Women made a lot of headlines in 2018. More specifically, women made a lot of headlines for the things men said about them, threatened to do to them, or — in many cases — actually did to them.
There was the Toronto van attack, which killed 10 and shot the term “Incel” — used to describe a group of men who believe women are inferior and owe them sex — into the Canadian vernacular. There was the UN report that found women around the world were killed by a family member or current or former partner at a rate of six every hour.
There was the news that even though the rate of women being killed compared to men in Canada has stayed relatively stable at approximately three in 10 since 1975, according to Statistics Canada figures, it actually jumped 32 per cent between 2016 and 2017 for Indigenous women.
The Canadian Femicide Observatory, which tracks the killing of Canadian women, estimates at least 148 women and girls were killed in 2018. That’s the same figure as 2016, according to Statistics Canada data, and down from 170 women killed in 2017.
“Violence is a product of our culture,” wrote the Observatory’s Myrna Dawson last year. “So, too, are our responses to violence when it occurs.”
But on the heels of year filled with #MeToo headlines, debates over sexism in the Christmas classic Baby It’s Cold Outside, and the Supreme Court giving the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) approval to weigh in on an issue many people still struggle to understand: consent — things that seemingly mark progress — how much has our culture shifted?
“Absolutely there has been a shift in the last year or two… and I do think that has likely translated into the average person being more aware that these things are going on,” says Charlene Senn, a professor at the University of Windsor and the Canada Research Chair in Sexual Violence.
Still, Senn wouldn’t exactly call herself an optimist.
When it comes to how victims of violence are treated and supported, awareness didn’t always translate into tangible progress, she said.
Saskatchewan enacted “Clare’s law,” which allows police to release information about someone’s violent or abusive past to intimate partners who may be at risk while Ontario cancelled its provincial roundtable on violence against women and repealed a sex-ed curriculum that would teach students about consent, cyber safety, and gender identity.
Also in Ontario, a ruling by Superior Court Justice Nancy Spies may clear the way for intoxication to be used as a defense in a sexual assault case (although the man was still found guilty), while a private member’s bill that would make sexual assault law training mandatory for judges across the country remains stuck in the senate.
The long fight to stop violence against women
When Judy Miller-Rose began her work as advocate and counsellor for abused women in the early 1990s, she was hopeful because it felt possible that she could help change Canada.
Miller-Rose, who survived her ex-husband’s attempt to murder her in 1983, thought that by the time she retired from her work at the London Abused Women’s Centre, she would see progress. Surely, she thought, society would have evolved in some way for the better.
That was decades ago; her retirement looms.
Thinking about those hopes now, on the heels of 2018, she says, “my heart went pretty heavy.”
Miller-Rose remembers thinking that the 14 women killed by gunman Marc Lépine because they were women during the École Polytechnique massacre in 1989 would force society to change.
Instead, all she heard were attempts to make Lépine one “crazy man,” labelling his shooting simply “an isolated incident,” rather than recognizing systemic problems. Nearly 30 years later, she’s not optimistic.
We are still very much a patriarchal society, she notes. One that breeds so-called “Incels,” a misogynistic movement praised by the Toronto van attacker.
“We’ve changed our society,” Miller-Rose says, “but in many ways we haven’t.”
Awareness doesn’t mean immediate change
It took non-Indigenous Canadians years to pay attention to the epidemic of missing and murdered Indigenous women, although it’s now the subject of a national inquiry.
The problem is people want quick fixes, says Senn.
“It’s like, ‘Okay, we’ve heard about that like a whole lot, isn’t that enough now?’” says Senn. “Of course, if you haven’t solved the problem, stopping talking about it is not a solution.”
Paulette Senior, president of the Canadian Women’s Foundation, is more optimistic than Miller-Rose when it comes to gains in addressing violence against women.
“We’re really just at the beginning of the type of awareness that’s been required in order for folks to see that the needle needs to be shifted,” she says. “We actually have for the first time in a very long time a federal government that actually sees that this is a priority nationally.”
People might see it as “window dressing” that Prime Minister Justin Trudeau calls himself a feminist, but Pamela Cross, legal director at Luke’s Place Support and Resource Centre, doesn’t.
“While this federal government currently in power has done many things wrong it has made a number of, I believe, sincere commitments to addressing women’s equality and violence against women,” she says.
Last year, Trudeau announced $20 million in funding for a new federal strategy aimed at addressing and preventing gender-based violence and promised $5.5 million to fund sexual assault crisis centres at universities.
There have been some “small gains,” Cross says, although she notes the Liberals have “barely had a chance to touch what happened under Harper.” (While in power, Harper cut 40 per cent of the funding to Status of Women which cut off funding to some advocacy groups and service providers, like rape crisis centres.)
Preventing violence against women as an election issue
Action follows from voters being concerned, says Marika Morris, an adjunct research professor in the school of Canadian and Indigenous studies at Carleton University — and voters don’t “necessarily make the link between gender-based violence and broader social and economic policy.”
Morris outlines that link in a report she wrote using 2009 Department of Justice Figures. That year, she found $33.6 million was lost in wages due to intimate partner violence, and that women who were victims collectively bore the cost of $62.9 million in damaged or destroyed property.
Being the child of a victim of abuse not only increases your risk of becoming a victim as well, but it’s linked to lasting mental and physical health conditions — the department calculated the total lost future income of those children at $148.4 million. That lasting impact affects all Canadians, even those who think they’re insulated from the issue of violence against women, says Morris.
The Native Women’s Association of Canada (NWAC) has every intention of ensuring the violence against women, Indigenous women in particular, remains front and centre this election.
“We are making progress,” NWAC president Francyne Joe says, “but we still have a fair amount of work to do.”
She hopes since Canadians seemed to exit last year with a better understanding of the breadth of issues Indigenous people face that make Indigenous women vulnerable to violence — the forced sterilization of Indigenous women, the myriad problems Indigenous children face in the child welfare system, the mishandling of the murder cases of Indigenous women like Cindy Gladue — that now they’ll be ready to hold the government to account.
“What are we going to do differently this year?” Joe asks.
“Is it going to be more money? Is it going to be more programming? The awareness has been raised, but we still need to make the actual changes.”
Real cultural change
Regrettably, even now, Lise Martin says it feels like we move one step forward and two steps back. While it’s good to see the needle move with legislative changes like Clare’s Law in Saskatchewan, Martin, who is executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada, says we need a national action plan. We need to make sure there are comparable service levels across the country, Martin says.
While she describes herself as an optimist, Martin says “it’s hard to be.”
Every new Tweet, new report, new headline comes with backlash. The challenge, she says, is to find ways to “widen the circle” of people who understand not just the visible signs of violence but the less visible ones, like toxic masculinity — the ways in which boys are taught it is or isn’t acceptable to be a man.
“This is clearly long-term change.”