December 6 – Day of Remembrance and Action

Candle burning surrounded by roses on a white table clotgOn December 6, 1989, 13 female students and a female administrator at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal were murdered because they were women. The shocking impact of their deaths led Parliament to designate December 6 as a national day of remembrance in Canada. Nearly 30 years later, the effects of this tragedy continue to be felt and women remain targets because of their gender. According to the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (COJFA), by the end of September this year, 106 women and girls have been killed by gender-based violence. Approximately half of them were killed in Ontario. Over 100 women have been killed this year and that has not caused a public outcry or become a pressing national news story. The lack of attention and national outrage explains why we haven’t made greater progress in ending violence against women since 1989. The killing of women by intimate partners continues to remain invisible as a far-reaching public health issue.

COJFA was launched on December 6th last year by the Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence at University of Guelph. It is a web-based research and information centre working to prevent femicide and other forms of gender-based killings in Canada. COJFA was established in response to an international call to all countries to establish a femicide observatory or ‘watch’ to document gender-related killings of women.[1] Too often, the killing of women and girls goes undocumented and unreported, especially when they are women who lack privilege. The difficulty in accounting for the high number of missing and murdered Indigenous women in Canada stands as solemn testimony to a society that does not care enough to accurately document the deaths of women. As a society, we count what we value and we value what we count. COJFA does the vital work of compiling the names and stories so that we cannot so easily turn away.

Femicide is a distinct form of homicide that warrants its own label. While men and boys are killed at higher rates than women and girls, they are most often killed in male on male violence by friends, acquaintances and strangers. Their deaths are important and require focused prevention efforts that can address the specific issues and risks associated with being male. When women and girls are killed, it is almost always by husbands, boyfriends, dating or past intimate partners. This is true in Canada and in every country in the world. The World Health Organization calls violence against women a global epidemic. What does it say about us as a society that to be born female is a risk factor to be killed by a person who ‘loves’ you? If we are to change as a society, then everyone has a role to play in taking action in small and everyday ways to recognize and stop all forms of violence against women and girls.

Each year, starting with the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women on November 25th until International Human Rights Day on December 10th, Canada participates in Sixteen Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence.[2]

This year’s theme, #MYActionsMatter, carries on the message from last year’s successful campaign and is a call to action that asks everyone to take concrete steps to question, call out, and speak up against acts of gender-based violence (GBV). Recently, public attention has shone a light on what statistics have long confirmed: women in Canada and around the world continue to face violence each and every day. In response to this all-too-familiar reality #MYActionsMatter asks the question: what will you do? (Status of Women Canada)

The December 6th Day of Remembrance and Activism is included in the sixteen days. As we remember the young women who were killed at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal so many years ago, take the time to read the COJFA list of names of women and girls who have been killed this year. Every Canadian needs to feel and acknowledge the tremendous loss we have suffered as a country. Every life lost leaves a hole in the fabric of society that cannot be mended.  First we mourn; then we take action.

An ounce of prevention will outweigh the cost

On November 19, 2018, Dr. Tamara O’Neal, a Chicago doctor was killed at her workplace by her ex-fiancé, Juan Lopez. Lopez went on to kill two others before being shot by police. He then shot himself.  O’Neal broke off her engagement with Lopez in September. Her father stated that Lopez “couldn’t’ get over [the break-up]” and went on to say, "this was a total surprise to us. We knew that there was a disconnect, but nothing to this magnitude. We never expected this.”[3] The inevitable shock to coworkers, friends and family that follows tragedy like the Chicago shooting speaks clearly to the fact that as a society, we still do not recognize or respond effectively to risk factors associated with domestic homicide. The cost of our collective ignorance is high.

In reviewing cases of domestic homicide for almost two decades, the Ontario Domestic Homicide Death Review Committee has identified risk factors that signal situations in which violence is escalating. Included on the ten most common risk factors are a history of domestic violence, stalking behaviour, unemployment and separation. The perpetrators of domestic homicide are almost always male.[4]

Lopez had a history of violent behaviour with women. In 2014, he was kicked out of the city's firefighting academy after threatening a female cadet. When the fire department learned of the threats, Lopez was told he would be disciplined. But instead of returning to the academy to meet with department officials, Lopez went AWOL and was fired. Records from that same year indicate that a girlfriend of Lopez sought an order of protection against him because he was incessantly texting her. When she reported the texts to police, officers told her to change her phone number and seek an order of protection. Lopez’s violent behaviour has been visible in a variety of workplace environments over the past four years. More may yet come to light about his history.

The opportunity for employers to address the violent behaviour of workers in order to protect other workers is still not widely considered or incorporated into workplace violence policies. To date, the focus in the workplace and in occupational health and safety legislation has been on protecting the victim. To be effective in reducing violence, we have to talk about how to support behavioural change of those perpetrating the violence. There are many ways that organizational culture ignores, tolerates and sometimes rewards controlling and abusive behaviour. Bringing focus to the complex causes of violence that sit at the individual, organizational and societal levels has to become a priority that can inspire the will to root out the causal factors with practical applications. Had the fire department had a policy to hold Lopez accountable, yet allow him to keep his job if he got help and stopped the behaviour, there may have been a very different outcome. A 2011 Vermont study done with male offenders of domestic violence found that 77% of the respondents believed if there had been a written company policy setting a workplace culture against domestic violence, the policy would have been an effective measure for prevention.[5]

Employers also need to engage their entire workforce in creating safety at work. What warning signs surfaced at the hospital before the shootings? How many of O’Neal’s coworkers were aware that she had ended the relationship was afraid of Lopez? Progressive employers understand that everyone in the organization has to be prepared to recognize warning signs and risk factors and to know how to respond safely and effectively. Managers and supervisors have to be prepared through policy and procedure to know how to act when risk factors confirm an escalating situation. They also need to know who has the expertise in the community to assess risk and provide comprehensive safety planning. This means a significant commitment to ongoing training and education. It means an investment that is fundamentally preventative and therefore hard to qualify. Leadership is the door between pro-action and reaction for organizations. For Mercy Hospital in Chicago it is too late. The devastating impacts will be far reaching across the entire organization and for many of its staff, will last a lifetime. No doubt there will be many lessons learned and changes made. Can other employers learn from Mercy Hospital that an ounce of prevention is worth all of the after-the-fact pounds of cure?


[1] From the COJFA website:  The establishment of the CFOJA responds to a call from the Special Rapporteur on violence against women, its causes and consequences[1] on November 25, 2015, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence against Women. On that date, the Special Rapporteur called on all countries to establish a femicide observatory or ‘watch’ to document gender-related killings of women which would collect, analyze and review data on femicides with the aim of prevention.

[2] The 16 Days of Activism against Gender-Based Violence have always been a time to increase awareness about the disproportionate levels of violence faced by women and girls, as well as diverse populations, including Indigenous peoples, LGBTQ2 community members, gender non-binary individuals, those living in northern, rural, and remote communities, people with disabilities, newcomers, children and youth, and seniors.

[4] DVDRC  2016 report: 307 cases show that 91% of perpetrators of domestic homicides were male