Remembering her daughter. Creating awareness of gender-motivated murders. Understanding the connection between all violence. Calling for action.
These were Debbie Hibbs’ motivations for displaying a tree decorated with the names of dozens of women from Newfoundland and Labrador at the December 6th Vigil at Memorial University (MUN) last Saturday.
The event, attended by upward of 200 people, marked the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
“This day coincides with the sad anniversary of the 1989 Montreal Massacre when 14 young women were tragically killed at l’École Polytechnique because of their gender,” read the programme for the vigil.
It is an annual event held in MUN’s Engineering Building. The choice of location marks the significance of the event for the engineering community. Twelve of the women remembered on Dec. 6 each year — Geneviève Bergeron, Helene Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte — were engineering students. Maud Haviernick was a graduate in Environmental Design and Maryse Laganière was an employee of the school.
To remember these women, the vigil included a candle lighting, a reading of their names and an accompanying minute of silence. A guest speaker talked to the audience about sexism in the engineering profession, the ongoing realities of gender-based violence in Canada and the root causes of this violence. Finally, campus and community groups dedicated their anti-violence work to the 14 women while calling for further action.
Many of these groups set up displays highlighting their work toward ending violence against women. Hibbs was there with the Coalition Against Violence (CAV). In October 2013, her daughter Juliane, and Juliane’s fiancé Vince Dillon, were killed in a double-murder suicide. This prompted Hibbs to collaborate with CAV Executive Director Connie Pike to create a tree decorated with names of dozens of women who have died as a result gender-based violence in Newfoundland and Labrador.
“We felt it important to remember the 14 women from Montreal who were killed because they were women,” Pike said on Saturday before the vigil, describing the tree, which also features the names of the Montreal Massacre victims.
However, Pike made clear that tree’s purpose is to remember “all women who have died from a violent act,” because “if people do not know the full extent and scope of the problem, they are not likely to take action.”
Hibbs said we need to “be open about it, speak out, [and] not be silent” as we challenge the common cause of all violence against women, which she identified as “control and power.”
“Even though our daughter was murdered because of domestic violence, these women were also murdered… because they were women, and I think control and power connect the violence,” she explained.
The underlying causes of gender-based violence were also addressed by Sarah Shannon, a mechanical engineering student and the vigil’s guest speaker. In her speech, Shannon raised the question of why so many people are against the word ‘feminism.’ She proposed that “some may be hesitant to embrace feminism, because if the feminist movement is successful, many will lose the privilege they have held on to for so long.”
Shannon named privilege as the cause of both discrimination in the engineering profession and the Montreal massacre.
“Men do not have to worry about being discounted as engineering students or as engineers based on their gender. That is their privilege,” she said. “On Dec. 6, 1989, 14 women were murdered because a man was afraid to lose the privilege he believed he was entitled to.”
Lori-Ann Campbell of the Aboriginal Resource Office (ARO) offered another perspective on the root causes of gender-based violence. When presenting a dedication on behalf of the ARO, she acknowledged the “intersectionalities” that underlie violence.
After the ceremony Campbell explained the root causes of violence against women, notably aboriginal women, in terms of the intersecting problems of failing institutions, racism, resource inequality and lack of representation.
“When we look at what is going on, say, in most communities in Labrador where there is a high rate of violence, we also see a low rate of enforcement on a day-to-day basis,” Campbell explained.
“Especially with sexual assault…these incidents are being turned a blind eye to, and as a result…we see these stories coming out, reproducing narratives of inferiority, racial demoralization and denigration of societies, when really this has to do with unequal resources from the beginning and unequal representation.”
Campbell regularly talks with aboriginal students at Memorial about the action that is needed to end violence. She said she tells them, “You have to put in the hard work, it’s not enough to be polemic or emotional — you have to look at the roles, the resources, who dishes out the resources, who the leadership is in key institutions.” And, most importantly, she continued, “you have do the work of bringing forth new information and policies.
“I tell my students every day, you need to be the authors of the new books.”
A similar call to action was an important part of the dedication Pike made on behalf of the CAV: “We need to do more, as Sarah alluded to, we all have a voice. We have to demand more from our leaders, we have to demand more on behalf of the hundreds of women around us every day who are suffering in silence, and we have to demand more from ourselves.”
In the closing words of her interview, Hibbs put this call to action directly to government: “I hope that government gets this message,” she said. “I don’t know how much more proof they need that something has to be done.”
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