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Naming the violence in Canadian culture: A responsibility of Canadian citizenship

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The 20th anniversary of the December 6th Montreal Massacre was recently recognized as a grim reminder to Canadians that male violence against women is real. This violence takes a heavy toll on our mothers, sisters, friends, partners, neighbors and also on their loved ones.


At a vigil held evening of December 6th in Toronto, hundreds gathered in the stark cold. Candles flickered in the stiff breeze, only to die out, as people in the audience stepped up to the micro-phone to read the names of women who had been violently murdered by their partners or ex-partners in Ontario this past year. Many had children who were left behind or in some cases also lost their lives. Through the telling of these harsh accounts it was clear that each of these women had things in common. Their isolation. Their fear. Their efforts to leave or end the violence. Their repeated efforts to call out for help. The finality of their deaths.

Their gender.

How can we as a society address the collective pain that stems from these deaths? How can we face how our society creates the conditions and even the mechanisms to support gender based violence? How can we excuse these deaths as acts of individuals' rage, when so many are murdered under similar circumstances in our families, neighborhoods and communities?

How can we not address this as a failure of Canadian society and Canadian culture?

The message set forth by Stephen Harper's leadership in "Discover Canada: The Rights and Responsibilities of Citizenship," for immigrants studying up on Canadian "culture" and statehood, is that "barbaric cultural practices that tolerate spousal abuse" are not welcomed in Canada. Then tell us, what is the Canadian government doing to address barbaric forms of spousal abuse, incest, rape, sexual assault, stalking and human trafficking that are pervasive across Canada. Perhaps Citizenship and Immigration Canada should fully inform immigrants seeking citizenship of the potential risk of gender-based violence facing women in Canada. That half of Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of sexual violence since the age of 16[i]. That statistically every minute of every day a Canadian woman or child is being sexually assaulted. That one to two women are murdered by a current or former partner each week in Canada.

The new guide for immigrants who wish to become Canadian citizens shows us that Canada has taken a strong stance on gender-based violence, but only on those forms that can be marked as foreign. By pointing the finger on "those barbaric cultures", the new guidelines send two strong messages: 1) that Muslims and other people whose cultures do not reflect the Anglo imaginations of colonization, are not truly Canadians; and 2) that the only forms of violence worth condemning are those that can be marked as foreign.

According to Barbara Kay in her National Post Op-Ed (published not once but twice, on Dec. 12 and 17, 2009), practices like "honor killings" are evidence that gender-based violence is cultural. We suppose we should be grateful that she indirectly dismissed race with biological determinism. At least it's not genetic. We (brown folks) can be reformed. We just need to learn Canadian values and Canadian culture. With Canadian culture under our belt, perhaps we can also learn Canadian forms of gender-based violence that foster the kind of atrocities that took place in Montreal on December 6, 1989.

Ultimately, the focus on individual vs. cultural definitions of violence is a grave disservice to every person who lives in Canada. Firstly, disclaiming or ignoring that social and cultural norms within Canada are part of the problem of gender-based violence here as much as in those 'other' places, fails to stem this violence while promoting racist constructions of non-European immigrants. Secondly, condemning individuals who commit violence as pathological and thus deviant, particularly those 'foreigners whose values are not the same as ours', to be dealt with by locking them up in jails and prisons, forcing them into anger management therapy or deporting them as 'undesirable aliens', does not address how each person in any society takes part in constructing and perpetuating a society that tolerates gender-based violence. Just as the focus on "those barbaric cultures" perpetuates cultural racism, the focus on the individual prevents any real change from happening that would address gender-based violence as it occurs throughout Canada every day.

The Discover Canada guide states, "that by coming to Canada and taking this important step toward Canadian citizenship, you are helping to write the continuing story of Canada". Well, this story is missing some real leadership from our elected officials and within our communities. We need leaders to engage us all in difficult conversations about what is at stake and what needs to change. The anniversary of the Dec. 6th Massacre should be more than a reminder of what has happened, it is also a challenge of what work has yet to be done.


Mandeep Bhalru
Graduate Student
OISE/University of Toronto

Rupaleem Bhuyan
Assistant Professor,
Faculty of Social Work,
University of Toronto

Soma Chatterjee
Graduate Student
OISE/University of Toronto

Fariah Chowdhury
Graduate Student
OISE/University of Toronto & No One Is Illegal

Farrah Khan
Violence Against Women

Karishma Kripalani
Freelance Writer and Researcher

Uzma Shakir
Atkinson Economic Justice Fellow

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