National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women
By Joachim Ostertag
The events of December 6, 1989 are engraved in my brain and soul. I learned about the killing the next morning while preparing my young children for the day and getting myself ready for the last day of training to work with men who abuse women. CBC news was on the radio but hard to hear with all the commotion of the morning. Through the noise I heard the reporter say that a gunman had killed 14 women at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. They were all engineering students. I felt numb and tried to pretend I hadn’t heard. I must have misunderstood something amid the familiar morning chaos.
Later, as we carpooled to the training, the cold reality hit like the December air. It was true, 14 women murdered. How could this be true in Canada, the country we had immigrated to just 4 years earlier, the country that’s supposed to be progressive and safe? Was this a crazy loner doing such a hideous thing? How about his mental health? Was this another attention-grabbing isolated event? Was this even relevant as we developed a program for abusive men or was it out of our scope?
The questions, opinions and arguments flared up on the drive and took over the training, then the days, weeks, months and even years that followed. How do we make sense of this horrific event in context of male violence against women? Soon we learned that the shooter had separated the women from the men. We learned later in his suicide note that he targeted women studying engineering (a typically male profession) because he hated women and feminists. It was an extreme act of misogynistic and cold-blooded violence against women, and for us, in the process of building programs for violent men which necessitated understanding the root causes of woman abuse, this could not be minimized as “just an isolated crazy act of a crazy man”.
The arguments were very challenging, personally, professionally and politically as this mass killing of 14 women exposed so clearly a line in the sand. This was not a case that could be understood within a clinical mental health framework that viewed violence as an individual problem. This was a case that pointed in the most painful and horrid way to the core of a masculinity shaped by patriarchy with all it entails, it’s obsession with power, its violence, its hate against and oppression of women, and the trauma it leaves in its wake.
We are all part and products of a culture that has been based on oppression, supremacy of men over women, racism, intergenerational trauma and colonization. The shooter at Ecole Polytechnique was an extreme example of these intergenerational and cultural cycles of violence but he was not unique in his views.
Once we arrived at that recognition, we had to acknowledge that as men, conditioned by a culture of sexist believes, misogyny and male supremacy, we are all somewhere on a spectrum between being safe men who treat women with respect and equality and men who assault or kill women. Between those two extremes are men who use common forms of daily violence including name calling, emotional abuse, manipulation, disrespect, unwanted sexual advances and physical abuse. We wondered how men end up where they are and whether they know that change is possible.
Over time the world found out more about the shooter. He grew up in a violent home. His father regularly assaulted his mother and him as a child. He obviously did not grow up in a home where he could feel safe and develop healthy attachments. As a child he didn’t plan to become a mass killer. But with the complex trauma he carried and his immersion in cultural values of misogyny and male supremacy he started to believe that he was discriminated against because women were becoming engineers while he struggled to get into the school.
December the 6th, 1989 was a flashpoint for discussions of men’s violence against women and those discussions remain relevant today. Women, girls, gender diverse people and Indigenous Women continue to be at high risk of gender-based violence. This includes domestic violence, femicide (every 2.5 days a woman or girl is being killed in Canada, in 2020, 160 women were killed), sexual violence, human trafficking, etc. Between December 2020 and November 2021, 58 women were killed just in Ontario. One of them in Grey-Bruce.
Over the last 30 years progress has been made providing programs for men and women and the conversations around Violence Against Women have started to grow, particularly since the #MeToo movement. However, Violence Against Women will continue to be the “Shadow Pandemic” (United Nations), and it will remain pervasive as long as we stay silent. Violence Against Women will remain unless we address its roots.
Together as a community we can be the change by abandoning the patriarchal paradigm collectively and as individuals by challenging gender stereotypes, racism, and sexism wherever we see it. We can support women and LGBTQ2+ folks when they are targets of violence.
It starts by working together and becoming truly caring for everyone around us. Caring overcomes hate and discrimination. Children, particularly boys, who are deeply cared for and nurtured rather than hurt and rejected by those who are supposed to love them, grow to be adults who feel emotionally secure and develop healthy relationships with men and women. They can articulate and share their emotions, pain, joy, grief etc. rather than hiding their vulnerabilities. This is not easy but we are all in this together in our quest towards a more peaceful world.
This December 6, Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, let’s emphasize the actions we can take as we mourn the losses of these 14 women – and all who we have lost since 1989 — and honour their memory. We will work together helping to prevent and address gender-based violence. We owe it to our future generations to remember and learn from our past. Even when it is painful.
Joachim Ostertag is the retired Supervisor of the Men’s Program Grey Bruce and a community member of Violence Prevention Grey Bruce.