December 6, 2009: Remembering 2 decades of violence against women

Tonight I attended the 20th annual vigil held by Women Won't Forget at Philosopher's Walk on University of Toronto campus. The vigil remembers 14 women who were killed 20 years ago today, simply for being women, and calls attention to all those have suffered under all forms of female oppression & patriarchy.

20 years ago, one man took these women's lives, but he acted out an age old drama of patriarchal oppression, a violence based on sexual dichotomy and rendered "natural" by brute force (explicit or otherwise). It saddens me to realize that there is even more violence to remember today, and the need is as urgent as ever for feminist activists to speak up, act out, and organize to stop violence against women in our families & communities.

I've been attending this particular vigil for many years, since a partner first brought me there somewhere around 1996 or 1997. I have always found the event to be well organized, powerful, and filled with just the right balance of love and rage. Tonight, the cold and bitter wind which gusted through the people gathered was a harshly appropriate backdrop to the cold hard facts read aloud of women who've been killed in the last year.

Now back at home, with a warm cup of tea in my hand, I still feel a chill which has nothing to do with the wind. At the same time, I have a renewed sense of determination, a fire fueled by compassion, a drive to struggle in my own life, to take responsibility for my own capacity for violence by challenging it wherever I can identify it- even and especially in myself.

Most media coverage I hear about December 6 tends to speak primarily of Marc Lepine, even as women's organizations like Women Won't Forget have relentlessly repeated the names of the women (the original 14 and every one since): those who were killed, abused, raped, tortured, or otherwise exploited at the hands of men.

This year, another woman's name has been in the news: that of Monique Lepine, the mother of the now infamous killer. CTV's interview with Lepine is both heartwrenching and hopeful, revealing the humanity of both mother and son. Monique Lepine's narrative echoes the slogan "First mourn, then work for change" used since the first memorial of the Ecole Polytechnique killings in Montreal.

Lest we forget: earlier today, listening to the radio, I was profoundly reminded that change remains badly needed. Upon first tuning in, the discussion was on the systemic failure of the criminal justice system to take violence against women seriously, detailing all-too-common cases where woman-killed-by-man might well have been prevented if only someone in authority had been paying attention to the warning signs.

Five minutes later, during the top of the hour news, the reporter announced the vigils happening all across the country to mark the 20th anniversary of this formative moment in Canadian women's movement. Immediately following this announcement, seemingly unrelated, she reported a news item about another woman killed only yesterday by a man in her own downtown neighbourhood. But of course these two things are NOT unrelated: at the vigil tonight, one of the women named was reported murdered last year on December the 6th, a grim reminder that the underlying conditions which made possible the deaths of 14 female Ecole Polytechnique students 20 years ago remain present in the extreme.

So what do we do? First mourn, then work for change.

What does that look like? It could be any number of things, but as a start, I might suggest examining your own complicities within patriarchal oppression (especially if you are a man), and seek to liberate yourself responsibly and with compassion, ending the cycle within your own life wherever possible. This is an ongoing challenge I struggle with myself.

Equally important, recognizing that this self-critical process is constant and ongoing, one must also seek to engage with those around them, all of us being bound up in this mess together. With this in mind, you might volunteer at or donate to a women's shelter, get involved with one of many excellent women's organizations in Toronto, or wherever you are. Or, as one speaker suggested in her speech at the vigil tonight, simply get to know your neighbours. Learn to take care of (and with) the women in your life, and in your immediate community. Stay mindful of the warning signs of violence, and take women seriously when they feel threatened or harrassed.

For my part, I know that I have plenty of work to do. I am grateful for the many incredible women (plus a significant handful of men) who have shared their wisdom and insight, encouraging and challenging me to be authentic, compassionate, and honest about my failures and successes, with myself and others. I have learned a great deal through observation and hard, painful struggle, and I remain open and willing to continue working for change. Thank you to all my precious teachers (you know who you are) everywhere. Blessed be!