Keynote speech given by Jenny Wright, Executive Director of the St. John’s Status of Women Council, at the Memorial University National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women vigil on December 6, 2015.
On December 6th, 1989 this country saw the brutal murders of 14 women, simply because they were women. More poignantly, because they were thought to be feminists.
We are here today so that we never forget that on that day, a gunman went on a shooting rampage at the École Polytechnique engineering school in Montreal, Quebec. He killed 14 people and injured 14 others before taking his own life. His suicide note blamed women and feminism, for ruining his life. He separated men from women before opening fire and killing 14 people. They were all women.
It was a horrific mass murder not seen before in this country. And, I remember that day, all too well. December 6th not only tragically took the lives of 14 young women, it went on to silence a generation of feminists. An entire generation of great feminist academics, researchers and activists were quite simply too afraid to speak out in the aftermath of the massacre. And because of their forced silence, we lost the culmination of their work and all the advancement in the lives of women, and in our society that would have – and should have come from their work.
We were devastated as a nation – and in the months that followed, what rose from the ashes was a collective realization that violence against women was not only real but a horrific issue in our country, in our institutions, and our communities. We created a National Day of Remembrance and Action and we all pledged to make change.
And yet, women continue to die.
In fact, every six days a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner.
We honoured, but we did not act collectively to destroy the root causes of violence agaisnt women: gender inequality rooted firmly in misogyny.
Because of this, univeristies across this country owe a unique debt to the women who where murdered that dark day in our history. We simply can no longer accept the rampant and destructive misogyny that has run unchecked in our universities for years – from UBC, to UofT, to DAL, and yes MUN. Instead, together we must fight to ensure that all universities fiercely protect and nurture feminist thought, research and activism, and to actively ensure the halls of academia are safe for all women to walk in.
I remember the fear after December 6th. I remember being numb for days. I remember the profound sadness, then I remember the anger.
I was at the University of Toronto protest after the massacre. I remember marching with thousands of men and women, I remember singing, and our collective grief and the outpouring of support for the women’s families. I also remember when we looked up at the engineering department, they had hung out a banner – just briefly, long enough for us to see it – that said, “Marc Lepine was right”.
So yes, we must continue to honour. But we must act. We cannot sit idely by and wait for another massacre. We must recognize that violence against women takes many forms – it is not just dead women in university classrooms, it is not simply the bruised face of your neighbour in the newspaper, and it is not just something that happens in other countries. It is based in misogyny, it is gender inequality, it is our refuseal to uphold the enshrined human rights of women, and it is the chronic underfunding and active silencing of women-serving organizations.
We must understand and redress that the lack of childcare, housing, pay equity, access to women-centred healthcare, reproductive rights, education and a fair justice system are not only a primary cause of violence against women, they are the very barriers which prevent women from leaving violence.
To end violence is to first believe women when they tell you they are fighting a silent war in their homes, their streets, at work, and yes in their schools. It is everywhere and we must open our eyes and see it. Once you have seen it, it cannot be unseen. And, in that moment the work becomes to fight for an equal, fairer and safer society. Together.
For the 14 beautiful women who were taken from us, here are 14 ways we can fight everyday to end violence against women:
1. Let us work together to breakdown the institutions that create and foster gender inequality, wherever we see it.
2. Let us demand our government uphold the enshrined human rights of women in their entirety.
3. Let us support women-serving organizations who do the bulk of violence prevention work and do it well.
4. Let us never forget that violence against women is preventable. It is a learned behaviour and it can be unlearned.
5. Let us not slut shame or victim blame.
6. Let us believe women.
7. Let us honour and foster feminism.
8. Let us invest in school-based violence prevention programs, where girls and boys learn how to stop the violence – for good.
9. Let us recognize violence against all women – including trans* women, senior and Indigenous women, sex workers, disabled, young and women new to our county.
10. Let us collaborate, and let us disagree in safety.
11. Let us hold each other accountable.
12. Let us continue to fight for a fairer justice system.
13. Let us challenge harmful representations of women in media.
14. And, finally let us honour women’s history, including this day – December 6th.
We can no longer leave this work on the backs of underfunded and under-resourced women’s organizations. Ending violence against women is not solely the job of women. In this important and sacred work, we can no longer separate the women from the men. We must do this work together, in compassion and in love, in the desire to seek understanding, in honouring experiences that may be different than your own – with courage and resistance.