Violence against women: From This isn’t supposed to happen to Never again

Twenty-three years ago December 6 I walked into my home at the end of a school day and found my mother in the living room staring at our crappy RCA television. There was a live report showing ambulances parked near a building with sirens flashing in the dark. Fat, wet snowflakes blurred the TV screen. My mother didn’t turn to say hello; her eyes stared at the images unfolding, her left hand placed flat on her chest.

“There was a shooting at the École Polytechnique,” she whispered.
The rest of the evening was a blur. We barely spoke, absorbing the images of police officers and paramedics unused to dealing with this level of tragedy, the somber commentary of the newscasters and reporters telling us that, once the last bullet was shot, a lone gunman killed fourteen women. This isn’t supposed to happen here, I thought over and over in my head.
Anne-Marie Edward. Photo courtesy of the Edward family.
When the names and photos of the victims were released in the local paper, my heart sunk further as I recognized Anne-Marie Edward’s smiling face. We had a friendly rivalry in a calculus class we’d taken together the previous year in college. She was sweet, always smiling, and solved some math problems a fair bit faster than me. After graduating from college, I went to one university while she went to the Polytechnique to be an engineering student. Now all that she was, and the lives of 13 other women, were wiped out.
As the anniversary of the massacre is marked December 6, my thoughts once again wander to what happened, what could have been had this never taken place, and what fulfilling lives the victims would have had. A tragedy like this shifted my thinking from This isn’t supposed to happen here to This can never happen again.
Unfortunately, violence against women is still pervasive and knows no boundaries, and it is inextricably tied to violence using firearms. Anne-Marie’s mother, Suzanne Laplante-Edward, in an articleurging for stricter gun-control laws in Canada, points out that “Studies have shown that rates of homicide in domestic-violence situations increase significantly when there is a firearm in the home. Rifles and shotguns are the guns most likely to be used in domestic violence. Women’s groups have repeatedly said that strong controls on guns are needed to enforce court orders, and ensure vulnerable women’s and children’s safety.”
At issue of course is a lot more than gun control. Violence against women in its many forms – physical, sexual, verbal, emotional, financial, spiritual – must be tackled by tightening guns laws, enabling girls and women to understand and claim their rights, providing girls and women with resources and support to live in safety and dignity, and educating boys and men about equality, respect, and kindness. Many forms of violence against women remain hidden, unreported, hushed aside as a family matter not to be discussed. Efforts like the current 16 Days of Activism Against Gender Violence Campaign aim at raising awareness of this issue, but 16 days isn’t enough, it has to be 365.
December 6 is Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. As we remember the victims of violence against women, the “action” part of this day cannot be neglected. Given the prevalence of violence against women, everyone – and I really mean everyone – knows someone who has been a victim. Sign a petition, read more about the issue, support a women’s group, talk to your friends about it, do something. This stuff is everybody’s business, and it’s got to go away.
To learn more:

The Day of the Girl in a bad week

Malala Yousufzai, a fourteen year old girl advocating for girls’ right to education in Pakistan, is still fighting to save her life. She was brutally shot by the Taliban October 9 while in her school bus. The Taliban has shamelessly reiterated its vow to kill her.

A day later, Amanda Todd, a young Canadian girl slightly older than Malala, killed herself after relentless bullying. The video she made as a call for help a month before her death is chilling and utterly painful to watch.

Neither one deserved what happened to her.

By the end of the week, I attended a regional Amnesty International Canada meeting, where one of the guest speakers was Marina Nemat, author of Prisoner in Tehran. As she spoke of her time in prison at the age of sixteen – just slightly older than Malala and Amanda – the room fell silent. Her gentle humour and recounting of memories dancing to the Bee Gees inflected at the start of her story were pushed aside by a deft narrative articulating incomprehension, isolation, and heinous violations. The strength drawn from hundreds of fellow prisoners, listening to their stories of previously normal lives as she stood in line with them waiting to use the toilet, reflected the importance of something so key, so elemental to our ability to persevere in the face of adversity. We need to talk, we need to listen, we need to be heard, and we need to be kind to each other. After Mrs. Nemat spoke I could not help but wonder how Amanda Todd’s choices could have been different if someone listened, or if she hadn’t been bullied in the first place. As for Malala, how different would her fate have been if more people had not supported her in her actions?

Amanda and Malala’s stories never should have spiraled to the tragic events that unfolded this past week. The day after Amanda took her life,
 the world celebrated the first international Day of the Girl. It’s meant to be a movement to “speak out against gender bias and advocate for girls’ rights everywhere.” I’m sure the sad irony of that day following these events is not lost on many who hope for a better, safer future for all girls. The Day of the Girl is needed, from Pakistan to Canada and everywhere else. But a day, of course, is insufficient. I hope there are better days ahead.

A letter to my son (the original)

A letter written when my first born was two days old:
October 7, 2000

My Dearest Alexandre,

I love you with all my heart, and this love will grow with each passing day, each precious moment. You’ll create your own special moments, Alexandre, but promise me you’ll do the following:

  • Travel across Canada by road and admire the beauty your country offers you, from the twisting roads of Cape Breton, to the serene beauty of the Great Lakes, to the glorious vastness of the Prairies, to the magnificence of the Rockies, to the lush countryside of the West, and the eclectic and diverse buzz of your hometown Montreal;
  • Seek out new friends in the above travels, appreciate and celebrate your differences and similarities;
  • Chase little crabs on the beach in Martinique;
  • Take a trip through the Green Mountains in Vermont;
  • Swim in the Atlantic, Pacific, and Indian oceans, not to mention the Mediterranean and Caribbean seas;
  • Marvel from a plane at Mount Sinai and Mount Kilimanjaro;
  • Go through a rain forest and cloud forest in Costa Rica;
  • Buy expensive bottled water at a street cafe in Holland;
  • Gamble in Las Vegas (but just a little);
  • Kayak in the Pacific, white water raft down the Zambezi;
  • Drive through the streets of Tete, Mozambique, and be thankful that the streets are now paved and no longer bombed from civil war;
  • Give money to a guy on the street who looks like he needs it;
  • Visit my father’s grave and tell him you love him even though he’s never met you;
  • Go on safari in Africa as often as possible and admire the planet’s most beautiful creatures while they’re still there;
  • Go to Area 51 and search for aliens;
  • Paint a picture of something you love;
  • Have the courage to go to Malawi and say “Zonse zili bwino” to those in need – you will see many;
  • Go to the villages of Saag-balong, Woribo Kukuo, and Yipelnaayi and see if girls and women play significant, recognized roles in their communities;
  • Climb Mount Washington, Mount Marcy, and Mount Mulanje (but not in the same day);
  • Bobsled in Lake Placid;
  • Go through the Chunnel in a high-speed train;
  • Try to waterski better than your father;
  • Take a ferry from Italy to Greece;
  • Walk through the streets of Arusha, Tanzania, knowing that thousands of refugees from Zaire fled there to safety and that tens of thousands sought refuge there from killings in Rwanda;
  • Forget about the bad things people say about you, remember the good;
  • Have scotch and a cigar with a friend (but not for a while, son);
  • Walk the streets of New York City, but don’t get shot at;
  • Walk to the rim of a crater in Central America;
  • Ride a train through Europe;
  • Dream to be an astronomer, a pilot, a fireman, a voice for social change in the world;
  • Travel to the Olduvai Gorge and view the birthplace of humankind;
  • See the Grand Canyon;
  • Go to Zanzibar and marvel at its beauty and meet its people;
  • Walk into the slave forts along the coast of Ghana and reflect on how evil and wicked people can be;
  • Write a play and direct it and star in it;
  • See the giant redwoods in California, and look up in awe at trees over 260 feet tall;
  • Scare yourself to death by trekking on the canopy walk in Cape Coast;
  • Make money and spend money, but remember that love is more important;
  • Eat peanut butter every day;
  • Appreciate Gene Roddenberry’s vision of the future and strive towards it;
  • Go camping whenever you can;
  • Save a pigeon and nurse him to health in your toy box;
  • Dance, no matter how goofy you look;
  • Love your parents as much as we love you, and
  • Strive to make a difference in your life, the lives of the ones you love, and even strangers’ lives each and every day of your life. You’ll sleep better at night.
All my love,