Dec. 6, 2020 marks the 31st anniversary of what has become known as the Montreal Massacre. On that day in 1989 an embittered young man entered École Polytechnique and shot 28 people. He killed 14 young women; another 10 women were injured and four men were caught in the crossfire before he turned the gun on himself. His suicide note blamed women in general, and feminists in particular, for ruining his life and listed 19 other women whom he’d planned to kill.
In Canada we mark Dec. 6 as a day of remembrance by wearing white ribbons and saying “never again.” This day has also come to symbolize a call to action to end gendered violence and has been expanded to an initiative called 16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence (Nov. 25 to Dec. 10). But in spite of all the white ribbons and international activities, gender-based violence continues to grow.
It is called many things: domestic violence, domestic abuse, spousal abuse, intimate partner violence, battering or family violence. But whatever we call it, the sad fact is that gender-based violence still exists. It destroys families, weakens the fabric of our society, and takes a heavy toll on our communities and our economy. Even before COVID- 19 hit, violence against women and girls had reached pandemic proportions. Globally, 243 million women and girls were abused by an intimate partner in the past year.
As the pandemic rages on, we are being asked to stay home, but for some, that means staying home in a potentially dangerous situation. Since the outbreak of COVID-19, emerging data and reports from those on the front lines have shown that all types of violence against women and girls, particularly domestic violence, has intensified. Between March and September, the RCMP in Alberta reported an 11 per cent year-over-year increase of domestic violence calls. Meanwhile, calls to the Family Violence Info Line (310- 1818) increased by 23 per cent.
We know that roughly 60 per cent of all domestic violence goes unreported. Now, with restrictions on our ability to gather physically, the pool of people who may call police to report abuse or express concern, such as friends, neighbours, employers or kids’ teachers, has also shrunk.
Police in both Calgary and Edmonton have reported an escalation in the severity of abusive behaviour in the calls.
Women in abusive relationships are themselves reporting that the abuse has worsened with the pandemic. Situations involving emotional and verbal abuse have now turned physical, and situations that were already physical have crossed another line into threats and fear for their safety and their lives.
The precursors of domestic violence often occur in childhood and adolescence. Children and youth learn relationship skills and social behaviours from their parents and other family members. A high proportion of children who witness or experience violent relationships in childhood go on to perpetuate these patterns in adulthood.
A growing body of research shows that domestic violence is often preceded by dating violence in adolescence which is, in turn, often preceded by bullying and aggression in childhood and early adolescence. The lessons of power and bullying learned on the playground are often refined and intensified into domestic abuse as adults. To effect permanent reductions in gendered violence, we need to teach our young people what a healthy relationship looks like.
I vividly remember where I was on Dec. 6, 1989, when the news first broke about the Montreal Massacre. This was in the days before smartphones and Twitter. I received a phone call on my landline from a friend — she told me to turn on the news. As I did, a visibly upset Lloyd Robertson was reporting that an armed man was roaming the halls of École Polytechnique. This can’t be happening, not here in Canada, I thought.
As is usual in times of stress and sorrow, people gathered together. We gathered at the Women’s Centre at the University of Regina to watch the news as more details came out. That first night, we cried together, we raged together, and together we vowed to continue the fight for women’s safety. Over the next few days and weeks, more information came to light, including the names on the “kill list” that included two of my professors.
We organized buddy patrols and walked women to their cars after night classes. We staged a walk through the university with security to show how easy it would be for someone to walk through our halls with a gun. We added volunteers to work our help line and we wrote articles about violence against women.
In our naïveté, we were all so sure that we could end gendered violence. Yet here I am, 31 years later, writing another article about violence against women. ❚