Michaëlle Jean is urging women to speak out and break their silence on the violence they face in an effort to eradicate it completely.
“We lift our voices in a powerful call of action to declare to the nation that violence against women must be eliminated,” the former governor-general told a group of about 300 women at an Ottawa conference Tuesday morning.
It was a passionate speech peppered with stories of women who have overcome – and some who have not – violence perpetrated by men. She also delivered a hopeful message: that words are powerful and can make a difference whereas silence will not.
“Women’s rights are not special rights; women’s rights are human rights,” Ms. Jean said. “To me denying more than half of the world’s population the most basic human rights, including the right to live in security, is the most flagrant form of subjugation and one of the worst scandals of our time.”
Ms. Jean chose the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, where 14 young women were killed in Montreal in December 1989, to deliver her message. Twenty two years later, she said, “violence against women is a continuous threat.”
Flags are flying at half-mast on Parliament Hill and other federal government offices to mark the occasion – the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
During her 40-minute speech, however, not once did Ms. Jean criticize the Harper government for its decision to scrap the controversial long-gun registry. This while placards denouncing the Conservatives and urging them to keep the registry were leaning against chairs and tables in the ballroom of the downtown hotel where she was speaking.
Later, the women participants marched to Parliament Hill to mark the day and protest the government’s move. Although opposition leaders were invited to speak, no Tory ministers or officials were included in the program.
Ms. Jean, meanwhile, spoke of her work with women’s shelters in Quebec and said that helping abused women has changed her and made her the person she is today.
She also noted that women who have managed to get away from an abusive and violent partner are not always free.
“While many of them found the courage to seek full independence their journey to autonomy was never an easy one,” she said. “For many found the path to freedom obstructed by the incessant harassment of former partners [who] often flouted police ... with impunity.”
She said she made it her mission to defend women’s freedom as governor-general and continues to do so through her role as UNESCO’s special envoy to Haiti. She is also co-president of the Michaëlle Jean Foundation, which uses arts to inspire and engage young Canadians.
Her hope is to trigger a national and international dialogue on the issue, given there much work still to be done. “Take a stand for women’s rights,” she urged the crowd.