Remember 30: Recognizing signs

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of pieces commemorating the 30th anniversary of the École Polytechnique murders. Read other Western community members’ reflections on the lessons that still echo – and even on those lessons still ignored – three decades out from that tragic day.

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As women, we’ve always been aware of the complex risks of being a woman in society, risks that too often include living and working in places where sexual harassment is pervasive and almost normalized.

We may barely notice the harassment; we’re never comfortable with it; we’re always resentful of it – but we also don’t want to live angry and fighting all the time. So we try to navigate through it as best we can.

And when something like École Polytechnique happens, you realize harassment and violence are part of this same destructive dynamic of keeping women ‘in their place.’ I’m not suggesting everyone who harasses a woman is on the same plane as a misogynist killer, but it’s not over-reaching to say that the Montreal Massacre marked a tragic entry point for many in this country to understand the roots and potential consequences of gender-based violence.

Dec. 6, 1989 was a wake-up call, an alarm that said violence against women had implications beyond what we had previously been comfortable talking about: gun violence, violence against women, workplace violence, gender inequity in law and policy, inequities in how men and women communicate with and about each other.

Tragedy broke through our complacency.

The genesis in 1992 of what is now the Centre for Research and Education on Violence Against Women and Children can be traced directly to the horror and questions that arose after Dec. 6, when the federal government funded five research centres to understand the problem, offer support to survivors and prevent similar tragedies from taking place.

There is additional tragedy, though, that the murders at École Polytechnique did not spark a broader realization that the power dynamics inherent in violence against women can also be present in the insidious, day-by-day harassment of women in the workplace.

To understand this more fully, it took two more tragic deaths: the 1996 shooting death of Theresa Vince – killed by her male boss after he had harassed her for years at the Chatham store where they worked – and then the murder of Windsor nurse Lori Dupont in 2005, stabbed by her ex-boyfriend, an anesthesiologist who worked at the same hospital.

These events sparked 2010 legislation that named harassment and domestic violence a workplace violence issue. Only in 2017 – a long, long stretch of time after the Montreal Massacre – was sexual harassment included as a workplace health and safety issue in Ontario.

Along the way, we have had vigils, purple ribbon campaigns and conferences with survivors, families, unions, policy-makers and employee associations. We have heard deeply disturbing stories along with narratives of hope. We have undertaken studies, conducted research, created educational videos, lobbied governments.

And inquests. We have taken part in far too many inquests.

We have spent the past 30 years evaluating our response systems. We now know, for example, that relatively few women who have suffered abuse have been in contact with police, doctors, counsellors or shelters. And we know friends and neighbours and workplaces are important partners in offering supports to women who have been abused and to male perpetrators as well.

So now we urge people to recognize the signs and risk factors, be able to respond to co-workers and friends who may be undergoing harm and know how to refer people to appropriate help.

As we look back on the Montreal Massacre, we continue to grieve. We mourn who these young women were and who they might have become. I worry about the many ways these major events, and the smaller daily acts of violence, have an impact upon Canadian men and women and their children. I worry too about the ways that gender minorities – transpeople and non-binary people – are facing the same explosive acts of violence and the same wearing daily acts of harassment.

Progress has sometimes been slow and uneven, and it has too often taken place on the memories of dead women and the courage of survivors and their allies.

At times, we have asked, how many deaths will it take, how many lives will be devastated before Canadians understand and mobilize en masse?

That’s a terrible question to have to ask.

I know we can do better.

Education professor Barb MacQuarrie is Community Director at Western’s Centre for Research & Education on Violence Against Women & Children (CREVAWC).