How do we Solve the Ongoing Crisis of Femicides?
Women in Quebec fight for justice 32 years after the Polytechnique massacre
By Savannah Stewart
It is a haunting ritual.
Across Montreal on Dec. 6 of every year, people gather to commemorate the victims of one of the worst massacres in Canadian history.
This year, under the rain and trudging through the wet snow, a group of women in Montreal’s Pointe-Saint-Charles neighbourhood met for their own iteration of this tradition.
The 10 women convened in Hibernia Square, an important walkway in Pointe-Saint-Charles, and put up signs for anyone walking to the metro or the local IGA to see.
Their signs depicted 18 silhouettes. On the ground in front of them, they placed candles bearing the names of the 14 women killed 32 years before by a man with a gun who had it out for feminists.
A large placard explained this ephemeral installation to passersby: “December 6 is a sad anniversary, commemorating the École Polytechnique massacre here in Montreal in 1989.”
“32 years later, femicides continue. Eighteen women have lost their lives this year in Quebec because they were women.”
Despite the unrelenting rain, the women in Hibernia Square were in good spirits: they had a job to do. A lot of them were community workers with the Comité des femmes de Pointe-Saint-Charles, the coalition of groups that organized this event. Some of those present were the very people these groups work with: women who reach out for services, or who get involved to get out of the house and break their isolation.
They were all there to protest the same thing: to this day, here in this province, women keep getting killed by violent men.
Why is that so?
Not enough money
Most of the 18 women killed in the province this year were murdered by current or former partners.
“For the women we work with, the biggest difficulty they face in leaving a violent situation is poverty,” says Julie.
Julie works at a centre for women that is part of the Comité des femmes de Pointe-Saint-Charles. She was there in Hibernia Square, putting up signs with the others. When she spoke to me, she did so representing the Comité and their calls for how to improve the lives of women they work with.
It’s obvious when you think about it, but cannot be left unsaid in conversations about violence against women: you can’t be safe when you live in precarity. Yet we know women tend to work in more precarious jobs with less pay. Some of the industries most affected by the pandemic, like the service industry, employ a high proportion of women.
This economic uncertainty, she said, is compounded for immigrant women, and even more so for those who do not have a good grasp of French or English. Women in these situations are often without a strong social circle, people to give them that much-needed support to flee abuse.
Following calls from community groups that grew louder with each passing femicide this year, the Quebec government has announced some measures in response to the crisis. It has allocated $233 million to fighting violence against women, $90 million of which to create more space in shelters. A new special court will be created for cases of domestic or sexual violence. The province will roll out tracking bracelets for partners accused of violent acts.
The tracking bracelet system, which will be implemented gradually starting with 16 devices in the Quebec City area, is a big step in protecting women from violence in those especially dangerous days right after she leaves an abusive partner. But the group Quebec Native Women was quick to point out that the system will need to be adapted if it’s going to be effective in Indigenous communities. We’ll have to see if the government heeds that warning in the eventual rollout in the province.
More details about how exactly the $233 million will be spent are forthcoming. Something the Comité hopes to see that will go far in helping women is using that money to give them the financial stability they need to find safety.
One major hurdle for some women in households that receive social assistance or a family allowance is that it is their partner who receives the cheque, not them. Julie says women in that situation who leave wait up to three months before receiving a cheque of their own—much too long with rent to pay and mouths to feed.
Women need financial assistance immediately when leaving, she says. That could come by reviewing social assistance programs to get rid of that delay, or creating an emergency compensation system for women fleeing abuse. However it’s done, it’s the first move in ensuring someone can get out of harm’s way, and stay out.
“I urge the government to really take a look at the reality of women in a precarious situation and figure out why exactly they are poor. What are their incomes streams, what emergency funds are available for women who need to leave right away?”
Not enough prevention
The measures the government announced are a good start, Julie says, but they only partially address the root cause of the issue.
“I encourage the government to keep investing money, of course, but I think what we need is to prevent the violence from happening in the first place. We need to educate people,” she says. “We invest money in women’s shelters but more and more women keep coming looking for help. It never ends.”
Anyone who listens to CHOM 97.7 these days knows that the Quebec government is at least investing some money into preventative measures, with ads directed at men about coercive control in abusive relationships and encouraging them to get help to change their behaviour.
But an effective preventative strategy will require more than radio ads, and as it stands now the government has yet to announce new measures specifically aimed at stopping violence before it’s committed through education.
Not enough affordable housing
It’s not just lack of money that will keep a woman in an abusive situation, but not having a place to go, too.
“We need to rethink the whole system,” the Comité believes: the justice system, the social assistance and family allowance system, the education system, and the housing system.
“It’s not news that in Montreal we’re in a housing crisis, and that is another thing preventing the women we work with from leaving. Finding a space that is big enough for them and their kids is not easy.”
And more than just the space—finding a place that is livable.
“Living somewhere with your kids that has cockroaches and mould, where you don’t feel safe, that is violent, too,” Julie notes.
Social housing is the way to go to help people in poverty have access to good living conditions, and that includes women experiencing abuse. If the government is serious about helping women, we’ll need to see more leadership in addressing the crying need for affordable housing in this city and this province.
Rethinking the system won’t happen overnight.
“That’s why we’ve been pushing for this for years. We’ve been pushing for them to listen to women, to think through what keeps them in violent situations,” she says. “It takes years of pushing for people to start to listen and start to think about what to do differently.”
Yet we’ve seen how quickly multi-dwelling housing can get off the ground. Just take a walk around Griffintown, where a new building seems to spring up every month.
“We know how fast a luxury condominium goes up. Affordable housing can go up just as quickly, too. It’s a matter of will.”
Not enough shelter space
Some 15,000 requests for shelter after fleeing abuse were refused in 2020 in Quebec because of the lack of space, according to research done by the Comité.
“Everywhere is full,” says Ann-Gaël Whiteman, who works with La rue des Femmes which provides emergency shelter for women. “There isn’t enough space. There wasn’t enough before, but now with COVID it’s even worse.”
The pandemic forced shelters to reduce their capacity, and it put a heavy burden on workers. Every time a worker has a headache or gets a cold, they need to take a test and miss work, leaving those on the job with even more to do. People are tired: burnout is a serious problem, and many have left the workforce because it was too much.
About the $233 million, over a third of which earmarked to increase shelter space, “it’s just not enough,” she says. “It’s good, of course, but it’s not enough.”
“Like it or not, we can’t make our spaces bigger. As it is, we sometimes have to turn away 20 women a day.”
Whiteman says if they could add more beds, they would. But where?
More shelters for women are needed, and it’s costly to get a whole new shelter going.
Whiteman doesn’t just work with women leaving violent partners. She works with homeless women too, who face extremely high rates of sexual assault on the street, and also women in the sex trade. No matter their situation, no matter how they earn money, what the women she works with have in common is that they have virtually all experienced violence committed by men.
“I have a lot of difficulty with the term ‘domestic violence’ because it minimizes the realities of a lot of women,” she says.
The women she works with are all at higher risk of being killed by violent men, yet because they are not all victims of domestic violence, their cases aren’t all perceived the same by the public and the justice system.
“We have to stop always referring to the context of domestic violence,” she says. “These are all crimes against women because they are women.”
Yet the Quebec government’s measures as they have been announced so far are quite targeted towards situations of domestic violence. They are a step in the right direction by most accounts. They’re just not enough.
“All women deserve the same understanding and the same protection.”
At Hibernia Square, in the miserable weather, the 10 women who gathered to denounce misogynist violence stood around for a chat after putting up their ephemeral art installation.
The veneer of journalistic disengagement with which I had initially approached them had quickly faded—it wasn’t long before I was holding signs for them as they gradually stuck them in the snow. They wanted a picture of themselves with their work and I offered to take it. I stuck around for a few minutes after, taking down phone numbers, snapping a few pictures of my own.
A woman walked up to the mass of people standing around the freshly-put-up installation. She looked to be in her mid-twenties, my age.
“I just wanted to say, I’m really touched by what you’re doing,” she said softly, almost nervously.
I happened to be one of the people closest to her as she spoke. Otherwise, I might not have heard her.
She said she’s currently in a legal process—she has brought forward accusations against someone.
“It does me good to see this,” she said, glancing at the group of women and the signs.
As she walked away, those of us close enough to hear fell silent for a moment. Those who hadn’t heard her asked the others what she said, then nodded solemnly at the response.
I walked back home thinking about her. I hope she’s okay, that she’s safe. I hope she’s surrounded by people who care. Because many don’t have that luxury.
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