December 6, 2018 will mark the 29th anniversary of the 1989 Montreal Massacre, when 14 women were murdered at École Polytechnique, simply for being women enrolled in what the gunman considered to be a traditionally male occupation, engineering. The shockwaves from this incident reverberated around the world. The average Canadian could not believe that something like this could ever happen in Canada. The truth of the matter is this: femicide can happen anywhere.
As an OSSTF/FEESO member, unless you are a Continuing Education Instructor or involved in delivering curriculum to adults, the secondary or elementary students you work with were not alive when this event occurred. Over the years, I have witnessed December 6 being acknowledged in a variety of different ways at the school level: everything ranging from a moment of silence to honour the memory of the 14 murdered women; to the playing of “Warrior” by the Wyrd Sisters, a Canadian band from Winnipeg, on the morning announcements; to 14 female students dressing in black and wearing name signs representing each woman who was killed that day. In the greater community, “Take Back the Night” marches are still prevalent, as well as candlelight vigils and memorial services, and local monuments have been erected in many communities. It is important to commemorate this tragic day in Canadian history and remember those who lost their lives, but what does this mean to women today?
In March, 2015, the Ontario government published, It’s Never Okay: An Action Plan to Stop Sexual Violence and Harassment. Early in the report a very significant paragraph appears:
- Research indicates there are 460,000 sexual assaults in Canada each year. For every 1,000 sexual assaults, only 33 are ever reported to the police; 12 result in charges laid; only 6 are prosecuted and only 3 lead to a conviction. (p. 7)
Those disturbing numbers are followed by some other rather dismal statistics:
- In 99% of sexual assaults, the accused perpetrator is male. (p. 8)
- Sexual assault victimization rates are five times higher for women under the age of 35. (p. 9)
- One in three women will experience some form of sexual assault in her lifetime. (p. 9)
- Women with disabilities are three times as likely to be forced into sexual activity by use of threats or force. (p. 15)
- 47% of violent crimes against girls under the age of 12 are sexual in nature. (p. 22)
- Female youth aged 12 to 17 are eight times more likely than male youth to be victims of sexual assault or another type of sexual offence. (p. 23)
- 28% of Canadians are on the receiving end of unwelcome sexual advances, requests for sexual favours, or sexually-charged talk while on the job. (p. 24)
- Four out of five of Canadians who said they had unwanted experiences did not report this behaviour to their employers. (p. 25)
The original purpose of the Action Plan was to emphasize that women are still vulnerable in our society and to suggest some strategies to redress these issues, such as increasing funding and services to women at risk of sexual violence, addressing mental health issues, increasing access to counselling services and amending the Residential Tenancies Act to allow tenants fleeing sexual or domestic violence to break their lease with less than 60 days’ notice. (p. 31) It is interesting to speculate as to whether or not the current Ontario government will withdraw or reduce these services.
In these times of “#MeToo,” domestic and sexual violence, human trafficking, gender inequities in wages, the prevalence of “rape culture” at our post-secondary institutions, and the many missing/murdered Indigenous women, it is important to remember and honour those who died on December 6, 1989, simply by virtue of the fact that they were women. As long as women continue to be objectified, minimized, assaulted and taken advantage of by some societal elements, as long as women are afraid to report crimes perpetrated against them for fear of reprisal or futility, there is reason to continue to focus on womens’ issues.