December 6th marks the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada.
In Yellowknife, the Status of Women Council of the NWT marked the occasion by hosting its 12th annual vigil at the museum.
“It’s definitely an opportunity for women and men to reflect on the violence that happens to women in Canada and in the Northwest Territories and around the globe,” said Lorraine Phaneuf, the council’s executive director.
“It’s very much a commemorative service that we do each year to remind Northerners that violence is a reality for people in a daily way and it’s time for us to make concrete changes around violence against women.”
The ceremony included 14 women placing red roses in a vase to remember the 14 women who were murdered as part of the Montreal Massacre in 1989.
A white rose was placed in the centre of the bouquet in honour of women who face violence in Northwest Territories.
Beyond raising awareness about the issue of violence in our community, the vigil also had information on how to support survivors of violence.
“It’s so important to support survivors and believe what they’re saying,” Phaneuf said. “[We need] to have those pieces in place so they can heal and carry on with their life afterwards.”
Indigenous women need to be heard
For Gail Cyr, getting people to believe Indigenous survivors is easier said than done.
Cyr is the former manager of the Native Women’s Association of the NWT. She placed the white rose representing Northern women in the vase, and spoke about the experiences of Indigenous women in the North.
“When it comes down to violence against Indigenous women, that whole effort has been like a fight for generations in terms of being able to get attention to the issue, have people care about it and finally being able to do something and look at some of the issues of why women are in danger to that extent,” Cyr said.
“Many times, if you tell a story an official will look at you and say, ‘oh no, you got that wrong, that’s just not true, that doesn’t happen’. Well it does. Every day there’s an Indigenous woman that goes missing.”
It takes the community, Cyr says, to stand up and actually take action.
“We’re looking for allies, we’re looking for people to help and we’re looking for people to say that if there’s violence that’s happening, that you can actually do something. You intervene, stand between it, do something.”
Not just a women’s issue
Caroline Cochrane, the territory’s minister responsible for women, was one of the speakers at the vigil. She says addressing gender-based violence in the North starts by focusing on both genders.
“When we talk about violence against women and girls we give supports to women and to girls,” she said.
“But if we don’t give the same support or even more support to men who actually are violent, we’re missing a big piece of the puzzle.”
The NWT has one of the highest rates of violence against women in Canada, second only to Nunavut.
Cochrane says programs like A New Day that rehabilitate men who are violent in their relationships are critical in addressing this issue.
“We’ve focused on one gender for many many many years and we’re still two steps back,” she said.
“Only by changing the perception, letting people know that this is not just a women’s issue, this is also a male issue, this is a societal issue will we actually begin to change the perception in society.”
Violence against women is ‘still very prominent’, she says, and she fears that if it’s not discussed people will forget the issue entirely.
“We can’t forget it,” she said.
“We need to keep standing forward and we need to make events like this more public, and in fact if I had my way we’d have more of these instead of less.”
RCMP Cpl. Sally MacKinnon was one of 14 volunteers who placed a rose in the vase Tuesday. She’s a member of the coalition, and says when the organization asked for volunteers for the vigil, she had to offer.
“I think it’s important for awareness,” she said.
“Not only to remember the victims of violence but also to know that there’s numerous victim’s still out there and to give that message to people that we care. Regardless of our race, our status, where we work, it effects everyone.”
As a member of the RCMP, MacKinnon says she faces the realities of violence every day. By bringing awareness to the issue, she hopes to make her job a little easier.
“Sending that awareness out there, maybe it’ll make my job easier someday so I won’t have to go to those calls where females are victims of violence,” she said.
“[Police are] here, we care, we’re not just answering a call for service but we care and we want that person to be safe and be able to matter in this world.”