While much has changed since 1989, when 14 women were murdered at École Polytechnique in Montreal, we’re only at the beginnings of where philanthropy needs to go in Canada when it comes to ending gender-based violence, writes the president and CEO of the Canadian Women’s Foundation.
I remember where I was on December 6, 1989, when I learned that 14 women had been murdered at École Polytechnique in Montreal. I remember the sick sensation in my stomach when I learned they were killed for being women.
And I remember avidly watching the news commentaries that followed. Some said that what had happened was the result of an unwell man, an outlier acting out of his own secret motives.
Feminist anti-violence voices, the ones I knew well, offered a different analysis. They challenged the public to pay attention to a broader pattern of violence against women in Canada, where women were targeted and killed for being women all the time, most often by men they knew. These commentators challenged us to contextualize this mass shooting in a spectrum of everyday gender-based abuse, discrimination, and disrespect of women.
Many things have changed. With the way things are now, we might forget that, not long ago, people didn’t talk about intimate partner abuse and sexual violence. The rare times these abuses were named, it was usually considered a private matter “between him and her.” If someone was abusing you, especially your partner or family member, you weren’t supposed to “air your dirty laundry.” If you were on the outside looking in, you weren’t supposed to reveal that you could see what was happening.
It’s feminist voices who’ve led the way and so successfully shifted public conversation about gender-based violence – and what works to prevent it.
And Canada didn’t always have women’s shelters, crisis lines, healthy relationship education programs, and the like. These efforts were launched in the 1970s, generally not by governments, school boards, or health and social services, but by feminists and abuse survivors partnering with mindful donors to fill the gap in their communities.
It’s feminist voices who’ve led the way and so successfully shifted public conversation about gender-based violence. They’ve sounded the alarm on the widespread scope of this violence: who is most at risk of it, its patterns and cycles, and what works to prevent it.
Today we know more, and we have powerful language to communicate and act on what was historically left unspoken. We track femicides. We’ve enacted abuse-related policies and laws. We have viral awareness campaigns like the Signal for Help. We investigate what diverse survivors go through, even if they don’t feel safe enough to make official reports. We conduct cross-disciplinary research to understand how trauma affects the brain, the body, our dependents and families, and workplaces and communities.
But how are we doing when it comes to financial investments in gender-based violence prevention and intervention? Especially in 2022, when we’ve seen a disturbing bump in already-high base rates of femicide and sexual and family violence?
In Canada, billions of dollars go to policing, prosecution, and prison, but law and order is not where the most effective solutions lie.
When we track it at high level and analyze it from the perspective of the millions of women, girls, and two-spirit, trans, and non-binary people at astronomical risk of this abuse, it’s clear that community-grounded gender-based violence initiatives don’t get the lion’s share of public funds. Billions of dollars in Canada instead go to policing, prosecution, and prison.
Though research tells us a different story, though voices of diverse survivors expressing what they need to thrive have been strong, our national and regional investments still largely treat gender-based violence as a failure of law and order.
But law and order is not where the most effective solutions lie. Most abuse in Canada goes unreported, and there’s still not enough judgment-free, humanizing space to share “this happened to me too.” When people do seek help, they tend to go to their friends, families, and coworkers for support.
After all, we have to admit that our systems of policing, prosecution, and prison are set up to address most violence only after something tragic has happened.
Perhaps this is where we also have to admit to a broader cultural problem. I have no doubt that many more of us believe that abuse is not just a “private matter between him and her” than we did in 1989. But I don’t think we appreciate the reverberating impact of this abuse beyond those directly involved. And I don’t think we’ve grasped how preventable this violence is.
While 90% of people in this country believe everyone has a responsibility to stop gender-based violence, 46% say the problem is too big to solve and 23% feel intimate partner violence is none of our business if it doesn’t directly involve us.
That’s why I’m saddened and not surprised that a 2022 Canadian Women’s Foundation national poll that found that, while 90% of people in this country believe everyone has a responsibility to stop gender-based violence, 46% say the problem is too big to solve and 23% of us feel intimate partner violence is none of our business if it doesn’t directly involve us.
How will we hold leaders accountable for weak investments in community gender-based-violence solutions if we aren’t convinced we can end it? How will we push for robust action where shelters, crisis lines, and healthy relationship programs get resources to scale up to meet the needs if we have trouble envisioning abuse as our business?
The National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence is a framework, not a coherent plan with strong accountability measures.Lise Martin, Women’s Shelters Canada
In November, the federal government announced a 10-year National Action Plan to End Gender-Based Violence. But Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada, expresses concerns about it as well. “Advocates waited for this announcement for years, and we’re pleased at the commitment,” she says. “But what was announced is a framework, not a coherent plan with strong accountability measures. We’re worried about provinces and territories picking what’s easy to invest in rather than what actually works. We’re worried it’s not going to be far-reaching enough to make a dent in gendered violence.”
It’s this gap between vision and change that philanthropy has an opportunity to step into now.
But traditional charity approaches won’t do it. The change philanthropy needs to support is cultural and social as much as it is interpersonal and familial. Interventions have to be big and loud at the same time they’re tailored and community-specific. And they must chip away these “it doesn’t involve me” and “it’s too big to stop” stigma-laden mythologies Canada has bought into.
Philanthropy can help foster the transformative public vision missing all these years. It can fuel brave action that will train our collective brain to envision gender-based violence as completely preventable.
Philanthropy can help foster the transformative public vision missing all these years. It can fuel brave action that will train our collective brain to envision gender-based violence as completely preventable. It can invest in real-talk effort to help workplaces and communities understand why abuse matters, even when it doesn’t directly involve us, because the overall human, economic, and intergenerational toll is so great.
Philanthropy can help us finally accept what advocates, survivors, and donors believed 50 years ago when they established the first shelters, crisis lines, and programs: there’s no earthly reason why women, girls, and gender-diverse people should not get the rights, respect, safety, and care they deserve.
I’ve seen this sort of brave vision from philanthropic partners who have committed to helping us end gender-based violence, prioritizing the spectrum of prevention and intervention led by diverse advocates, survivors, and service providers. I’ve seen them make investments in communities across the country and in sectors where there’s significant resistance to any change for gender justice.
But the scale of the problem is still huge. Prior to the pandemic, a woman was killed by an intimate partner an average of every six days in Canada. Today, the rate of women and girls violently killed has gone up.
We’re only at the beginnings of where philanthropy needs to go in Canada when it comes to ending gender-based violence. And on December 6, 2022, mustering the vision and bravery we need to do this is a matter of life and death, as much as it was back in 1989.