Cigarettes used to be ubiquitous. Now, if you buy a pack, so are the pictures of the open-mouthed woman, her teeth like crooked, yellow Chiclets in a bed of nicotine-stained gums.
“When you smoke it shows,” her label warns, but it’s basically a given that in 2020, you know this.
Far fewer people smoke now than did in the 1960s, back when you had free reign to light up at work, in bars and even on airplanes. But the drop from half of Canadians smoking in 1965 to less than 16 per cent in 2018 didn’t just happen.
When a federal minister first declared that smoking causes lung cancer in 1963, the industry pushed back. Hard. They said: “This ‘evidence’ was and remains inconclusive, no matter how often it is repeated and restated.”
But it was repeated and it was restated, and by 1979, the debate was no longer about whether smoking was harmful but about whether tobacco promotion should be banned. Then-Progressive Conservative leader Joe Clark called the idea “laudable but unrealistic.”
Yet, within a week, the World Health Organization was recommending a wholesale advertising ban and a dramatic curtailment of tobacco production. Within a month, Norway tabled the results of its own government-backed anti-smoking campaign, revealing a notable decline in cigarette use — a remarkable example of what was possible if politicians threw their might behind an issue.
Farheen Khan, a women’s rights advocate, thinks of those campaigns — that massive government undertaking to change society’s collective mind — in the aftermath of the worst mass murder in modern Canadian history, one that began with a horrific domestic violence attack that took the Royal Canadian Mounted Police nearly a week to disclose to the public.
“In society, when we started to realize cigarette smoking was a problem, a lot of money was put into shifting that conversation,” she says.
“Now, in this time, we absolutely know (domestic violence) is a problem. So why is it that we’re not doing the same type of thing? It’s something that we need to make a priority.”
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The worst mass murder in modern Canadian history began with a horrific domestic violence attack: the gunman started arguing with his girlfriend at a party in Portapique, N.S., and continued fighting with her back at his home before assaulting her and tying her up. She escaped and hid overnight in the woods.
The gunman’s girlfriend emerged from her hiding spot in the woods before 7 a.m. on Sunday, April 19. She called 911, and the RCMP soon realized it was dealing with an active shooter — one with a stockpile of weapons, a Mountie uniform and a look-alike cop car.
WATCH: RCMP say no evidence of ‘hatred towards women’ in Nova Scotia mass shooting
But the Mounties didn’t tell the public the murders were precipitated by domestic violence. For days, rumours swirled that the gunman’s ex-partner was among the first killed (she was not) while advocates urged officials to speak loudly and clearly about the normalized male violence underlying such deadly attacks (they did not).
A spokesperson for the force, who did not respond to most of Global News’ questions, said the force provided information regarding the incident of domestic violence “when we were in a position to provide an account of the events.”
“For those of us who have experienced how male violence destroys lives, it was an extreme and actualized version of the male rage and aggression targeting those who are supposed to be the closest to them,” reads a statement on the murders from the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia.
One red flag that research has shown time and again to precede mass murders? Domestic violence.
A few days later, when asked if there was any evidence misogyny played a role in the women the gunman targeted (he killed 13 women and nine men), RCMP Supt. Darren Campbell said not that he was aware of.
“It’s completely senseless,” he said.
That’s exactly the wrong word choice, says Elise Chenier, a history professor at Simon Fraser University, because it isn’t true.
“The media, the government, the police, none of them are looking at it through the lens of male violence,” she says. “It’s a massive, unconscionable failure. … It’s irresponsible leadership in the RCMP, especially in the RCMP, where your job is to understand crime.”
A spokesperson for the RCMP told Global News, “family violence investigations are a high priority and must be handled expeditiously, consistently and collaboratively with our local community stakeholders.”
That isn’t to say Canada is stuck in 1989, refusing to use the word feminism to describe the anti-feminist attack that killed 14 women at École Polytechnique. But take a closer look at which stories put misogyny, gender-based violence and the Portapique murders consistently in the same frame, Chenier says. They are opinion pieces and think pieces; misogyny isn’t context baked into daily updates — it’s treated as separate.
“We’re still on the margins shouting to the centre,” Chenier says.
Spokespeople for Women and Gender Equality Canada (WAGE) and Public Safety did not respond to specific questions, however, in a joint statement, they acknowledged high rates of gender-based violence exacerbated by the coronavirus pandemic and said, “We know there is more to do and will continue to work with our partners … to end gender-based violence in all its forms.”
Women will keep shouting to the centre, their words continuing before they “trickle to a close, and then it will be silence until the next killing,” wrote Dorothy Woodend in one such piece for the Tyee.
“It’s the silence that’s a bigger part of the problem, like the vast underbelly of a rotten iceberg, unseen and unfelt until it rips you open and sends you to the bottom of the sea to drown.”
Woodend wrote about a pervasive societal issue that is not a secret, yet often treated as such: on average, a woman is killed every other day, once a week, a woman is murdered by her partner and one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence over the course of their lives.
While the overall number of men killed is higher, experts say violence against women is often distinct.
“It’s all about dominance and power over another person,” says Khan, the women’s rights advocate.
That was acknowledged, in a roundabout way, by one of the gunman’s own neighbours. Nancy Hudson told the Canadian Press she wasn’t surprised “to some degree” by the 13-hour rampage.
She had known the man for nearly two decades and found him “very jovial,” although she detected “some underlying issues that I think he had with his relationship.”
It’s crucial that those underlying issues be addressed, reads the Transition House Association of Nova Scotia statement.
“We must not dilute this problem by speaking of a single act of rage but rather recognize that male violence is part of a bigger social problem of entitlement and toxic masculinity.”
And yet, Chenier says, there has been no direct police or government acknowledgement of this. (A spokesperson for WAGE Canada said the national action plan will address these issues but did not connect them to the Nova Scotia murders.) There has been the “completely senseless” comment and then the Mountie spokesperson walking back a poorly worded statement implying the gunman’s partner served as the “catalyst” for the rampage.
WATCH: RCMP clarifies comment that gunman’s partner was ‘catalyst’ for shooting
“(There are) men who are angry and who see women as legitimate targets of that anger,” Chenier says.
“Not all of them will act in this incredibly violent matter, but the seeds of where it comes from are so well understood, so well-documented that it might be horrifying and devastating but it’s not, quote-unquote, senseless. Sadly and tragically and horribly, there is sense to this.”
In the worst mass murders in modern Canadian history, the perpetrators are men and their victims are predominantly women.
In Toronto in 2018, it was implicit. Eight women and two men were killed in a deadly van attack by a suspect who called himself an incel — a smushing together of involuntary celibate, a term for men, typically misogynists, who believe women should be made available to gratify their sexual needs.
In Nova Scotia in 2020, the RCMP says it’s too soon to speak to motive. But 13 women and nine men were murdered in an attack that began with domestic violence and was perpetrated by a man with a long history of disputes whose behaviour toward his girlfriend left at least one neighbour unsettled.
Do not get hung up on motive, urges Chenier:
“Motive is a very narrow way of looking at it. What we’re talking about here is the problem of male violence.”
Anything could set a person off on any given day just as anything could stop them — remember the Quebec mosque shooter? Two months before he shot and killed six people, he drove to a large shopping mall and began to load his weapons. But then he saw a security camera and changed his mind.
“The trigger could be a minor thing,” Chenier says, speaking generally. “The problem is that this person, this individual, is raised in a culture in which men are discouraged from expressing positive emotions like love, affection, caring, vulnerability, softness.”
The first step to fixing the fact that we live in a society steeped in violence is acknowledging it, says Nancy Ross, an assistant professor at Dalhousie University, whose work explores feminist research and justice responses to domestic violence. Ross has focused on violence in rural communities, similar to Portapique, Milford, Shubenacadie, Debert and Wentworth, where the Nova Scotia gunman killed people.
“We have to look at what is actually happening,” Ross says. “What is it in our society that’s encouraging compassion? What is it that’s encouraging peace in relationships?”
WATCH: What are young kids taught about violence against women?
Part of the problem is how fragmented the issue of violence against women is and the silence that accompanies it, she says.
“We need to look at the complexity of factors that contribute to it and we need to take ownership as a community,” Ross says. “We need to get beyond that and look at what the reality is and how to take steps to end this.”
That idea is not new; advocates have been shouting it for years.
But five years after the United Nations recommended a national action plan be put in place to tackle violence against women, Canada is only at the beginning, having earmarked $30 million for setup during the 2019 election platform.
To be effective, Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada, previously told Global News the plan will require yearly investments of at least $500 million.
A spokesperson for WAGE Canada said work on a national action plan, “which will include addressing the root causes and systemic issues that perpetuate gender-based violence,” will be underway in the coming months.
Funding is key, Khan says: we have to come out swinging like we did in the 1970s against cigarettes. We need that massive government undertaking to change society’s collective mind; we need to make the impossible possible.
Watch: Multiple witnesses to Nova Scotia shooter’s violent past
Money would go to things like a higher minimum wage and raising social assistance rates to help women get out of poverty, a national plan to end homelessness, a national housing strategy to make sure women have an affordable home that’s safe, free legal aid representation for abused women, and the creation of family justice centres so they can safely exchange custody of their children and have supervised access.
“If this is a concern, which it clearly is for so many women in our society, then we need to put our money where our mouth is, ensure that this is prioritized and funded appropriately,” says Khan.
At the moment, Chenier says, the government has not given an indication that it is a priority. It is “stunning” that the police and government are not applying a gendered lens to the Nova Scotia murders, she says.
“There is no shortage of dialogue, literature and studies on the ways in which in our culture men, unfortunately, are raised to suppress their emotional needs and to use violence to express them,” Chenier says.
“That is partially an explanation for violent crime. … It should have been, from the beginning, an explanation for this one.”
In fall 2019, as we approached the 30th anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, Global News took an in-depth look at the ways in which violence against women has and hasn’t improved in the decades since.
You can find the full project here.
If you or someone you know is experiencing gender-based violence, these resources can help.