When I visited one of the memorials to victims of the Toronto van attack this week, I was moved by the number of people who stood silently in the rain, alone with their personal moments of grief. Some prayed, and others signed the cards that lay between the flowers and candles.
There is much power in moments of silence. But it struck me that silence can become a comforting blanket, or a shield that guards against uncomfortable truths. Already, there are two narratives arising from the attack, which you can see presented in the memorial: On the cards are messages of condolence, strength, peace and perseverance; there are multiple references to “Toronto Strong”; and, in the corner, a lone poster covered in plastic to protect it from the elements. “Yes it was terrorism,” the poster reads, along with “women’s rights are human rights.” At the bottom, it makes the point that “(anti) social media is complicit.”
This poster does not represent the dominant story. We’re supposed to cheer that this tragedy has shown our city in its best light – the people who came to the aid of victims, the police officers who handled the situation so competently. Those are, indeed, wonderful things to celebrate. But it can’t come at the cost of accepting that this attack may well have been terrorism, morally if not legally: Terrorism directed at, and lethal to, people who are women. Most of the victims of the attack were women, although it’s not yet known if this was deliberate.
The man charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder after driving a rental van into crowds of people on Yonge Street is reported to have posted a message on Facebook identifying with the “incel” movement. This, as we’ve come to learn, is a hate-filled, misogynistic online community of men who deem themselves “involuntary celibates” because women won’t have sex with them.
The idea that sex is a commodity that women dole out to deserving men like bananas at a supermarket is in itself repulsive, but we can live with it; we’ve lived with it for thousands of years. When that idea spills into reality, and spills our blood on the sidewalk, as it did with incel hero Elliot Rodger’s murder of six people in Isla Vista, Calif., in 2014, then inaction is no longer an option. Silence is no longer an option.
I’ve heard variations of this conversation constantly this week, among women: “I feel so sad, and so exhausted. Why aren’t we talking about it?“ What they mean is, why aren’t we enraged by the possibility that this attack was inspired by misogyny? If that turns out to be the case, it will mean that two of the largest mass killings in our country’s recent history were inspired by hatred of women. If that’s not a terrorist ideology, I’m not sure what is.
I went back and looked at the coverage of the killing of 14 female engineering students at Montreal’s École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989. You may remember – I hope you remember – that the killer separated male and female students, and he slaughtered the women after telling them, “I am fighting feminists.” Later, it would be revealed that he had written a letter blaming “the feminists who have always ruined my life.”
A year after the Montreal massacre, the school’s director sent a message to media outlets saying that the best way to remember the attack was not with anger or protest but “through reflection, and silence.” The best rebuttal to that was provided by Judy Rebick, who was then head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women: “Silence about violence against women has been our worst enemy.”
It would be great to say that’s changed in the past 28 years, but it hasn’t, not much. There is still so much silence surrounding violence perpetrated against women: the silence of women too ashamed to talk about domestic abuse, the silence of police who often reveal only scant details about cases in which women are murdered by their partners, the silence of women who are the victims of sexual violence but are unwilling or unable to speak up, faced with a system that punishes them instead of delivering justice.
Sometimes, a powerful voice fills the vacuum, which was the case in Calgary recently when a young woman talked about her sister’s murder at the hands of a spurned ex-boyfriend. In March, 22-year-old Nadia El-Dib was stabbed 40 times, shot, and had her throat slit (her assailant was later killed in a shootout with RCMP). Nadia’s sister Racha made an eloquent public plea in her sister’s memory: “She was a strong young woman who fought and refused a man and that decision alone resulted in her death. Women live in fear of their lives every day of the repercussions of refusing a man … I am here to use Nadia’s voice to give strength to those who have been in similar situations, to those who are in mentally, physically or emotionally abusive situations so that they can find the strength can to reach out.”
Nadia El-Dib wasn’t alone. “Domestic violence is a national crisis,” law professors Isabel Grant and Elizabeth Sheehy wrote in a recent opinion piece. At least five women were killed in Ontario alone in the first six weeks of 2018, with their partners or ex-partners accused of the slayings. In Halifax, the trial of Nicholas Butcher, accused of second-degree murder in the stabbing death of his girlfriend Kristin Johnston, is in the jury-deliberation phase. As I wrote this, news broke of the killing of a mother and her toddler daughter in Sept-Îles, Que. A man is under arrest. A court ban prevents the publication of the woman and child’s name.
These incidents – these outrages – are not isolated, but you’d think they were because we so seldom talk about what unites them (we’re starting to have thoughtful analyses as in Rachel Giese’s, published in The Globe). What unites them is a man’s fury and thwarted entitlement that he is being abandoned, rejected, refused. What unites them is anger toward women, which is unfortunately all too common and fertilized right here at home. That’s what we need to talk about. Toronto may be strong, but something in us is still profoundly broken.