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2009-12-04: The PEI Story 20 Years After the Montreal Massacre

by Sandy Kowalik, Co-ordinator, Purple Ribbon Campaign

Presented at the Montreal Massacre Memorial Service, Confederation Centre
December 4, 2009


Thank you all for coming together today to mark this 20th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre and to collectively commit to ending violence against women.

When we talk about violence against women it in no way means that we deny that men also experience violence. Both men and women can be victims of violence and both men and women can commit acts of violence. Violence against women, however, represents a unique aspect of the wider social problem of violence, and requires specific attention and solutions.

It is encouraging to see so many young faces here. Although many of you weren’t alive on December 6, 1989, you have made yourselves aware of that dark day. Your energy will lead us to even more improvements in the lives of women and girls.

And so many of you have spent your working lives trying to create more peaceful communities, helping people to heal from the violence they’ve experienced and to learn better ways of dealing with conflict. Your hard work and compassion have made a huge difference in so many lives.

Remember twenty years ago, in November 1989, the Berlin Wall came crashing down and there was a feeling of euphoria in the air. The Communist age of oppression had come to an end and people hoped they were at last free to live their lives.

Freedom is a fragile thing and is often lost to the political or personal power held over us. Close to home and less then two weeks before the wall fell, a Summerside man apparently felt so threatened by his estranged wife’s freedom, that he shot her dead.

Remember that just weeks after that, a gunman in Montreal, felt so angry and threatened by women, that he went into an engineering school, separated the men from the women and opened fire, shooting 28 people and then himself. Fourteen young women lost their freedom that day and their lives.

He made his intentions clear – he wanted to kill feminists. He blamed those working for equality for his failures. In the aftermath of the massacre, the media resisted the feminist analysis, that this act, so specifically directed at women, represented the extreme end of a spectrum of daily violence against women. Women who worked with victims of violence tried to talk about how individual women are targeted every day, are raped, beaten, and murdered but overwhelmingly the media commentary insisted that this murderer was a madman, and that this rage against women was an isolated event.

A lot of work was being done prior to 1989, to prevent violence against women. Women and their allies across Canada and on Prince Edward Island had organized and fought for changes to laws and government services. I look around the room today and see many of you who worked together to set up supports such as an emergency women’s shelter and a rape crisis centre for the Island. Victim Services, the government’s support system for victims of violence, began to operate province-wide. The Island 24-hour Help Line was established to provide information, support, and crisis counseling to individuals and families.

The 1989 Montreal Massacre reminded women how much remained to be done to end violence against women. It brought people together to mourn and work for change with a new sense of urgency and purpose. In the last 20 years, the efforts of women and men in the community have led to improvements. But even while these improvements were taking place, at least seven more women on the Island were murdered by men in their lives.

There may be more. During the Sisters in Spirit vigil held in Charlottetown this October, our Aboriginal community brought to our attention the suspicious disappearance or death of many of their sisters, in this province and across Canada. They feel were never given the proper attention or were fully investigated.

There have been many, many positive initiatives in the last 20 years. This fall I had the opportunity to do a little research into what has taken place on PEI in the last 20 years to help end the violence against women. I also went through court records, the provincial archives, and the Advisory Council files, looking into the circumstances of the 8 women murdered in PEI. The Premier’s Action Committee on Family Violence Prevention provided additional information. The Advisory Council on the Status of Women will be creating a commemorative video, featuring these findings, to be released during Family Violence Prevention Week in February 2010.

Following the 1991 Justice McQuaid Inquiry into the police handling of domestic cases, then Premier Catherine Callbeck  formed the Premier’s Action Committee on Family Violence Prevention. A Family Violence Prevention Coordinator position was created. The Family Violence Act was enacted.

The Family Violence Act has proven to be an important piece of legislation, enabling victims of violence in the home to apply for Emergency Protection Orders or Victim Assistance Orders. With an order, the victim or victims, can stay in their home and the offender is removed.

In the last 20 years we have seen the Conservative government provide increased funding for Family Violence Prevention Outreach workers in Eastern PEI, West and East Prince and Queen’s County. We have seen police training specific to family violence and woman abuse protocols put in place for many government departments. We have seen priority placement in Social Housing for those leaving abusive situations.

But as staff change, we must ensure that training is ongoing. And if we give priority placement, we must make sure there is available housing. Unfortunately, and I can attest to this as a shelter worker having made numerous calls for women staying at Anderson House, there are any seldom any vacancies.

In the last 20 years we have also seen many innovative projects led by women in the community. One example is the development of the previously mentioned woman abuse protocols. Another important initiative is the Justice Options for Women Who are Victims of Violence project, both projects spearheaded by Julie Devon Dodd and Kirstin Lund. The Justice Options project brought together government and community to establish a domestic violence court and a more comprehensive way of dealing with family violence. Julie and Kirstin have also have created Safety Circles, training community and government workers to provide greater supports to women who are at high risk of being hurt or killed.

Municipalities, unions, service groups, and students have all organized to do their part to help end the violence. Individuals across the Island have given generously to help support organizations working to end violence against women.

One thing that the Montreal Massacre made clear is that violence against women occurs not just in families but also in society at large. Therefore the term “family violence” is problematic and can obscure the reality of women’s experience. Women continue to be objectified, harassed, stalked, raped, beaten, and murdered – in families but also in the workplace and in the public sphere.

In fact, of the eight women murdered on PEI since 1989, only two of the women actually lived with their murders at the time of their death. Records indicate that one of them was planning to leave and the other moved back in with her killer, despite efforts from family and police to dissuade her, because she felt she had no other place to live.

Three of the eight women were murdered by men they knew only as casual acquaintances. Three others had moved on, making it clear that they had ended the “family” relationship. They lost their lives trying to find freedom, to be free from control, degradation and fear.

All of the murderers were known to police and had been previously charged with violent acts or making threats of violence. Over the last 20 years, Risk Assessment tools have been put in place but we must all take threats seriously.

Positive initiatives have continued in recent years, with increased funding to PEI Family Violence Prevention Services and Rape Crisis Centre. In 2009, Premier Robert Ghiz  renewed the Premier’s Action Committee on Family Violence Prevention. We wish the committee well as it determines its new mandate. And we hope the committee is provided necessary resources to do its work.

Over the last 20 years there has been increased understanding about how violence is linked to inequalities and power imbalances in society. We have learned a great deal about how important it is for each of us, women and men, to strive for building and maintaining positive relationships in our private and public lives, relationships that are based on equality principals. We know that women who have measures of equality make informed choices and greater self-esteem. Such women will be less likely to accept stereotypical gender roles that do not help them reach their potential in relationships. They are less likely to tolerate with abuse.

Before I close, I thought I’d share with you an important statement that Minister of Education and Early Childhood Development, and Attorney General Gerard Greenan said in the PEI Legislature last spring when the Premier’s Action Committee on Family Violence Prevention Act was tabled:

“Although the sad reality is that many victims may never escape violence, some do find healing in their communities. While more work remains, we should still celebrate our successes. Every time a member of our community reaches out to victims, gives them strength and courage to escape, or provides a safe and nurturing support system to help them heal, we have achieved one small victory in the struggle to solve this complex and pervasive problem.”

So, let us take a moment to acknowledge all that has been done to end the violence against women in PEI over the last 20 years. Let us continue to work together, to listen to the voices of the victims and their advocates, and to do what we can to protect everyone’s rights and freedom from violence.

Thank you.

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