REVP Speech: First Mourn, then Live for Change


Speech by Robyn Benson, Regional Executive Vice-President for the Prairie Region, presented at the AFL Women’s Committee Brunch for National Day of Remembrance and Action Against Violence Against Women on December 4, 2011.

First Mourn, then Live for Change

Every year, when December 6th rolls around, I find it difficult.  Difficult because it’s the time of year we have given ourselves to remember just how hurtful, painful and prevalent violence against women really is. 

Together, we remember the 14 young women from Montreal’s École Polytechnique who were murdered twenty two years ago by a lone gunman because they were women. 

We remember the Stolen Sisters, the more than 500 missing and murdered Aboriginal women who were literally stolen from our families and communities since the early 1970s. 

We remember the women in our own lives, in our families, our communities, our workplaces, and yes — in our unions — who have been victims of violence in one form or another. 

December 6 is a day to remember these women, our sisters, but it is also the day to honour them. 

One way we honour them is by taking action, and doing something concrete that makes it crystal clear that violence against women is NOT normal, it’s NOT okay, it’s NOT just our problem, and we’re NOT going to sit by and watch it happen. 

I’ve been a trade union activist for 30 years and have become a feminist since, and I strongly believe that violence against women is a union issue. 

Here are a few facts to help make the point.

For every 1000 women in Canada in 2009 (the most recent statistics we have), 68 reported being a victim of physical assault, 34 reported being a victim of sexual assault, and 10 reported being a victim of a robbery – all considered violent crimes.  That’s just over 100 reported cases of violence for every 1000 women in Canada, or one in 10.  And only one-third reported the incident to the police.

In my Union, the PSAC, about 60 percent of our 180,000 members are women.  That’s approximately 108,000 women in communities from coast to coast to coast.   Applying those statistics to our members, that means that over 10,000 of our women members have been victims of a violent crime. 

For anyone not convinced of the scope of the problem, let them consider this:

  • 13 percent of sexual assaults against women that are reported to the police are by a spouse or partner.  46% are committed by an acquaintance, 24% by a family member, and 18% by a stranger.
  • 20%, or one in five women who were in contact with a former spouse reported spousal violence.
  • 33% women who experience spousal violence reported fearing for their lives as a result of this violence.
  • Aboriginal women are far more likely to experience violence than non-Aboriginal women.  For example, the rate of Aboriginal women reporting spousal violence is almost double that of non-Aboriginal women.

Violence can happen anywhere:  in the home, on the streets, and yes, in the workplace. 

Workplace violence can mean physical aggression, sexual assault, verbal abuse, psychological violence and bullying.  The fact is, we don’t have great facts on violence in the workplace, much less on violence against women in the workplace.  But what we do know is that sectors where women work – education, social work, health care, working with the public – are also ones that are targets for violence. 

Sisters, statistics are telling, but as we all know, behind every one of these statistics lies a real person, a woman with a story.  Some stories we hear about, and others we don’t.

Ending violence against women is a big task and there is no magical one-time solution.  We all need to pitch in and do what we can.  That includes the labour movement.

Let me give you a few recent examples of how my union, the PSAC, is taking action.

Our core business, if you will, is to negotiate collective agreements for our members, and using our bargaining power to include protections against workplace violence in our collective agreements is one concrete measure we take.

We push for inclusion of language that names workplace violence, defines it to include a range of behaviours and the varied situations of the workplace, and reinforces the rights of workers to be safe and free from violence. 

One of our successes is the recent agreement for teaching assistants at Concordia University in Montreal, in which we have negotiated a really clear and inclusive definition of workplace violence and language that squarely puts the responsibility on the employer to proactively address it.  

And of course, our job is to enforce those collective agreement rights, and represent the members who come to us with cases of workplace violence.

Increasingly, I’m hearing from members of more and more cases of psychological violence and workplace bullying, and that we have to do more to raise the profile of the issue and ensure that our agreements, health and safety programs and workplace policies cover protection from and measures to address all forms of violence, including bullying.  

Working with our allies and partners in the community is another concrete way our Union and our members have to help end violence against women. 

In this respect, at the initiative of our National Aboriginal Peoples’ Circle, the PSAC has supported the Sisters in Spirit initiative, both financially and politically.  The PSAC provided some financial support for the Native Women’s Association of Canada to participate in the United Nations Permanent Forum on Indigenous Issues, where they were able to give international exposure to their critical work on the work of Sisters in Spirit.  In regions across the country, our Aboriginal circles have participated in, and in some cases organized, the annual vigils in their communities.

Achieving social change – and that’s what ending violence against women would ultimately be – also requires lobbying for national legislative and policy changes, and PSAC doesn’t shy away from that.

The violent act that ended the lives of the 14 women murdered in Montreal on December 6, 1989 led to the establishment of the federal long-gun registry.  PSAC is a strong supporter of the registry, we represent the workers who work there, and along with many unions and allies, we have been actively campaigning to protect and maintain this important public safey tool. 

Now, more than two decades after this tragic event, the Harper government is well on its way to destroying the registry.  It is pushing Bill C-19 – a bill to end the long-gun registry – through Parliament.

The mother of Montreal victim Anne-Marie Edwards has said that Canada’s Firearms Act is a monument to the memory of the victims who were killed on December 6, 1989. Ms Edwards is still fighting to preserve the long gun registry, in honour of her murdered daughter.

The long-gun registry is a public safety success story.

It plays a key role in reducing the number of spousal homicides, and in tackling domestic violence.

The rate of homicides with rifles and shotguns has decreased by more than 70 per cent since 1991.

Gun control helps police do their work: the Canadian Police Association, the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police and the Canadian Association of Police Boards have all publicly stated that licensing and registration of firearms helps police prevent crimes, investigate crimes, and trace firearms.

PSAC members working at the long-gun registry in Miramichi, New Brunswick, have first-hand experience of the importance of the gun registry.  They have told us that they see theresults everyday:

  • when police use it in situations of domestic violence,
  • when health care workers need to know if there are weapons in a house, and
  • when fire departments need to know if there are explosives in a burning house.

Most gun owners have already registered their firearms: over 90% of gun owners have been licensed and 90% of guns have been registered. 

Bill C-19 will not only end the long-gun registry, it will destroy all the information contained in the registry, preventing any other government from using this important data in the future.

Why are the Harper conservatives so intent on destroying the gun registry when most Canadians support gun control? A poll conducted in the fall of 2010 by Ipsos-Reid, shows that 66% — a full two-thirds of Canadians — support gun control. Not surprisingly, that proportion is even higher among women.

As I said at the ouset, December 6th is our yearly reminder that violence against women concerns everyone, and that behind every statistic lies a story.

I know this all too well.  I was raised in a violent home and experienced violence first hand.  It has marked my life, and most importantly, my resolve to speak out and do what I can to stop it from happening to more women.

As the union saying goes, an injury to one is an injury to all.  How true!

As we remember our stories, those women we know who have been victims of violence, let’s also remember that honoring them also means taking action.  We have a responsibility to take action; and that any action, however small it may be, can make a difference.

Thank you.