Studying for mid-term exams and writing final assignments was always a challenge in the house I shared with three male friends in my third year at York University. Music videos were constantly blaring from the TV. But one night, December 6th, 1989, I abandoned the enterprise altogether as we sat riveted by the sounds and pictures of the chaos that was occurring at École Polytechnique in Montreal.
As details unfolded about a shooter who had walked into a classroom, separated the women from the men, and then opened fire, killing 14 bright, young female engineering students, a debate began among the four of us. It was the same argument that raged across Canada, and was sadly echoed in the House of Commons this week. Was Marc Lépine a misogynist who, feeling marginalized and threatened by strong, ambitious women, targeted them directly, as his suicide note seemed to imply? Or was there also enough evidence in the note, and in his life, to suggest he was a deranged individual executing the psychosis of a madman?
My roommates were upset themselves and they had their opinions, but they were respectful toward me, as the only woman among them. They saw how distressed I was and, like many women then, how fearful I was to step into my university classroom to finish out my semester.
In the intervening months, they would also see me transform from a novice “feminist,” just beginning to work out how the history of women’s fight for equality and the rhetoric of the current movement fit into my life, to an active feminist, who showed up at vigils, tried to change attitudes and delved deeper and deeper into women’s studies.
My feminist awakening is directly related to the Montreal Massacre, in the highly charged emotions that characterized the months following the tragedy.
My personal style never excluded men from the conversation, which the movement had a — largely false — reputation for doing; (something that young women seem to be struggling with today, as portrayed in this Women Against Feminism tumblr site). But, I can never separate how or why I first came to realize what the “institutionalized misogyny” I was then struggling to understand really meant.
Before that I was like Nathalie Provost, one survivor of Marc Lépine’s gun, who said in an interview at the fifth anniversary, “I never thought there was a difference between men and women.”
Now that I was paying attention, I saw things begin to change. On the second anniversary, December 6th was declared A National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, an opportunity to remember and reflect on an indelible event in our country's social history. A few concerned men hastily organized the inaugural White Ribbon Campaign — men asking men to become involved in ending violence against women. It is now a year-long, worldwide campaign of awareness.
The survivors and families of victims, who had joined forces to become advocates for stricter gun laws, saw their efforts rewarded in 1992 with Bill C-17, which required safety training, background checks and wait times, and included increased penalties for gun-related crimes and new regulations for fire-arm dealers. In 1995, Bill C-68, The Firearms Act, further strengthened laws and eventually led to the long-gun registry in 2003.
Some of this has since unraveled; the long-gun registry was scrapped in 2012, and those same families and survivors are now actively lobbying against proposed Bill C-42, which would loosen gun registration processes.
But, back then every small step forward was a huge stride for anti-violence activists.
Other high profile events had their galvanizing effects, and promises of change, on society and in households. In the U.S., the O.J. Simpson murder trial brought the age-old issue of domestic abuse to the forefront. Closer to home, women became a little more vigilant when police were on the hunt for the Scarborough rapist, until the horrific news from St. Catharines revealed the identity of serial killer Paul Bernardo and, even more disturbing, the help of his wife, Karla Homolka, to lure in the young women he held captive and killed.
In B.C., while working in a newsroom, I was sickened as the daily discoveries at Robert Pickton’s farm got more and more gruesome. All the while, families of missing and murdered Downtown Eastside women struggled to keep their stories alive.
Awareness and change about violence against women seems to be characterized by won and lost momentum, despite the efforts of feminists; both men and women who work to change attitudes and systems. Recent events are a sad testament to its loss, women courageously coming forward is its gain. Step back, step forward.
So, how long does it take to make lasting change? The late Jack Layton, co-founder of the White Ribbon Campaign, predicted at the time of the campaign's inception, “This is a 50-75 year project.”
If Layton is right, only 25 years in, we have a ways to go.
Image credit: Canada.com
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