Prime Minister Justin Trudeau speaks with media, March 5, 2021. Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

April is Sexual Assault Awareness Month, and while there has been plenty of awareness this year, there remains precious little government action on ending the scourge of male violence against women and children, both at home and globally.

Indeed, it seems there were more politicians’ tweets of concern and condolence over the death of Prince Philip than there were in response to the mid-March release of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice & Accountability’s report on Femicide in 2020, which documented the killing of 160 women and girls last year.

A woman or girl is killed (almost invariably by a man) every 2.5 days in this country, a consistently high rate that has marked every year under Justin Trudeau’s self-proclaimed “feminist government.” But this annual slaughter was part of the news cycle for only a brief moment, with nary a call to address this ongoing emergency from federal party leaders. As of April 13, the Observatory had recorded at least an additional 56 killings of women and girls since the start of the year.

The 2020 femicide report found a greater proportion of women and girls were killed in rural settings (54 per cent) despite the greater representation of urban dwellers in Canada. Women aged 55-64 were the largest proportion of victims, followed by those aged 25-34 and 35-44. The largest proportion of men accused were 25-34. More than 20 per cent of victims were Indigenous.

Since record keeping began in 1961, the Observatory notes over 10,000 women have been victims of femicide in Canada. While mass killings of women in such horrors as the Toronto van attack or the terrorist rampage in Portapique, Nova Scotia generate headlines and one-day media discussions that tend to dance delicately around the issue of whether armed misogyny is at the root, the Observatory notes that any public outrage expressed during such times “does not seem to be matched when men kill multiple family members, with the primary target being their female partner. These are also often mass killings motivated by misogyny.”

Misogyny and white male entitlement

Significantly, the Observatory report says:

“[t]he role of misogyny — and white male entitlement — continues to play a role in women’s deaths…[Y]et, still today, we continue to witness resistance to acknowledging the role of misogyny in violence against women and girls, particularly if men and boys are also killed alongside female victims. This, in turn, prevents our ability to address the role of misogyny in addressing the persistently stable rates of violence against women and girls in Canada and globally.”

In the past five years, the Observatory has documented the killings of over 761 women, mostly by men who were close to them. In 2020, many cases of femicide were preceded by “chronic abuse and violence toward victims who were ultimately killed by their abusers.” Some of the women, the report notes, did have system contact (i.e., police, courts).

In one instance, they cite the case of a man who had been taken into custody on three occasions, usually for breaching court orders, and who was released to house arrest, upon which he committed the femicide. In a separate case, the abuser had been released after doing time for a previous assault against the eventual femicide victim; he had been arrested four times previously for disobeying a no-contact order.

In other cases, the report notes women faced barriers accessing women’s shelters and expressed fears about the potential involvement of child services if they reported their abuser. In many cases, friends and other family saw signs of abuse but did not realize their extent. The report also discusses “coercive-controlling behaviour” which men use against women, from psychological abuse and stalking to sexual jealousy and viewing and treating women as property.

In a disturbing signal about the normalization of such coercive-controlling behaviour, the Observatory points out that these “often go unnoticed as red flags for the femicide that ultimately occurs and, therefore, are significantly underestimated.”

The report laments an institutional:

“[i]nability to address negative and damaging attitudes, beliefs, and stereotypes about violence in intimate relationships. Evidence of the potential negative outcomes arising from such attitudes can be seen in 2020 cases in which violence against women in the context of intimacy continues to be minimized and normalized…for various cases, it was reported in the media that police had been called to respond to arguments between couples which were labelled by police as ‘minor’ or family members claimed that the victim was involved in a ‘toxic’ relationship. Arguably, then, the power imbalances in these relationships are not captured when such descriptors are used and demonstrates how formal and informal responses continue to normalize what is not normal — violence against women by their male partners.”

Acknowledging without acting

Meanwhile, spokespersons for male-dominated institutions like the military and the police are increasingly using the Trudeau-esque language of acknowledging the failures to end violence against women as the standard response for failing to do anything about it. It’s easy for men to be applauded for declaring that something must be done to end male violence, but such words ring hollow amidst the dearth of accountability mechanisms and system change required to ensure transformational change.

On April 1, Ottawa police officer Eric Post ­­ — who for over three years had been suspended with pay after being charged with 32 offences, including assault, sexual assault, and forcible confinement committed against seven women ­– pleaded guilty to only seven of those counts in exchange for three years of non-reporting probation and resigning from the force. Among the charges dropped were some relating to one woman who took her life last year.

“I would fear going out for recess duty… walking to my driveway… even walking to my mailbox…or fear he would set my house on fire,” said one woman in a victim pact statement read in court. Another responded to the verdict thusly:

“Eric Post gets a three-year probation for years of torture? I’m thinking this must be an April fools joke? There were multiple victims and long-term damage on each of us. I’m not sure I have faith in our system anymore.”

Post’s lawyer showed how little he understood male violence against women when he tried to downplay Post’s actions by saying there were no physical injuries but acknowledging “lasting emotional and psychological impacts,” as if the latter were somewhere far down the hierarchy of pain and suffering.

Ottawa Police Chief Peter Sloly, meanwhile, taking a page from the Trudeau Feminist Talking Points Playbook, said, “We are taking steps as an organization to ensure we are taking a victim-centric, trauma-informed approach to supporting survivors as they go through this difficult process.”

As nice as such words sound, they are fairly meaningless coming from the head of a police organization. Ottawa psychotherapist Mandi Pekan (a specialist in trauma, urban violence and community development who also serves as project director for the Street Resilience Project) points out:

“Trauma-informed care is a cultural shift. It’s built into the policies, procedures and protocols that actively resist re-traumatization. Police cannot be trauma-informed because they work for an organization that is inherently traumatizing. Policing is built on a culture of ‘us vs them’ approach. This cannot prosper in a trauma-informed environment. It goes against the [trauma-informed] approach that actively renounces the ‘us vs them’ mentality. Throwing trauma trainings at police is not going to make them trauma informed.”

Indeed, CBC’s The Fifth Estate detailed in February the systemic sexism and misogyny of Ottawa police brought forward by 14 separate women in the force over the past three years. “From casual sexism such as being called ‘fresh meat’ to more serious claims such as forced masturbation and rape,” the investigation “found an entrenched culture of sexism that raises questions about how complaints are investigated, and in some cases, according to the women, even suppressed within the Ottawa Police Service.” Among those who have been accused of sexual harassment are current Deputy Chief Uday Jaswal.

The structural misogyny built into municipal police forces is a similar trait to what runs rampant through the RCMP, which, despite apologizing in 2016, has never charged or truly held accountable any of the men responsible for “rape, unwanted sexual touching, physical assault, sexist comments, threats, gender discrimination, harassment and bullying.”

Sexualized military culture

Similarly, the Canadian military, as documented in 2015 by the former Supreme Court Justice Marie Deschamps, remains built on an “underlying sexualized culture…that is hostile to women and LGTBQ members, and conducive to more serious incidents of sexual harassment and assault.”

Just last week, the Liberals and Bloc Québécois teamed up to shut down a House of Commons committee investigating male violence against women in the Canadian military. While there had been quite valid concerns raised that committee members were using their time to take partisan shots at one another without getting to the heart of the matter — the epidemic of violence against women and LGBTQ in the military — the committee could have pressed on, but failed to do so.

This Defence committee — along with the Status of Women House committee — had been tasked with investigating allegations against some of the top Canadian military brass, including former chief of the defence staff Gen. Jonathan Vance and his replacement, Admiral Art McDonald, both under investigation by the military’s National Investigation Service over separate allegations of sexual misconduct. War Minister Harjit Sajjan and Trudeau’s office were aware of the allegations against Vance, as was the previous regime under Stephen Harper.

Meanwhile, Vice-Admiral Haydn Edmundson has also stepped aside following the release of allegations that he sexually assaulted a 19-year-old female crew member in 1991. Stéphanie Viau told CBC she was raped by Edmundson aboard HMCS Provider, and that she was now coming forward seeking an investigation and charges in an effort to heal. She told CBC that she had also been sexually assaulted by two other superiors prior to the attack by Edmundson.

Despite knowing Edmundson was investigated for a pattern of behavior including “suggestive or unwelcome comments, sexual advances, predatory behaviour and inappropriate relationships with female subordinates,” Vance promoted him in 2019 “to manage military personnel command, which gives him authority over career consequences for military members found to have engaged in sexual misconduct,” the CBC reported.

Survivor Stéphanie Viau wrote in response, “How ironic that HE was placed in such a position. We will not be able to fix this tolerated sexual misconduct culture with the same people that nourished it.”

The committee hearings had originally been scheduled following the courageous coming forward of numerous women like Major Kellie Brennan, who told Global News:

“I wasn’t allowed to tell the truth until I was given permission to tell the truth. I didn’t even know how to get that permission. I tried. I asked my chain of command for permission to speak, and I listened to a whole range of reasons why I should and shouldn’t.” 

4,600 claims

In addition, high-profile Lt.-Col. Eleanor Taylor quit the military in March, writing:

“I am sickened by ongoing investigations of sexual misconduct among our key leaders. Unfortunately, I am not surprised. I am also certain that the scope of the problem has yet to be exposed. Throughout my career, I have observed insidious and inappropriate use of power for sexual exploitation. I am not encouraged that we are ‘investigating our top officers.’ I am disgusted that it has taken us so long to do so.”

The most recent comments echo those of women who, for years, have been speaking out against the epidemic of male violence that is at the core of the military’s culture. There are currently some 4,600 claimants who are part of a massive class-action suit against the military for sexual harassment, gender discrimination and sexual assault.

Former Canadian Armed Forces member Paula MacDonald told a parliamentary committee in 2019 that her military career “was short, unfulfilling and painful. I voluntarily released from the service because my chain of command refused to reasonably address the behaviours of superiors who discriminated against my abilities and sexually harassed and objectified me. I was subjected to increasing levels of violence from service members who behaved inappropriately, and I was left to protect my physical safety.”  

At the time, MacDonald noted that changes suggested by the Deschamps report “must be facilitated by the larger Canadian government, because internal DND systems, developed by the CAF leadership, favour superiors who behave abusively over victims of this abuse through unit-led investigations.”

Meanwhile, a new poll reveals that 78 per cent of respondents agree that the Canadian military has a systemic problem of sexual harassment, including among senior leaders. Women are more likely to agree with this statement (83 per cent), though men are not far behind (72 per cent). More than three-quarters of those polled agreed that the federal government response is “all talk and no action.”

Despite such public awareness of criminal violence, the Canadian military faces zero consequences as an institution for its failure to protect the lives of the women in its ranks. The self-proclaimed feminist government of Justin Trudeau continues to devote almost $32 billion annually — the largest share of federal discretionary spending — to an organization whose foundational culture is built on hatred of women.  

If one consequence of the War Department’s failure to seriously end violence within its ranks were a significant loss of funding — perhaps redirecting those funds to the National Action Plan to End Violence Against Women and Girls which Trudeau has yet to implement — maybe then a federal department which is always coddled and never held to account might face a serious reckoning.

Street-level misogyny

While institutionalized misogyny continues to present itself as a massive national security issue for more than half of the population, such violence on an individual level continues to grow exponentially.

On April 11, a global study of street harassment in 15 countries (Brazil, Canada, China, France, India, Italy, Mexico, Poland, Russia, Spain, South Africa, Thailand, UAE, U.K., and U.S.) revealed almost 80 per cent of women reported street harassment, with 50 per cent of those surveyed declaring that they did not feel safe in public spaces.

In a major indictment of the failure of both so-called democratic countries as well as authoritarian regimes, 75 per cent of those women “said they avoided certain public spaces to try to avoid street harassment and 54 percent said they avoided some forms of public transportation specifically.” During the pandemic, 72 per cent of women reported that it appeared that harassers “were emboldened to harass because of the increased anonymity a mask gave them.”

For Canadians under the misapprehension that they live in a country led by a feminist government, the survey numbers are a stark reminder of how little has been done to end a culture of misogyny. Among Canadian respondents, 84 per cent of women reported at least one incident of street-level sexual harassment, with 54 per cent answering that they have experienced, even during the social-distancing pandemic, “unwanted touching, hugging or kissing” and 38 per cent reporting “somebody hanging around me or following me with sexual intentions.”

While the federal and provincial governments have no serious plans to address such male violence, it is left to community-level individuals and groups to do the heavy lifting. One such effort is a series of bystander intervention trainings being offered this month by the international Hollaback! organization, with Canadian trainings in English and French.

One of those doing the training is internationally recognized women’s rights advocate and public educator Julie Lalonde, whose acclaimed book Resilience is Futile was published last year. Lalonde recently testified at the Status of Women committee about her own experience of relentless male violence following her 2014 appearance at the Royal Military College (RMC) to teach cadets about ending sexual harassment.

In addition to the hostile reception she received there — at what she named the worst audience she has ever dealt with — during the years following her public discussion of this toxic masculinist nightmare she received “thousands of threatening emails, social media messages and even phone calls. I’ve been accosted at in-person events and I can no longer speak in public without a security detail. I have paid dearly for my courage and so it is very disheartening to see those of you with immense power shying away from the work necessary to make change.”

Lalonde called on committee members to show the courage of one cadet who, amidst the heckling and threats being hurled at Lalonde at the RMC, stood up to the hostile mob. “He began to berate his classmates for attacking me, told them they were being babies and went so far as to say that ‘The way we talk about women at RMC is embarrassing.'”

For Lalonde, part of the way forward is going beyond vague acknowledgements and using language that truthfully describes the on-the-ground reality. “Are CAF members uncomfortable with terms like rape culture, toxic masculinity, survivor-centred? Absolutely,” said Lalonde. “But you cannot change something you won’t even name.”

Performative gestures

In addition to naming, proper data collection is also crucial. As the Femicide 2020 authors note:

“[t]he lives of women and girls are at risk because we are not collecting, or making available, the right information to support prevention efforts,” which would include, for example, Statistics Canada’s homicide figures indicating whether a murder was a femicide. In the absence of official data, researchers have to rely on media and court records, while those collecting the data are “increasingly withholding basic facts — sex, gender, relationship, method of killing, and so on.”

The Femicide 2020 report concludes that while governments say ending male violence against women is a priority, “are these symbolic and often performative gestures being followed with concrete action by way of investment of resources, the establishment of long-term, sustainable initiatives, and an emphasis on the vital, quality training of those working in responding sectors that needs to accompany such changes?”

Indeed, as the second anniversary of the final report of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls approaches, there is still no federal response to the inquiry’s recommendations. On the first anniversary in 2020, Crown-Indigenous Relations Minister Carolyn Bennett blamed the pandemic for its failure to act. “For that excuse to be used, that’s an embarrassment to the government,” said Lorraine Whitman, president of the Native Women’s Association of Canada, at the time.

Last fall, the Ontario Native Women’s Association put together a report, Reconciliation with Indigenous Women, that contained numerous recommendations for what should be included in a national action plan to address male violence against Indigenous women and girls. The organization’s executive director, Cora McGuire-Cyrette, said, “We wrote this report to help the government, to say ‘here is a pathway, here is a plan you can take and implement as soon as possible,'” and indeed, they did so during the same pandemic that was used as an excuse for no action from Ottawa.

One of those who testified at the inquiry, Charlotte Gliddy-Murray, told CBC:

“After the inquiry was done, I feel that the government just dropped us. By us, I mean the family members. There was no follow-up whatsoever after we gave our testimonies, and that is not right.”

Male violence against racialized women

Often ignored or obscured in this discussion is the trauma of male violence against racialized women. A significant challenge to this reality relates the dearth of proper data collection (referenced as a major obstacle in the Femicide 2020 report) as well as a failure by institutions and governments to undertake — let alone act upon — an analysis of intersectional forms of oppression.

The patterns of institutional violence against Black women that run the gamut from police and social workers to health-care facilities and economic apartheid are well described in Montreal writer and activist Robyn Maynard’s landmark book, Policing Black Lives

As poet, educator and organizer El Jones writes:

“Women and their children are policed intergenerationally. Black girls are labelled as disobedient and angry, records that follow them for life. Black girls are hypersexualized, viewed as older than their age, and disciplined and suspended more harshly. For both Black and Indigenous women, girls, and trans women under colonization, sexuality and reproduction themselves are criminalized. Black bodies are surveilled at the most intimate levels.”

Jones proposes that any effort to address these multi-system layers of violence must consider how communities are resourced. “Grants that only designate funding for organizations, use inaccessible language, or that demand formal financial records are not built for Black women working in community,” Jones says.

“Mutual aid funding initiatives create models for communities to gather and distribute funds directly to people in need…. I often say that a Black woman given $10,000 can do more than institutions working with millions. Black women run breakfast programs out of their houses, help neighbourhood kids with their homework, mother community children, and prepare boxes for incarcerated community members. Working with Black communities to identify the grassroots women who are known to do the work and getting resources directly to them allows Black women to do the transformative labour day to day that sows the seeds of justice. If we want to end our reliance on policing, we must invest in Black women first.”

Meanwhile, violence against Asian women has also seen a significant rise, manifested in everything from individual street attacks to the recent mass femicide in Atlanta. The Chinese Canadian National Council’s report of over 1,150 anti-Asian hate crimes during the first year of the pandemic notes 60 per cent of targets were women. “There’s so much pain and grief,” said Amy Go of the Chinese Canadian National Council for Social Justice following the Atlanta massacre. “At the same time, as Asian-Canadian women, none of us were surprised. There was no sense of shock. It was as if we knew this was coming … it just happened to be in Atlanta.”

While Trudeau expressed his shock and dismay over the Atlanta murders, Avvy Go, Executive Director of the Chinese and Southeast Asian Legal Clinic in Toronto, pointed out that the 2019 federal government’s anti-racism strategy specifically failed to mention anti-Asian racism. And while some funding has flowed for anti-racism initiatives, critics point out that the focus on specific projects deflects from the broader institutional barriers that remain unaddressed regarding employment, immigration and income supports.

Meanwhile, as Trudeau’s government puts out its boilerplate statements of solidarity with Muslims marking Ramadan, his government is continuing to look the other way as Muslim women in Quebec are subjected to apartheid legislation — C-21 — that removes them from public employment positions if they wear a hijab or niqab.  Attacks against Muslim women in Quebec are not unique to that province, though, as Edmonton recently reported six separate attacks on Muslim women who were walking in parks, sitting in a car, or waiting for a bus.

As always, the failure of governments to take proper action are being remedied as much as possible at the grassroots and community level by women directly impacted by male violence. In Montreal, for example, Nisa Homes is working throughout Ramadan to fundraise for a transitional home for immigrant, refugee and Muslim women and children fleeing male violence.

While it is admirable that these efforts are underway, it must remain frustrating to see institutions like the police and military where male violence thrives receiving unending amounts of cash while those who tend to the survivors must hold bake sales and raffles to open safe spaces.

An so, as the final two weeks of Sexual Assault Awareness Month continue, may it be an opportunity to build out of that awareness real action to end male violence against women.

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate who co-ordinates the Homes not Bombs non-violent direct action network. He has worked closely with the targets of Canadian and U.S. “national security” profiling for many years.

Image credit: Adam Scotti/PMO

Photo of Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens

Matthew Behrens is a freelance writer and social justice advocate.