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Back in time: December 6, 1989

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In 1989, I was writing a feminist column for The Daily News in Halifax. As I read those columns 20 years later, I am disheartened to find that too much has not changed, that many of the columns are as relevant today as they were when I wrote them.

Case in point: This column was first published on Sunday, Dec. 10, 1989. The only changes I've made today are in square brackets or are added links.


On Thursday morning, distinguished lawyer and former MP George Cooper made a little joke on CBC Radio's Information Morning. He was discussing the recent NDP leadership convention with host Don Connolly and panel mates Dale Godsoe and Ray Larkin when he decided to use a colourful comparison to express his opinion about some aspect of the race.

It's a good news/bad news sort of situation, he said, like that old joke about your mother-in-law driving over a cliff -- trouble is, she was in your brand new Cadillac at the time. I believe I detected some laughter from the others and I'd be interested to know whether the CBC switchboard lit up with outraged callers, the way it does when someone says a rude word on the air. Somehow I doubt it.

In my household, we sat in stunned disbelief, hearing a joke which would be in poor taste at the best of times but was absolutely scandalous being told and snickered at the morning after the murder of 14 women at the University of Montreal.

It wasn't the only joke being told that day. Francine Pelletier, a Montreal feminist who was interviewed extensively on the TV coverage of the murders, said that men in the corridors at Radio-Canada were treating the massacre in a most light-hearted way, one of them remarking, "I've often wanted to do that myself."

At around the same time, a young friend of mine was walking into Tim Horton's to buy some doughnuts. There were two men in front of her carrying a newspaper with a screaming headline about the murdered women and one of the men said something along the lines of, "way to go, buddy."

Her friends asked her how she handled this awful moment; most of them felt, bravely, that they wished they'd been there. In retrospect, we can all come up with the enviable line, the cutting quip, the perfect putdown.

She said nothing, of course. There are few women -- including me -- who could respond to those men. Such verbal violence is part of what renders women powerless, unable to act, not so much from fear as from emptiness, from the debilitation that results from crying out for so long and not being heard.

I've been told so often -- all feminists have -- to lighten up, to learn to take a joke. They don't really mean anything by it, you know. This week, finally, I've been told by men -- among others, by Peter Gzowski [the late host of CBC Radio's Morningside] and his panel on the radio, by Tom Regan [a former columnist with The Daily News] on the phone, by my husband at home -- that it is time for them to do something about their violent brothers.

They know now that they must begin listening to women and they must refuse -- loudly -- to listen to the dehumanizing "jokes" that so many of them allow to slip by. They must disdain the views of those who keep saying that the carnage in Montreal was an isolated act carried out by a madman.

They must examine and be willing to change their political, economic and judicial systems, all of which conspire to keep women in positions of dependence. They must observe their sons - their vocabularies, the games they play, the way they're learning to deal with anger, the things they say about little girls. They must stop undermining the mothers and, once and for all, lay to rest that age-old excuse that "boys will be boys."

They must not simply be available to provide protection; they must work actively to create a safer world, where their sisters and daughters and mothers can live with the same sense of security that brothers, sons and fathers take for granted. They must recognize and acknowledge that the 14 women in Montreal are only the most recent to die at the hands of a man, that in 1987, almost 70 per cent of women murdered in our country were murdered by the men they lived with.

One of the buttons we brought back from the Winnipeg NDP convention -- where I saw the joy and exhilaration on the faces of the women who had worked to elect Audrey McLaughlin as their leader -- bears the slogan "Men of quality are not threatened by women seeking equality." The words seem almost horrible in their irony this week but the message remains true.

And so it's time to take another step forward, to convince men that violence against women is the fault of men and -- to resurrect an old phrase -- if they're not part of the solution, they're part of the problem.

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