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Pellerin: To fix gender-based violence, focus on healing everyone

On the anniversary of the Polytechnique killings, I keep hoping the annual statistics about women slain will get better. But they don't.

People gather at the Women's Monument at Minto Park on the 30th anniversary of the massacre at l'Ecole Polytechnique.

The anniversary of Polytechnique is upon us again. Thirty-two years since Marc Lépine killed 14 women and injured another 10. Violence against women and girls — whether physical, sexual, psychological, emotional or financial — is as big a problem as it ever was. Actually, bigger.

Every year I write a column about it, dreaming it might be the last. Or at least that next year it will be better. And every year, it isn’t.

Donna Johnson, who’s been at it much longer than yours truly, just wrote in the Citizen that nothing has changed in decades. In good part, she says, that’s because we live in a patriarchy, a system where “men are both rule makers and judges, and they always come out on top.”

Those who’ve never experienced gender-based violence might be tempted to dismiss such talk as hyperbole. Gross exaggeration. Those of us who have know it’s not. And, as I’ve written on a few occasions since March 2020, that’s even more true during the pandemic when at-risk women and children are isolated from their usual support networks, or even just friendly neighbours.

The Globe and Mail, citing numbers from the  Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, reported that 92 women were killed in Canada in the first six months of 2021, compared to 78 in the first half of 2020 and 60 in the first half of 2019. For every one murdered, how many are violently abused in ways that are not lethal?

Every year I hope it will get better but it doesn’t. Still, that doesn’t mean there are no signs of improvement.

The most recent throne speech called the rise in gender-based violence “unacceptable” and promised a national action plan to combat it.

The new minister of National Defence, Anita Anand, will apologize to victims of sexual misconduct in the military later this month. That’s a small step in the right direction.

Just a few days ago, on Nov. 25, the MRC des Collines-de-l’Outaouais, the regional municipality that includes Cantley, Chelsea, La Pêche, Pontiac and a few others, announced the launch of MAINtenant ensemble, a specialized multidisciplinary team dealing exclusively with “domestic violence cases.”

The same day it was revealed that Quebec legislators had voted unanimously to create a special court for victims of sexual violence. It is believed to be the first of its kind in the world, and it aims to support victims through every step of the process, as well as make it easier for them to come forward with their complaints.

“Finally, rather than constantly asking victims to adapt to a system that was by no means designed for them, the justice system is adapting to their reality and their needs,” said Parti Québécois MNA Véronique Hivon.

There is so much work to do, big and small. Among the smaller things, we should stop referring to gender-based violence as “domestic” or “intimate partner” violence. These expressions imply abusing, hitting, hurting or killing a woman is a private matter, not something of consequence or importance to the rest of society. Nothing could be further from the truth.

Bigger things include taking a long hard look at institutions that continue to foster — or at the very least not actively discourage — a culture of toxic masculinity that minimizes gender-based and sexual violence.

We also need proper education for every child on consent, emotional boundaries, healthy relationships and how to avoid being the victim of a psychological abuser.

And finally, for those who suffer because of past trauma — including those who inflict violence on women and girls — we need to focus on healing. Hurt people hurt people, the saying goes. Healing everyone’s hurt can only have a positive impact.

Endless cycles of shame, punishment and more violence condemn us to repeating history, except in ever-larger numbers. If we want to fix this problem we need to devote more resources to healing, everywhere.

Brigitte Pellerin is an Ottawa writer.