By UMSU Executive Committee
This Friday marks the 30th anniversary of the École Polytechnique shooting in Montreal, carried out as an explicit attack on feminism. Despite hard fought progress towards gender equality in the three decades since, advances in women’s rights and personal safety remain fragile. Our shared interest depends on those very rights being upheld and expanded upon.
On December 6, 1989, a gunman entered a classroom at Montreal’s École Polytechnique and separated students by gender before murdering six women and injuring three others. From there he proceeded to stalk the hallways for 20 minutes, targeting women with either his semi-automatic rifle or hunting knife. In the end he killed 14 women and injured 10 others before turning his gun on himself. Four men were also injured. It remains our country’s deadliest mass shooting.
While the horrific events of that day have left scars on Canada’s collective consciousness, they have thankfully not been repeated. However, it doesn’t take much to see that even in our progressive society, which prides itself on being supposedly open, tolerant and equal, half our population still remains unduly at risk of violence simply because they are female.
Common assault against females represents 48 per cent of all violent incident reports fielded by police in Canada. Girls aged 15-24 years old are the most frequent victims of violence, and incidence rates are far higher in rural and northern communities, with Manitoba having one of the nation’s highest rates of violence against women. Meanwhile, sexual violence – in all its pernicious forms, but sexual assault in particular – is overwhelmingly inflicted upon females, who are the victims of sexual assault nine times out of ten.
But the full scope of the problem is actually much, much worse. The data we do have represents only a sliver of the truth. Especially for sexual assault, which is distinct for being the crime least likely to be reported to police due to feelings of guilt and shame by the victim. Experts point out that official crime statistics on sexual assault likely capture only around 5 per cent of the acts being committed.
Of the cases of sexual assault that do end up being reported and prosecuted, less than half end up resulting in a conviction. In the end, that means only around 1-2 per cent of the acts of sexual violence that occur against women in this country end up being punished.
The image of violence against women as being mostly perpetrated by a hooded stranger in seedy locations does not reflect reality. It happens most often in the places where the victim is comfortable, at the hands of someone they know: nearly two-thirds of those being victimized on private property report it happened in their own home by either a family member, casual acquaintance or intimate partner.
All told, the ongoing persecution of women has become impossible to ignore.
The worrying rollback of women’s reproductive rights in the US is happening at the same time as Indigenous and lesbian, bisexual and transgender women face endemic levels of violence here in Canada. In its final report delivered this past June, the National Inquiry into MMIWG pointed out how Indigenous women and girls are 16 times more likely to be murdered or go missing than white women.
Separately, in April 2018, 25 year-old Alex Minassian killed 10 people and injured 15 others by ploughing a rental van into a crowded pedestrian walkway in downtown Toronto. He was evidently inspired by the vengeful, misogynist Incel movement, in which young, “involuntarily celibate” men demonize women for not wanting to sleep with them. We got our own grim reminder of this trend on campus mere weeks ago, when a 19 year-old female student suffered facial injuries after being assaulted in IQ’s by a male student who was enraged over her previously declining his request for a date.
And yet, even though women and girls are bearing the brunt of the violence, the issue damages all of us, as it represents untold amounts of not only pain and suffering but lost opportunity.
In CBC’s 2019 Massey Lectures, titled Power Shift: The Longest Revolution, renowned Canadian journalist Sally Armstrong cites evidence from all around the world on how including women in governance adds to peace and security initiatives, and how entrenched gender inequality – the product of centuries of discrimination against women – is holding back our communities and economies from achieving their true potential.
Armstrong cites a 2015 report from the McKinsey Global Institute, a preeminent think tank, illustrating how achieving true gender equality in the global economy could add $28 trillion of global economic growth annually by 2025. For comparison sake, that is 27 per cent more per year than the entire GDP of the US, the world’s largest economy.
But, there is hope.
As Armstrong’s lecture series suggests, things are changing. Governments around the world, including Canada, have begun to take a feminist approach to foreign policy. In the private sector, companies are realizing benefits in governance, productivity and increased profitability when women fill even just 30 per cent of board positions.
While as of 2011, women eclipsed men as the majority university degree holders in Canada between the ages of 25 and 64 (53.7%); including holding nearly two-thirds of medical degrees for those aged 25-34, and 58 per cent of master’s degrees for the same age bracket. Indeed, 60 per cent of your UMSU Executive Committee is female and the UMSU Board of Directors is roughly the same.
The catch: All this social change means that if we are to truly eradicate the scourge of violence against women, men’s lives need to change too.
Men have a critical role in being allies by both advocating for the reduction in violence against women in society, and pushing for greater inclusion of women in the economy and positions of significance.
This will require men to be self-reflective, open and honest about examining and confronting internal and external pressures to conform to certain outdated forms of masculinity. It means men must be at the forefront of helping break down barriers to male-dominated professions for women. Men also need to learn how to take on a greater share of the vital unpaid labour that comes with domestic work, raising children, caring for older parents and being involved in the community. It also means men not shying away from discussing the topic of violence against women with their friends, family and colleagues – and calling it out when it rears its ugly head.
For our part, UMSU will carry on with the important work we’re doing, looking to both improve our own policies and safeguards while also advocating for change at all three levels of government.
Beginning in 2018/19, UMSU mandated that student groups must have 75 per cent of their members take consent culture training in order to receive UMSU funding.
As part of Manitoba’s recent provincial elections we lobbied all of Manitoba’s political parties, in conjunction with Students for Consent Culture Canada (SFCC), to support a re-examination of provincial legislation to allow survivors to know the results of sexual violence investigations and disciplinary action taken as a result, and implement the MMIWG Inquiry’s calls for justice.
Meanwhile, our work in consulting students and the university administration on its revised sexual violence policy has led to 14 of our 15 recommendations being adopted in a new stronger, more transparent policy. UMSU’s advocacy was also key in getting the university to commit $250,000 to a new centralized sexual violence support centre on Fort Garry Campus, due to open in January 2020.
But for now, we simply ask that you join us on Friday at 11:00am in the atrium of the EITC building on Fort Garry campus for a commemoration event and memorial wall unveiling, to mark the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. At 4:00pm there will also be a live viewing of the Montreal commemoration event.
In closing her Massey Lectures series, Sally Armstrong told an anecdote from her time reporting from Afghanistan, talking to girls in an impoverished village under Taliban rule – possibly the worst place in the world to be a female. And yet, when she was invited into a secret meeting on how to improve the lives of their women in the community, she was surprised to see men there. When Armstrong questioned why men were present at the meeting when they were seemingly complicit in the women’s oppression, a shy, illiterate teenage girl wisely responded: We can’t get to the finish line unless we do this together.