The Women Behind the Headlines

The causes of Quebec's femicide epidemic

Ella Fitzhugh, News Editor

Content warning: This article discusses details of sexual and gender-based violence

Since the emergence of the COVID-19 pandemic in spring 2020, there have been 14 reported cases of femicide in Quebec. A femicide, sometimes called ‘feminicide,’ is the killing of a woman or girl because of her gender. Despite the recent spike in reported femicides, this kind of gender-based violence has occurred throughout Canadian history.

The term femicide entered into public consciousness after Marc Lépine violently murdered 14 women in Montreal’s École Polytechnique in December of 1989—an event now referred to as the Montreal Massacre. Since then, Montreal, along with greater Quebec, has endured and lived with the weight of the tragedy. The perpetrators behind Quebec’s recent femicide cases are striking mirrors of the rampant misogyny that motivated Lépine 32 years ago. The question remains as to why femicides and other forms of gender-based violence continue to happen, and why they have been increasing in frequency since the onset of the pandemic.

In an interview with The McGill Tribune, founding member of Montreal’s South Asian Women’s Community Centre (SAWCC) Dolores Chew explained that the term “femicide” has brought more public attention to the issue . The SAWCC has been pressing for justice for the murder of Milia Abrar since her death in 1998.

“She was murdered in the washroom of [...] Angrignon Park,” Chew said. “She was a student at Dawson College, and to date her murderer walks free. Femicides have been happening in our community [and] also in the wider Quebec society, but I think now with the emergence of the term ‘femicide’ it is much more stark, it’s much more gripping.”

The term femicide paints a stark picture, which perhaps helped spark political action, such as the Quebec government’s investment of $222.9-million over five years to help prevent domestic violence. Chew underscored the importance of language when bringing awareness to critical issues like these.

“Words that help us cut through and get to the core of issues [are crucial], and vocabulary is evolving,” Chew said. “Our language evolves to recognize power imbalances, but at the same time to not accept the power imbalances.”

The immediacy of the term femicide pinpoints exactly what is happening: Men are killing women because of the fact that they are women. Kaelyn Macaulay, 3L Law and research assistant with the McGill-sponsored iMPACTS project, underlined that femicides should be understood as multilayered acts of violence that also fall along racial lines . Even though the term ‘femicide’ is helpful in understanding the nature of the violence it describes, Macaulay urges an intersectional approach to using the term.

“These generalizations can be really helpful,” Macaulay told the Tribune. “But on the other hand, we have to be really careful to avoid over-generalizing, or allowing these generalizations to blind us to the intersectional nuances that massively influence gender-based violence.”

Gender-based violence is rampant in Canada: Across the country, a woman is killed every 2.5 days. But this violence disproportionately affects younger women and women from marginalized groups. The president of the Federation of Native Women of Quebec (QNW) Viviane Michel emphasized the need for greater awareness of gender-based violence, particularly surrounding the targeted, pervasive violence inflicted on Indigenous women. Recent statistics show that 63 per cent of Indigenous women have experienced at least one instance of physical or sexual violence since the age of 15, while 45 per cent of non-Indigenous women have had those experiences. Further, 61 per cent of all Indigenous women have experienced intimate partner violence in their lifetime.

“The situation of feminicides is very worrying for us,” Michel wrote in an email to the Tribune. “Our organization denounces the disproportionate violence that Aboriginal women experience [....] This has to stop and there has to be a real awareness.”

The stresses of the pandemic, which disproportionately affect Indigenous and otherwise racialized populations, have contributed to the rise in gender-based violence. Given the research indicating that unemployment among women contributes to an increase in cases of domestic violence, it is no surprise that instances of gender-based violence have been on the rise—the pandemic has left nearly 500,000 women without work. Further, while social and physical isolation is proven to reduce the spread of COVID-19, these measures can trap people experiencing gender-based violence in unsafe environments. Over the last two years, isolation heightened women’s stress, and made it increasingly challenging for them to seek external aid.

Chew agrees that the recent rise in intimate partner violence is likely due to the situational constraints of the pandemic, such as women being confined to abusive households. When women are cut off from their friends, co-workers, or extended family, it makes it much more difficult to communicate needs and to seek help.

“We [at SAWCC] had said from the first lockdown in the spring of 2020 there will be an increase in interpersonal violence, domestic violence,” Chew said. “We know from working and experience that when people are all together, tension rises and mounts [....] So, we knew that this was going to happen.”

Macaulay explained that the pandemic has exacerbated unequal power dynamics in relationships.

“The pandemic forced women to spend more time with potential domestic abusers,” Macaulay said. “More women are seeing unemployment, which places them at risk for financial abuse [....] The [effects of the] pandemic [...] put them at more of an unequal footing in power dynamics and relationships, which is the major risk factor [for gender-based violence].”

Chew believes that the overarching systems of patriarchy are at the root of these femicides––as well as other instances of gender-based sexual violence––and argued educators need to do more to help boys and young men unlearn toxic masculinity.

“I think it’s very important for people to see a performance of non-toxic masculinity in interaction [...] and then it can be modeled,” Chew said. “Girls and women can also be frustrated and angry and engage in various mean activities, but we tend not to hit out, and why is that? [....] It is [the] patriarchy which embeds these sorts of behaviours and legitimates certain behaviors.”

The most recent femicide was the killing of Rajinder Prabhneed Kaur, who lived in Parc-Extension (Parc-Ex) with her husband, Navdeep Ghotra, and their two children. After Kaur’s death, SAWCC organized a march this July, bringing the community together to commemorate Kaur and protest against gender-based violence.

“We had this rally [...] soon after the murder of Rajinder Kaur in Parc-Ex,” Chew said. “And every single media outlet was there, which was very good because we really wanted the message to go out in the community: [SAWCC is] here, we can assist, we have linguistic abilities [and] cultural sensitivity.”

McGill, too, has a responsibility to support survivors and victims of gender-based violence. To address the issue of gender-based violence in the McGill context, Macaulay believes that individuals should focus on education and accountability beyond It Takes All of Us, the online sexual violence prevention program.

“People need to be aware of the impacts [and risks] of gender-based violence,” Macaulay said. “I know that McGill has the mandatory consent training course that you have to take, but I do think that it could be pushed a lot further.”

Macaulay also highlighted the value of holding the people around you accountable when they contribute to the culture of sexual violence, such as the kind that led four women to come forward with reports of sexual violence at Western University this year, and to the many more women at the university who have revealed their own accounts of surviving sexual assault in the past few weeks.

On a national level, as was announced in June 2017, Canada is investing over $200-million over a five- to seven-year period to support survivors and their families, promote adequate and responsive legal systems, and establish a Gender-Based Violence Knowledge Centre. Additionally, Quebec is giving $20-million to organizations, like À Coeur d’Homme, that provide help to men who behave violently as a preventative measure.

In June 2021, Canada launched a National Action Plan to end violence against Indigenous women, girls, and 2SLGBTQIA+ people. But Michel, speaking on behalf of the Federation of Native Women of Quebec (QNW), argues that the National Action Plan is insufficient and lacks concrete action. In response, the QNW is drawing up its own action plan to end violence against Indigenous women.

“For gender-based violence to end, there must be concrete actions taken to address the situation of family and domestic violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls,” Michel said.

The Canadian government needs to provide support to the specific communities who are experiencing disproportionate gender-based violence, which becomes more clear in the context of the Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls crisis. The report by the National Inquiry Into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, released on Sept. 1, 2016, cites “persistent colonial structures and policies” in Canada as the source of the violence against Indigenous women and girls. While the government has followed up with some of the recommendations contained in the National Inquiry, 2021 continues to see one femicide after the next.

Preventing gender-based violence starts with holding people accountable and reaching out when they suspect or experience intimate partner violence.

“Part of the accountability is just being aware,” Macaulay explained. “And if you see something in your friend’s relationship and the way that they talk about their partner, address it. Because [it takes] understanding that it’s hard for that woman to speak up and get help.”

Resources if you, or someone you know, is experiencing sexual or gender-based violence:

For emergencies, call 9-1-1
Office for Sexual Violence Response, Support and Education (OSVRSE)
Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS)
Montreal’s South Asian Women’s Community Centre (SAWCC)