighed down by the criminal and unjust acts of others, we must never forget that violence against women remains a painful reality in the lives of too many of our sisters, here in Canada and around the world. We must share these stories while simultaneously working and hoping for a time in which all women experience and chronicle a much more hopeful narrative.

 

Kathleen Pye, founding member of Reproductive Justice New Brunswick, sexual violence advocate and social justice activist:

For me, Dec. 6 is a constant reminder of the dangers of 'being different'. We could argue that these women were 'activists' because they chose higher education in traditionally male-dominated careers. For refusing to fit into their normalized gender roles. Perhaps, if not asked under duress, they would have identified as 'feminists'. Perhaps not. On that day 25 years ago they were simply female students, going to class, and doing what they loved to do. But to misogynists, they were the enemy.

Misogyny is like any other kind of hate: one that breeds society's lack of understanding and fear around people and things that are different and unknown. This fear plays at our anxieties, and pushes us to regain control through power. And through power prejudice, unfairness and hostility are bred. Each and every day we see examples of our fear of anything and everything that goes against the 'norm' -- being white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied and male. Endemic racism. Classism. Colonialism. Mental health stigmatization. Disability discrimination. Food instability. Pay inequity. Transmisogyny.Reproductive restrictions. Homelessness. Job insecurity. Sex Work Criminalization. Unpaid maternity leave. Sexism. Heteronormativity. Gender-based brutality. All blatant acts of violence that aim to target those who are 'different' and 'other' them; an act that is deeply ingrained within our culture.

But being white, cis, heterosexual, able-bodied and male is, in actuality, the minority. Intersectional frameworks are unifying us in our struggle to overcome violence. The day is about violence against women, but everyone who is different experiences some kind of violence. It is this common experience, of being targeted by hate or indifference, which unifies us. The fact of the matter is we are not alone, as women, and our experience reverberates across gender, race, class and culture. We are the same because we all feel the sting of misogyny's slings and arrows. We all bleed the same blood.

Violence can only occur when we become objects. Otherness allows this to happen, and as a woman I feel a profound need to root out otherness wherever I see it being applied. It is a mask that we are all forced to wear.

 

Harsha Walia, organizer with No One Is Illegal and Feb 14th Women's Memorial March Committee:

"Violence against women is escalating as capitalism and colonialism continue to exploit women, women's bodies, women's communities, women's labour and women's traditional land bases. We see this with the tragedy of missing and murdered Indigenous women, the tearing apart of families by deporting refugee women and apprehending Indigenous children, the tens of thousands of women and children and seniors and trans communities facing deep poverty and homelessness, the legally sanctioned physical and sexual
exploitation of migrant workers in farms and as domestic labour in Canadian homes and the pervasive gendered colonial violence of settler-colonialism on Turtle Island to military occupation in Afghanistan.

Yet despite this, women -- particularly women of colour, Indigenous women, low-income women and women in factories and fields across Canada and the global South -- are at the frontlines of combating sexual violence, heteropatriarchy, racialized empire, capitalist exploitation and environmental degradation." 

 

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