Five women have gone missing in less than two years in North Okanagan, B.C. The remains of one woman, Traci Genereaux, were found earlier this month. In Newfoundland, three women have been murdered in the past six months, prompting the provincial government to strike a committee to study the issue of violence against women.
The committee could start with the obvious issue: There is too much violence, it's been going on too long and too little is being done about it. According to the St. John's Status of Women Council, half the women in the province will experience violence in their lifetimes, and only one in 10 will report it to police.
In Ottawa, Basil Borutski has been found guilty in the murders of three women, Nathalie Warmerdam, Carol Culleton and Anastasia Kuzyk, which he committed in 2015 in Eastern Ontario. Mr. Borutski had a history of domestic violence and issuing threats and had committed offences against all three women. It was revealed during the trial that Ms. Warmerdam had a "domestic-violence panic alarm" in her bedroom, but she did not have time to reach it before she was shot. It was also revealed that Mr. Borutski had not attended the court-mandated partner-abuse program he was supposed to take.
I could add to these incidents – the killing of New Brunswick dentist Cindy McCormick, reportedly at the hands of her partner, who took his own life; or the slaying of Johanne Chayer in Quebec in October (her husband has been charged with murder). Alongside these cases, the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls continues to hear testimony about crimes committed over decades.
There are many other cases, the most extreme result of violence against women. Except in the most high-profile instances, they barely register. There may be a vigil, a local news story, then all goes dark. According to the Canadian Women's Foundation, "approximately every six days, a woman in Canada is killed by her intimate partner." In the United States, research has shown that more than half of mass shootings are connected to domestic or family violence.
Illustration by Hanna Barczyk
I wouldn't be surprised if these women's murders are news to most Canadians, apart from the MMIWG inquiry. As a country, we are not very good at connecting the dots when it comes to the systemic causes and prevention of violence against women. We are particularly ill-equipped, or perhaps too hardened, to look at the violence committed against the most vulnerable – sex workers, trans women, women who are poor, marginalized and voiceless. It's an epidemic with no name, that we look up and notice about once a year (Nov. 25 and Dec. 6 are designated as days to mark the elimination of violence against women and girls).
I've been reading Margo Goodhand's recent book Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists, about the beginning of the women's shelter movement in Canada in the early 1970s. If there's any small consolation about the continuing plague of violence against women, it's that things were once much worse, not very long ago. Police often ignored domestic violence and when women did manage to escape, they were usually penniless, with kids at their heels. Almost without exception, they had nowhere to go. Their communities shunned them, or told them to go back to their husbands. When the first shelter in the country, Toronto's Interval House, opened in 1973, the Toronto Star ran a story under the headline, The Rising Wave Of Runaway Wives.
The saviours, in the early 1970s, were heroic, ragtag bands of feminists who had little training and no idea how to raise money. Zoom forward 40 years and the heroic feminists are still running shelters across the country, except that they're now better at getting money from the government. One part of the story remains the same: There is still underfunding of shelters and assistance programs, particularly when it comes to long-term housing and support for women seeking custody of their children. Women in rural areas of Canada and in small towns are particularly vulnerable, and resources stretched thin (this became apparent in the coverage of the Borutski case by the CBC, Global News and Chatelaine magazine).
Yet, in the spirit of optimism that drove those women in the 1970s, we can look to institutional changes for the better: Both Ontario and Manitoba have agreed to give paid leave to victims of domestic violence. The federal government's new housing strategy contains a stipulation that one-quarter of its investments must be focused on women and girls, which gives hope to shelter advocates that there is new money in the future. There are innovative education programs, such as the CFL's Leading Change, where football players speak out against domestic violence.
As well, the University of Guelph in Ontario has just announced a new project for collecting data and research on the murder of women in this country, the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability (the University of Western Ontario also has a Canadian Domestic Homicide Prevention Initiative).
We can only hope that increased knowledge brings with it the power to change. This knowledge does nothing for the women who are gone, but is one way to honour their memories. And, if we choose to truly value women's lives, it will become impossible to look away.
Look for Elizabeth Renzetti's column in the new Opinion section next Saturday.