Every year on December 6, government buildings fly their flags half-mast and dozens of memorials are held across the country for the 14 women who were killed in the 1989 mass shooting at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. At each, the names of the victims are read and promises are made for action.
But what about the rest of the year, and the other people whose names we don’t know?
While it’s undoubtedly important to remember the 14 women killed on that day in 1989, it’s also important to acknowledge those who are most at risk for experiencing gender-based violence. Because those women are often the most forgotten—and the ones for whom action isn’t promised.
“Those whose voices are not the most heard in society are the most impacted by violence and in need of service,” confirms Erin Lee, a gender-based violence advocate, survivor and executive director for the Lanark County Interval House in Carleton Place, Ont. “There are layers and layers that act as barriers for us; it’s not one aspect of our identities, it’s the accumulation of every aspect of our identities that make us the most vulnerable.”
Lee was 23 when the Montreal massacre happened, and she remembers the stillness across the country as feminists had to accept, once again, they were not safe—and she realized the need to address gender-based violence was urgent. And so, she’s spent the past 28 years advocating for survivors, but says that little has changed in terms of who is overlooked in the Canadian conversation.
There is perhaps no more vulnerable population in relation to gender-based violence than trans sex workers. Case in point: Moka Dawkins, who is a Black trans woman, and who, earlier this year was found guilty of manslaughter despite testifying that she acted in self defence after a male client (who had three previous convictions for domestic assault) stabbed her in the face. Sentencing for Moka—who was initially placed in a prison for men, where she says she was physically and verbally abused—is now ongoing, while Maggie’s, a Toronto-based organization that advocates for sex workers, provides Moka with support and mobilizes her supporters. “Society says if you are in this profession, if you are trans, you are not worth fighting for,” says Akio Maroon, gender-based violence advocate and former board member for Maggie’s. “It’s a social hierarchy of who is deemed worthy of protection; as sex workers, we are always excluded.”
The media—alongside the justice system and white feminists—plays a major role in determining said hierarchy. Case in point: the phenomenon of “Missing White Woman Syndrome,” coined by the late PBS journalist Gwen Ifil, refers to the disparity in media coverage for missing and murdered Black women compared to their white counterparts. “Women of colour are victimized, they are murdered and they make second page of the newspaper,” says Lee. “By day two they are on page six and after that we don’t hear about them anymore. Black women are even lucky if they make the news.” (For reference, Black women are murdered by men twice as often as white women.)
It’s also important to note that marginalized women and girls are often forsaken by those meant to protect them. From Tina Fontaine—a 15-year-old girl who was murdered in Winnipeg in 2014 despite having had recent contact with police officers and social workers(oh, and the man charged with her murder walked free)—to the dozens of women who have come forward with their experiences of modern-day sterilization, Indigenous women have felt the systemic acts of gender-based violence enacted on their families, bodies and communities for generations. They’re also more than five times more likely to die as the result of violence than non-Indigenous women. “There are thousands of Indigenous women who are missing or murdered,” Lee notes. “Our justice system has failed Indigenous women and communities. Absolutely failed. They have tossed, forgotten, and neglected Indigenous women.”
The discrimination and lack of care faced by marginalized people is compounded for those living with disabilities—research from 2014 shows that Canadian women with disabilities are twice as likely to experience violent crime or sexual assault than those without disabilities—as well as those living in remote or rural areas, where help can take longer to arrive than it does in cities. Through her work in Lanark county, Lee helps many women living in rural areas, and notes that the violence experienced in these regions is often incestual.
“On top of that, we are queer, trans, racialized, and disabled,” says Lee. “[Other people] don’t know why calling the cops isn’t a reality or option for so many. Few recognize all of the layers impacting us and truly know how to assist.” She notes that assistance has to begin with acknowledging marginalized voices and letting them dictate what justice looks like for them.
December 6 is about taking action, it is about remembering, it is about fighting back. It is about looking in the face of patriarchy and resisting. It is about challenging norms and creating truly a more equitable world for us all. It is about reading and knowing the names of the 14 women killed at École Polytechnique—but also the names that are rarely spoken in the news, whose faces and stories are never heard. May we continuously fight for the most marginalized among us, may we never forget them. Not again. Not ever.