December 6: Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

“Femicide is not a crime of passion; it is a crime of power”  

By Judy Haiven  

Did anyone mark the fact that November 25 was the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women?

In Canada, there was no minute of silence.

A recent article in The Guardian revealed that Giulia Cecchettin, age 22 and an engineering student in Italy, was days away from her graduation when she was murdered by her ex-boyfriend. Her older sister, Elena, in social media and media interviews linked Giulia’s murder to toxic male behaviour. She labeled men who commit femicides as the “children” of patriarchy and rape culture.

Elena Cecchettin wrote, “Femicide is a state murder because the state does not protect us. Femicide is not a crime of passion, it is a crime of power.”

In Italy so far in 2023, 106 women have been killed, the majority at the hands of their partners or former partners.

In Canada the figures are worse. According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory, one woman or girl is murdered every 46 hours. In 2022, 184 women or girls were killed mostly by men. That is a 27 percent increase since 2019. From 2018 to 2022, more than 850 women and girls were killed. In Ontario alone, from November 2022 to June 2023, 30 women were killed in 30 weeks.

Every December, I remember the Montreal Massacre. On December 6, 1989 I walked to the Bowl on the University of Saskatchewan campus in the dark, in sub-zero temperatures and in the deep snow. I joined Edmonton author Myna Kostash, who lived for a year in Saskatoon as a writer in residence. We attended a rally and demonstration of rage – organized mere hours after we heard the tragic news.

The killer had walked into a mechanical engineering classroom at École Polytechnique and separated the men from the women. Shouting, “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!” he pulled out a semi-automatic weapon and killed fourteen women. He wounded thirteen others. One student who survived, Nathalie Provost, protested: “I’m not feminist, I have never fought against men.” He shot her anyway.

Maybe what comes out of the massacre – 34 years later – is that women are still the targets for men’s rage, for their unemployment, for their failures, for their jealousy – for everything.

No matter what women do or say, women who stand up to men or say no to men or confront men (whether actually, or potentially or symbolically) become targets. Of course, shooting women or killing them with knives or crossbows is extreme – but it happens.

Thirty-four years ago, the media in Quebec and Ontario – which took their cue from the police and justice system – ignored the message in the Montreal killer’s suicide note. They insisted he was insane, and that the fact that the 14 murder victims were women was mere coincidence.

Francine Pelletier is a leading Quebec journalist who was a target in Montreal. Police found her name at the top of the killer’s list of feminists he had planned to kill. In his note, he wrote the women on the list “nearly died today. The lack of time (because I started too late) has allowed more radical feminists to survive.”

Thirty-four years ago, Pelletier insisted that the killer’s actions were highly political, that he targeted women and that he knew exactly what he was doing.

“I always felt those women died in my name. Some of them probably weren’t even feminist,” Pelletier said. “They just had the nerve to believe they were peers, not subordinates of their male classmates.”

Why Remember December 6?

Some ask why we continue to make so much of a single act (or a single actor) of violence? Yet, it is clear that the killer himself considered his act not as a personal outburst, but as a symbolic gesture. It is important that we do the same when we grieve.

Women – even if they don’t openly challenge men — are seen as the enemy by misogynists, “incels” and many seemingly ordinary men.

In 2017 in rural Nova Scotia a 33-year-old veteran, who had served two tours in Afghanistan with the Canadian military, shot his mother, his wife Shanna Desmond and his 10-year-old daughter in their home. He then turned the gun on himself.

Police and the military have tried to frame the killer’s actions as emanating from post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD). But Dr Ardath Whynacht, a sociologist at Mount Allison University says that “this case is an anomaly if we look at it through the lens of PTSD.” Her research suggests that people who suffer from mental illness are more likely to be victims of violence, not perpetrators. Whynacht points out, “at the end of the day, we have to ask the difficult question: Where along the line does a man learn to turn a gun on his wife and children when taking his own life? That is simply not a question of PTSD.”

For even suggesting PTSD was not the only factor and that family violence played a role, Whynacht was pilloried in social media, and received hate messages and death threats.

Just as Giulia Cecchettin had broken up with her partner, Shanna Desmond said she was considering leaving her husband just before she was going to graduate as a professional engineer. She had recently graduated as a registered nurse and had a good job in a hospital.

During Nova Scotia’s Portapique Massacre in 2020, thirteen of the twenty-two people killed were female. The police have suggested that most of the shootings were not random. According to police and the mainstream media, the killer’s violence was stoked by an argument he had that night with his girlfriend. However, the justice system was reluctant to examine other factors which radiate male power – such as his power and control over his girlfriend.

The inquiry looked at his boasting about his arsenal of guns and grenades, his wearing a police uniform and driving around in a decommissioned replica RCMP cruiser. But the Justice Department tried to steer away from looking at the murders through a feminist lens. That aspect of the inquiry seemed to be an afterthought.

The gender wage gap: a catalyst for gender discrimination

In the last 20 years, the wage gap between men and women has shrunk by only 5.5 percent.  On average, men earned 18.8 percent more than women in 1998, and only 13.3 percent more in 2018. It still means women make 89 cents for every $1.00 that men do. Racialized women earn 59.3 percent of what white men earn. On average across Canada, women earn $3.79 an hour less than men. BC and Alberta tie for the biggest gender wage gap, at 17 percent.

Worldwide, it will take 267.5 years to close the gap between what women and men are paid.

Women have barely made a dent in the struggle for equal pay for work of equal value. Pay equity has all but fallen off the negotiating table when trade unions bargain and, in some jurisdictions, legislated pay equity is in retreat.

However, while not exactly pay equity legislation, British Columbia passed its Pay Transparency Act (Bill 13) in May 2023. It says employers cannot ask employees for their pay history, and employers cannot punish workers for talking about salary. As of November 1, employers had to disclose the expected salary ranges on all advertised jobs. Starting in 2023, some provincial agencies also need to file and publicly post pay transparency reports – a rolling requirement which will see BC employers with 50 or more employees provide that data by November 2026.

As Marjorie Cohen, an economist and professor of political science at Simon Fraser University, noted, “Not having pay equity [in BC] is absolutely crucial. This is an NDP government; they’re a little bit embarrassed by the fact that they have such a wide gender wage gap. So, what they did was to put forward pay transparency.”

Despite the federal Liberals making good on some of their promises for affordable childcare, still too many women are deprived of jobs and career advancement because there are not enough daycare centre spaces or qualified staff. Wages for daycare workers remain low, on average just over $21 per hour. This is especially low when compared to the living wage – in Halifax, for example, the living wage is $26.50 per hour. Provincial subsides are making some difference in funding centres and staff, but it’s slow going.

The exception is Quebec, which started $10-a-day childcare 26 years ago. Two years ago, thousands of childcare workers who staff 400 government-subsidized daycare centres in Quebec went on strike against their employers. They cared enough about the lower paid workers in their centres to strike for raises for kitchen staff and maintenance workers at the daycares, and improvements to their working conditions.

Men: women’s policemen and bosses

We hear that women have come a long way in their fight for equality. Yet in divorce, women suffer dramatic declines in their household incomes and their standard of living, and often lose their housing and their footing on the housing “ladder,” in comparison to their ex-husbands.

While women suffer from out and out discrimination, in terms of earnings, jobs and opportunities, men continue to act as their policemen and their bosses, both at home and at work.

The fact is, even speaking openly about rebelling against men – against husbands, against boyfriends, against fathers, against bosses – can be dangerous.

Ottawa-based author, sexual violence educator and activist Julie Lalonde details in her book Resilience is Futile that she was abused and endured rape by her boyfriend for five years. When she finally left him, he stalked her. As she points out in the book,

“I had survived something that was statistically impossible. Stalking kills. Domestic violence kills. Ontario’s domestic violence death review committee has a list of red flags for a woman experiencing domestic violence who is at risk of homicide. I met nearly all the criteria. I should not have survived. Yet, I was here. Countless women weren’t. The burden felt unbearable.”

Judy Haiven is a founder of Equity Watch, a human rights organization dedicated to fighting bullying and discrimination in the workplace. This article was first published on her blog and has been slightly edited with the author’s permission for length and to remove the names of the killers.

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