Editor’s Note: A version of this text was originally given as a keynote speech by Maggie Forsythe during the UNB Day of Remembrance Ceremony hosted by the UNB Diversity in Engineering Group on Dec. 6, 2018.
Twenty-nine years ago, 14 women were killed and 14 others were injured during the shooting at École Polytechnique, the engineering school of the Université de Montréal. This remains the largest massacre in Canadian history since the 1800s.
It is important that we keep having these vigils and ceremonies to not only commemorate the loss of these women, but to celebrate the lives that they lived. These were women on the cusp of lives, full of innovation and advancement. They were women pursuing their dreams and ignoring the gendered rules of Canadian society.
How brave and courageous is that? Some may have called them feminists because they believed in their own equal rights to achieve their professional ambitions. Unfortunately, that term was what put targets on their backs. The shooter was remembered to be claiming “feminists had ruined [his] life”. In his suicide note, he wrote “if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons (…) but for political reasons. Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker (…) I have decided to put an end to those viragos.” Viragos is a disparaging term used to describe domineering, violent, or bad-tempered women.
Using mass murder as a “political” stance against women is not something of the past in Canada, as the second largest massacre in modern Canadian history took place just this year in Toronto. Ten people were killed with 15 others were wounded during a vehicle attack that was ignited by a movement called “Incel.” “Incel” names an online culture, predominately made up of White, heterosexual men calling themselves “involuntarily celibate” who describe not having access to sex. These men believe it’s a basic human right being they are being deprived of by women.
When statistics were released in July 2018 in Canada, at least 78 women had already been killed, almost 150 were killed in 2016. What we are talking about here is femicide: the killing of women or girls, in particular by a man and on account of them identifying as a woman.
Before we start comparing numbers of men and women killed, it is important to note that females are primarily killed by men with the greatest risk coming from current or former intimate partners. It is also important to acknowledge that Indigenous women account for 20% of murdered women in Canada despite accounting for only under 5% of the population.
Rightly or wrongly, it normally takes these terrible occurrences to initiate any type of real action. We are too often in a reactive state of emergency. But, these acts do not come out of the blue and are not the result of radical ideas. They are symptoms of a culture that works to normalize the oppression of women and, in order to change any of this, we need to start noticing the foundation on which they are built.
Things that we might start noticing are trends like street or workplace harassment, slut shaming or victim blaming, revenge porn, and of course sexual assault and rape jokes. All of these are issues that we can easily agree to be concerns. But, we are not really seeing them happening around us. Some of us even facilitate the behaviour by laughing or passing along nude images, or calling down our female peers for their sexual behaviour. We strengthen this foundation because we don’t identify those issues to be the cause of mass shootings, of intimate partner violence, or of rape. They are precisely aspects of our cultural environment.
All of these symptoms are set in a very sturdy foundation created by centuries of patriarchal values. This oppressive tone is set through aspects like our government and the priorities they set (women’s right to their own bodies and choice), the way our leaders perceive the value of women and other marginalized groups, and the intrinsic ways our legal system perpetuates disbelief in accounts of gender-based violence. A recent example of this took place in Ireland as a teen rape survivor’s lace underwear was held up in court and asked to be considered in the context that she somehow wanted the assault to happen.
All of these aspects reinforce an everyday culture that strengthens those oppressive beliefs, and this happens through music (where lyrics normalize violence and dismiss consent), marketing imagery (where women continue to be shown as objects and overpowered by their masculine counterparts), and entertainment (such as videogames where rape an active component to receive points).
However, the most worrisome for me in my work is sex education. I wish I could say our sex education comes from our families or school systems, but it doesn’t. Because of the ethical divide in our country preventing sex education to be about intimate relationships, people learn how to interact with partners through TV shows, movies, and when it comes to sex, pornography.
While a healthy sexuality can be portrayed through some types of pornography, most images and video showcase the sexualization of violence against women. Making it appear that masculine partners are to dominate, violate, and even harm their more feminine partners. This is not only demonstrated in heterosexual interactions, but for those who fall on either end of the gender spectrum.
Through this education, men are taught that this violence is their sexual role and women are taught to expect the treatment. Beyond the clear problems with this, a further challenge is that we don’t even know how to name our traumas. When something happens to us that we are taught is normal, even if it hurts us, we feel incapable of even saying “no”, let alone calling it assault, rape, or criminal behaviour.
To offer an example, I see clients every day talking about how “choking” is a normal part of a sexual interaction. Not consensual breath play or an offering after a conversation about what each partner likes and their boundaries, but “choking,” out of the blue, as an action to be accepted as part of the sexual interaction as normal as kissing.
This is not an action that is about pleasuring a partner, but about asserting dominance and an inclination to see someone submit without regard for their personal wishes. What is sexual violence, if not this? But, we don’t name it in this way–even though people are feeling harmed and fearful of it happening again. What’s interesting is that we call this action choking in a careless way, when that isn’t even what it is. It’s strangulation, and when we say it like that, it has a more powerful connotation and connection to abuse.
We are increasingly seeing violence being normalized through mainstream culture and there is no question as to why sexual violence is still an issue, particularly on campuses where young people are trying to navigate new identities and intimate relationships. We have the opportunity to do some incredible work digging into some of these issues and I have been fortunate to work with many individuals on campus striving toward the same goal.
Many of the articles I read referred to Montreal Massacre era being marked by the low representation of women in Engineering, however Engineers Canada still refers to the fact that less than 13% of licensed Engineers are Women despite the fact that female identifying individuals represent 20% of enrollment in Engineering programs. We have to consider why this is, why women are expressing interest in the field and yet never getting to the point of accreditation.
When it comes to my own position as a Campus Sexual Assault Support Advocate (CSASA), I began noticing a trend that many disclosures of sexual assault were describing respondents who were students within the Engineering Faculty. In disclosures to our services, we found that approximately 50% of students perpetrating sexual violence were male students from the Engineering Faculty. As one of the biggest faculties on campus, this is not necessarily surprising, but as compared to Arts or Sciences, where the gender representation tends to be more balanced, the statistics present important cultural information to analyze and address.
We have worked closely with the Engineering Undergraduate Society as well as the Diversity in Engineering group in creating inclusive activities that would help our community start to assess topics like masculinity, gender roles, sexism, and violence. It further heartens me to note that our CSASA office has been invited to participate on the Taskforce looking into these issues in the Engineering Faculty to attempt to address the needs of recruitment and retention of female students.
This work begins by identifying the foundation of violence and oppression around us and questioning whether there are better, more inclusive ways, to navigate this world. Only then can we begin to see the possibility that the physical violence might start to dissipate.
Maggie Forsythe is the Fredericton Tri-Campus Campus Sexual Assault Support Advocate (UNB, STU, NBCC), an employee of the Fredericton Sexual Assault Centre, and a board member of the UNB/STU University Women’s Centre.