Violence against women was epidemic, but it wasn’t until December 6, 1989 that the veil covering misogyny was lifted through an act of such fury and hatred it could not be explained any other way. That terrible act of violence allowed many of us to remember, to admit to ourselves or to speak to others about the violence we had suffered at the hands of men.
In that way, the aftermath of the Montreal Massacre 25 years ago had similarities to the unprecedented discussion of sexual assault and sexual harassment unleashed after the Ghomeshi scandal that we are experiencing now.
There was no social media then, so no public storytelling. But the still strong women’s movement fought both in Quebec and the rest of Canada for an understanding that this mass murder of young women was an extreme form of the violence women faced at the hands of men every day.
The media and the politicians started to pay attention to male violence against women. Women Members of Parliament set up a committee that produced a report called “The War on Women;” there was a federal “blue ribbon panel” on violence against women; we were able to strengthen the rape law, and gun control laws were passed.
And yet here we are a generation later being profoundly shocked once again by acts of violence against women. The public reaction to the Ghomeshi scandal is much deeper and more significant than the reaction to the Montreal Massacre, even in Quebec according to friends there.
My hope is that we have arrived at the tipping point where sexual violence and sexual harassment will no longer be tolerated anywhere.
What we have learned is that we have to go beyond changing the laws or even the legal system. The problem lies in the culture and it is there that we have to root it out.
Civil rights leader Medgar Everett famously said, “You can pass laws against racists but not against racism.” Patriarchy, like racism and colonialism, is deeply rooted in our culture.
The rapid demise of Ghomeshi from an almost universal public revulsion at his behavior is not mob justice, it’s community justice. He is shunned in the most ancient way of community punishment.
While we continue to press the legal system to deal better with victims of sexual violence, we have to develop processes to deal with sexual violence in our communities.
We need new ideas about how to support the victim and hold the perpetrator accountable. Even with a better legal system, many victims may prefer not to go that route. So we need community accountability.
In workplaces and educational institutions, we know the kinds of procedures we need. They just need to be enforced. But what about in communities where we don’t have institutional power? Women’s shelters and rape crisis centres have been providing a needed refuge for women for decades; continued advocacy during times when the public gaze was elsewhere; and they have been dealing with cutbacks in government support. They must be better funded and deserve our support. But I think we need to go further.
One idea I’ve heard is to have a circle of support for the woman and a circle of accountability for the man. I am sure there are others. We don’t need a debate about whether to use the legal system or community alternatives. We need both.
I think there are some clear ideas about fixing the legal system, like providing court paid counsel for the victim and a victim-supportive approach at the police and Crown levels.
The discussion we need is how to deal with sexual violence and harassment in our communities. The discussion of how to uproot patriarchy in our families, our relationships, our schools, our friendship groups, our media, our Parliament is not only about violence but about who and what we admire; who we see as leaders; who we see as fighters; as victims.
The events in Ferguson and the reaction in the rest of the United States and Canada puts a similar spotlight on racism and how deeply it impacts at every level of our society. In both instances, the police are one institution that needs deep examination. And both struggles point to ourselves and our organizations. Sexism and racism are not somewhere else, they are in our midst.
We need vibrant women’s and anti-racism movements. I don’t know what they should look like in this era of networks and social media, but I do know that without strong and visible movements, the reality of sexist and racist violence so clear in our vision today becomes more and more invisible except to the victims and the perpetrators.
Photo: flickr/Pink Sherbet Photography