December 6th: National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

Today marks the 22nd anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre, and the 20th National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

Memorial plaque at École Polytechnique with the 14 names of the women who were killed.
Memorial plaque at École Polytechnique with the 14 names of the women who were killed: Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik Widajewicz.

I remember it being a big deal when I was little. There were full stories about it on the news, memorial services were well-attended, and it was recent enough in the collective memory that it was still a culturally-relevant moment in history. It seems to me, though, that the collective awareness of the massacre is fading fast. There’s a passing mention on the news, the flags are lowered on all federal government buildings, but it doesn’t ping our group consciousness anymore. Even the recent discussions (or perhaps more accurately, government edicts) about the long gun registry have focused more on privacy and public safety in general, rather than the disproportionate effect the registry has had on domestic violence. The reason we have (or had, soon) a gun registry in the first place was because of pressure from feminist groups and anti-violence groups in the wake of the massacre. The massacre is still duly noted, and we tsk-tsk about how awful it was if we see it on the news, but that’s the end of it. There’s no visceral reaction anymore.

I’m frustrated by this, not because I want to turn the massacre into a cultural symbol or icon, but because violence against women is typically something we, as women, experience in isolation, and the massacre was a (blessedly rare) extremely public, undeniably misogynistic act. There aren’t many cultural touchstones that crystallize how continually important anti-violence work is, and how important it is for ALL of us, activist or not, to work in our own small ways towards a world were women aren’t targets for violence by partners, spouses, acquaintances, and strangers. Violence against women happens primarily behind closed doors, and the burden of shame falls disproportionately on the victim rather than the perpetrator. As awful as the massacre was, I think it forced us, as a society, to confront why and how someone could commit such an terrible, unforgivable act of violence, and what we, as a society, need to do to prevent it (and less extreme and less public acts of violence) from happening again.

Twenty-two years later, the discussion about domestic violence and violence against women has become disjointed and unpopular. We still talk about it in some corners, like the feminist corners of the internet, but the discussion doesn’t extend across a broad swath of society. Even in light of the (lack of) debate about the gun registry, we didn’t talk about it much as a nation. Do we collectively think violence against women is a thing of the past? Has it been left aside for other, seemingly more pressing societal problems? Do we just not care anymore? I’m very worried that the answer to all those questions is yes, to some degree, and I’m even more worried that it’ll take another horrific act of public violence to drag the scourge of private violence out into the light again, to refocus the conversation we have as a nation.

Part of me too feels a particular pang on December 6th because I can see myself in the women who we unlucky enough to go to school that day. I’m a woman who studies an unspecified stripe of physical science (which is still a very male-dominated field), I’m an unapologetic feminist, and I intend to be present in the workforce and public life, being my feminist, scientist self, for a good long time. I am the sort of woman that Lépine was trying to silence. But every December 6th, I make sure that regardless of how much work I have on my desk (or how much I’ve managed to clear off), I sit down and work. I chip away at the under-representation of women’s voices in scientific and technical fields, and I reflect on how lucky I am to be able to do that without fearing for my safety. And I work towards normalizing women’s voices in non-traditional fields, so today’s girls will be able to feel safe in those fields, too.

If you don’t feel safe, and are looking for a shelter or support, please visit shelternet.ca. It has information about getting out of abusive relationships, contacts for shelters across Canada (and not just in major cities), and links to legal organizations.

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Millie

Millie is a perpetual grad student, an internationally recognized curmudgeon, and an occasional hugger of trees. She also makes a mean batch of couscous.

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