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Place du 6 décembre’s 19th annual commemoration ceremony, organized by the Quebec Federation of Women. | photo: Patricia Enborg

Place du 6 décembre’s 19th annual commemoration ceremony, organized by the Quebec Federation of Women. | photo: Patricia Enborg


sometimes a rose is a campaign

by Patricia Enborg | December 22, 2008

Another National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women has passed. On December 6, people across the country once again gathered to remember the 14 young women in Montreal who were murdered at the École Polytechnique by a man who deliberately sought women as his targets. That was 19 years ago.

Shocked and angered by the incident, people took action. The Coalition for Gun Control was formed to press the federal government to create better legislation. The YWCA began its Rose Button Campaign – designed to commemorate the 14 young engineering students by calling for a national action plan on violence against women.

Fast forward to 2008. The YWCA has relaunched its Rose Button Campaign because violence against women persists.

According to the organization, “over 50% of Canadian women will experience violence at some point in their lives, the majority before they turn 25.” There’s more: “Over 31,000 incidents of spousal violence against women were reported to police in 2006, and it’s estimated that over 70% of incidents go unreported.”

It doesn’t stop there. “The devastating count of missing and murdered Aboriginal women points to a deep-seated gendered and racialized violence in our culture that impacts both Aboriginal women and women of colour.”

Sobering statistics aren’t they?

So how far have we come in 19 years? “We obviously still have a long way to go,” says Heidi Rathjen. She was an engineering student at the École Polytechnique in 1989, but she survived the murderous rampage.

She wonders why we still have to fight for something that should be a given, “to have equality, to not have any violence. The government should make it a priority on its own without prodding and pushing and pressure from women’s groups and community groups.” Each year, she does her best to attend a ceremony commemorating the lives of her fellow students. “It’s a part of my history, I feel a connection with the families and I feel that it’s the least I can do, is come here and share memories and the grief that still remains and be thankful for my daughter and hope that we have a better world for her when she grows up.”

That’s the challenge. And it weighs on the mind of Paulette Senior, the C.E.O. of YWCA Canada. “I think it’s somewhat sobering that, after 19 years, we’re still having to raise awareness, to lobby to get stuff into the courts in terms of establishing a national strategy to combat violence against women. It feels somewhat as though we’re still having to convince society at large, particularly our politicians, that this is an ongoing problem that is not going away.”

Senior says raising awareness is not enough. It’s time for action. “That’s why we support and are pushing for an integrated strategy that will address issues of housing and homelessness, having accessible, affordable child care and at the same time, be able to address the issues of prevalence and impact of violence against women.” And that requires the cooperation of our politicians – which she’s found to have been a struggle, “Part of what’s troubling for me is that it’s as if we’re beating on doors that are really locked to hearing the message or even listening.”

Yet she remains hopeful. She’s looking forward to meeting with the new federal Status of Women minister, Helena Guergis and with other government officials, and to say, “Enough is enough in terms of the loss of women, in terms of the abuse of women, in terms of the lack of support for women who are in such vulnerable situations and their children.”

It’s been a long battle too for Aboriginal women struggling to get the federal government to act on the more than 500 cases of missing and murdered aboriginal women in Canada over the past 20 years. Some high-profile help came from the United Nations Committee on the Elimination of Discrimination against Women when it issued a statement in November expressing concern that “hundreds of cases involving aboriginal women who have gone missing or been murdered in the past two decades have neither been fully investigated nor attracted priority attention, with the perpetrators remaining unpunished.” They also called for a comprehensive national plan of action to address the social and economic factors that lead to increased risk for Indigenous women and women from ethnic minorities.

NWAC’s Jennifer Lord couldn’t agree more. “It’s very important because CEDAW [the UN Convention on the Elimination of All Forms of Discrimination Against Women] makes it quite clear that this is Canada’s responsibility, it’s the federal government’s responsibility to address this issue, that it’s not an Aboriginal problem.”

She’s the community development coordinator for NWAC’s Sisters in Spirit initiative. It’s a five-year research, education and policy project that began in 2005, which is aimed at looking at the root causes of racialized, sexualized violence in the Aboriginal community. Its goals are to increase the public’s understanding of the impact of this type of violence and to develop policies needed to address it through legislation.

And, Lord says, the initiative is also calling for justice, “That these missing and murdered cases get the attention that they rightfully deserve, because more and more we’re hearing from families that, even when they go to a police station, or any kind of police service – even to file a missing person’s report – they’re told to wait. And that they have to wait 24 hours or 72 hours, something like that, which is not policy in Canada.”

So, for those working to stop violence against women, the effort continues. How long it takes to declare a significant victory depends on the willpower of those who set the policies in this country. And those who live in it.

more information

announcement: UN asks Canada to report back on poverty and murdered Aboriginal women, Canadian Feminist Alliance for International Action | November 24, 2008 blog entry: 16 days start now! | November 26, 2008


  • Seasonal Feature

  • April 1994: the night raid at Kingston’s Prison for Women

    by Sierra Bacquie

    There was supposed to be a new approach to the Correctional Service of Canada’s relationship to female offenders, who were promised responsible choices, respect, dignity, supportive environments, and shared responsibility. But on the night of April 26, eight women experienced humiliation, degradation, raw fear and trauma at the hands of an all-male emergency team. How did this happen? What has changed since?  read more