Presented at Mount Saint Vincent University during their International Day of Remembrance and Action Ceremony.
I would like to begin by acknowledging that I can’t be with you in Nova Scotia today because of the tightening of the Atlantic bubble, so I respectfully acknowledge that the land from which I am speaking is the ancestral homelands of the Beothuk, whose culture has now been erased forever. I acknowledge the island Newfoundland as the unceded, traditional territory of the Beothuk and the Mi’kmaq and Labrador as the traditional and ancestral homelands of the Innu and the Inuit.
I am fiercely grateful to the Alexa McDonough Institute for their invaluable work on gender and justice and specifically to the steering committee, who asked me to share space with you on this painful and necessary day of remembrance.
We are coming together in this new space – online – where we can be together in safety. And yet it is very hard, to remember and mourn, to organize when we are not together … with all of our senses, in solidarity and in community.
Today we will explore painful ideas, realities and tragedy, and I acknowledge that the Nova Scotia shooting in April of this year is all too raw, that the survivors of this tragedy are trying to heal, still fighting for answers and justice. Throughout this day, I am holding space for them, and I ask that you do too.
Why are we talking about confronting misogyny today?
Because it is a common trait among most mass murderers, because it is the reason why violence against women flourishes unchecked in our country and globally, and because we, as a progressive society, have not acknowledged nor had our reckoning with it.
And, because, I believe to end violence against women – and in fact all gender-based violence – we must interrogate why this critically important word – this one-word analysis – has become both ubiquitous and, at times, meaningless.
Over many years we have come to conflate sexism with misogyny, but they have two very distinct functions that work to uphold each other. Sexism is an ideology, an ideology that says, “These social norms are how it should be. Women are just more caring, or nurturing, they are weaker and more empathetic. This is the natural order of things.” Sexism is the belief system that supports and holds up patriarchal values and systems. It is why the pay gap exists, why gender roles are still so rigid, why we don’t surpass 30% of women in office, and why women continue to do the vast majority of unpaid work.
The standard definition of misogyny is the hatred of women. However, Philosopher Kate Manne argues our standardized definition must be more nuanced – because, for too long it has been understood as something men feel – a burning hatred in their hearts – and not something that women experience, which is a fatal mistake.
She conceptualizes misogyny as the law enforcement arm of sexism – which engages and enforces – when there’s a threat to our patriarchal system.
If we continue to think of misogyny as a thing that a few bad men feel, instead of the law that polices and punishes women who transgress or threaten dominant men, then we ourselves become complicit in violence against women.
We must understand misogyny as upheld by systems – the system of white supremacy, of patriarchy, that it is codified into our laws, property, and the institutions of policing, the military, religion and yes, academia. We see this in the removal of poor and racialized women’s children, the surveillance and criminalization of sex workers, and the abhorrently low conviction rates in both domestic violence and rape cases.
This refusal to name misogyny was evident in the aftermath of the Montreal Massacre on that fateful night on December 6th 1989, where 14 women were murdered. The shooter actively separated the men from the women, and shouted “I hate feminists” – and yet it was over two decades before his actions were ever accepted and understood as femicide, the killing of women, because they were women.
In confronting misogyny and the systems that enforce it, we must always have an intersectional lens, as Kimberly Crenshaw has named and guided us to do. At its root, misogyny is about keeping women subordinate to men through violence or the threat of violence. Its function – to persistently and actively view women as inferior – is hardest felt by women who experience intersections of race, poverty, ability, and stigma. The more intersections we experience, the more inferior and therefore more disposable we are considered – an atrocious reality we see in the treatment of Indigenous women, drug using women, trans women, criminalized and migrant women.
This was unmistakeable in the public dialogue on the murder of over 50 Indigenous women in the downtown east side of Vancouver – many of whom were street level sex workers and drug using – that virtually went unnoticed, or purposefully ignored, by police for years. History books and the media continue to refer to the murderer, Robert Pickton, as Canada’s worst serial killer, as though he is a curiosity to be studied, and not as a racist, misogynist white man, who intentionally targeted vulnerable Indigenous women because he knew no one would notice.
The men who commit mass shootings are portrayed in the mainstream media as lone wolves, acting on their own, or as mentally ill. These dominant narratives hide an uncomfortable truth – that the common igniter for these men is a deep-seated hatred of women, a hatred that finds both fuel and oxygen in our wider culture.
These lone wolf, mental illness and “evil” narratives offer us a disquieting comfort because they allow us to focus on the “other”, the character and plot lines of the villain, and then we are able to conveniently accept it as beyond our control, rather than a by-product of a patriarchal and misogynist culture, in which we are all contributors.
In fact, mass murderers sit squarely on the continuum of violence against women – from rape jokes, coercive behaviour, to domestic violence and rape…. There are always clear predictors and this violence is always preventable.
We know the majority of mass murderers are white straight men, their common trait – a deep and potent hatred of women. We also know they share a pattern of beliefs, which justify their actions, which begin to unfold in the aftermath of almost every mass killing:
A sense of entitlement,
An obsession with power, or symbols of power, and
A history of violence against women.
Year after year, tragedy after tragedy we have refused to name it, refused to name misogyny as the direct cause, even when the perpetrators themselves tell us their intentions. The Toronto van attacker told police he drove his van straight into a crowded street of people as retribution against society because women would not have sex with him. Mark Lepine shouted that he hated feminists and left a long list of women he was planning to kill next.
If we cannot name misogyny and confront it, we will never effectively address it, and therefore never eradicate it.
This refusal to accept misogyny as the root cause of mass shootings was on full display after the tragic events, over 13 hours, in April of this year. As an activist for many decades, I was outraged when the RCMP reported that the Nova Scotia shooter’s girlfriend was “the catalyst for the mass shooting” and I watched as media outlets repeated this statement – as if it were a known truth – unquestioned for the days and weeks to come. This misogynist language serves two purposes: 1) to blame (and punish) women for the violence they experience, and the violence others close to them experienced because of it, and, 2) to allow systems of misogyny, like the RCMP, to deflect their own complicitness.
She was in no way the catalyst for this horrific tragedy. We all now know what activists like myself and others predicted – that the mass shooting was the culmination of years of unchecked male entitlement, violence against women and others that was not taken seriously, an obsession with power, violent misogyny, which unsurprisingly grew more virulent and violent overtime, because it was unchecked, and devastatingly, a predictable pattern of events unfolded.
Our inaction in naming and addressing misogyny has also meant there is little change in the levels of violence women experience.
In the 40 years since violence against women became part of our cultural dialogue, there has been 40 years of research, scholarship, the opening of shelters and women’s centres, women and gender studies programs, a proliferation of women’s lived experiences has been documented, there have been changes to our laws, and billions of dollars infused to create programs and interventions to end violence against women.
Yet sadly, there has been no real change in the levels of violence women experience.
I am a panelist with the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, which monitors VAW and state and social responses to it. The observatory generates a femicide report each year and a woman or girl is killed on average every 2.5 days in Canada, approximately 130 women and girls each year. Last year that number was 136.
We continue to clutch on to the dominate narrative that Canada is a peaceful, non-violent and non-racist country – against all evidence to the contrary.
Across this vast landscape that is now Canada, we have much to celebrate when we see examples of kindness, connection and innovation, but we must confront the false version of Canada, and rural Canada, as a place that is only and always friendly, pastoral and safe. The hard truth is that femicide is all too common in rural areas – 34% of femicides last year were in rural areas, which is alarming given that only 16% of the population live in rural areas.
These dominant narratives most often perpetuated by white Canadians are powerful and we cling to them as part of our own individual and national identity and sense of safety. But, in doing so, we diminish and ignore the misogyny and racism throughout our nation, a nation forged by genocide, and we move on to more convenient rationales from victim blaming to “lone wolf” explanations – rationales that require no work, no changes on our collective behalf beyond remembering. We see it as simply beyond our control.
As a culture we also believe that VAW is a “women’s issue”, that it is something that happens to women who behave badly, and that it generally happens within what we view as the private sphere.
When we insist on seeing this as only a “women’s issue” we ignore the horrendous and intergenerational impact of this violence across all of our communities – on families, neighbours, our activism and advocacy work. When it is only a “women’s issue” we often can’t see the societal impact on those who suffer for generations in the aftermath including:
*A survivor of the Montreal Massacre, Natalie Provost refers to Dec 6th as “the night he killed us all.”
*Fellow students of that tragedy who died by suicide and many who experienced adverse mental health and addictions and continue to today.
*Families of the murdered and missing Indigenous women of Vancouver’s downtown east side and beyond are still searching for and grieving for generations of lost daughters, sisters and mothers, without justice or reprieve.
*The 136 women who were murdered in Canada last year, left 118 children without a mother.
*Waves and ripples of grief after the mass shooting in Nova Scotia this year continue to sit with families, and we will not know the full impact for years to come.
Violent misogyny does NOT just target women, even though the hatred of women is the root cause. We’ve seen this in the Toronto van attack, in the devastating NS Shooting, in the many incidences where the perpetrator kills his entire family, and neighbours, new partners and complete strangers. When we realize this, we can begin to really see it as a societal problem with a cost we can no longer bear.
Today is a day of reflection and remembrance of the 14 women who were murdered 30 years ago.
I believe universities and colleges across this country owe a unique debt to the women who were murdered that dark day in our history and to the entire generation of great feminist academics, researchers and activists who 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 simply can no longer accept the rampant misogyny that has run unchecked in our universities and colleges for years.
We must be outraged that the red zone exists: the first 6 weeks of a young women’s university career where she can expect her chances of being sexual assaulted to increase exponentially.
We must fight university policies that muzzle women who are victims of violence at university from speaking publicly, or to the media, and insist she navigate university processes, instead of the supports she chooses and which make her feel safe.
It is unacceptable that women professors are payed less, published less and sit on more unpaid committees, and that gender studies programs are always under threat and poorly resourced.
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 and work in.
We must advocate for a massive rethinking of our education system, complete reform of our curriculums from daycare to university where we teach healthy relationships, boundaries, conflict resolution, non-violence, and where comprehensive and positive sex education is the norm. Where our youngest are armed with the tools to fight discrimination, inequality, violence – tools they will go on to use to transform our communities, and institutions from the school room to the dinner table and beyond.
SO, yes, – there is much work to do. And, at times we can feel hopeless. But this solemn anniversary is our reminder that we cannot lose hope. That yes, we must grieve, but then we must act.
Fighting violence against women is fighting for a better world, a word without the inequalities’ and violence misogyny forges, that fights against the lack of childcare, housing, pay equity, access to women-centred healthcare, reproductive rights, education and a fair justice system – the very barriers that prevent women from leaving violence.
We can however 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. We can no longer separate the women from the men. We must do this work together, with courage and resistance.
Each year on December 6th, in honour of the 14 beautiful women who were taken from us, I share 14 ways we can all fight every day to end male 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 centre our work in decolonization and anti-racism.
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 Black women, 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.