Memorials for women across CanadaMonday, July 26 2010
The politics of remembering women murdered by men
Across Canada, the landscape is dotted with memorials to women murdered. Pink and grey granite stones hug the ground in Vancouver’s poorest area. Conceptual sculpture crumbles down in Calgary while bronze figures reach up in Edmonton. A healing memorial plaque in a field near The Pas connects with an embracing memorial garden in Winnipeg. Ontario is dotted with parks, gardens, stones, sculptures – at city halls, on university and college campuses, in botanical gardens, by churches and malls.
Montreal houses the most intricately designed of memorials at the bottom of its mountain and the most silent at the top. Moncton’s sculpture speaks across the Petitcodiac River to Riverview’s monument. And in rural Bear River, Nova Scotia, the aged town cemetery holds three memorials to a woman murdered.
Yet, astonishingly often, these monuments are simply not seen. City councils tuck them into marginal locations, funding bodies shunt them to the bottom of the agendas, plaque-writers dedicate them in codes that wedge words between silences. Memorials protesting a central scandal of our society occupy the most tentative positions in our public space.
It is time to make these memorials newly visible on a national scale, to celebrate the efforts of the women who created them against all odds and to explore their contribution to the struggle against violence against women.
Women are murdered by men in Canada every day, in horrific numbers: from the approximately 500 Aboriginal women missing and murdered in Canada over the past twenty years, to the 69 or more so-called “missing women” from Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, to the 14 women murdered at l’École Polytechnique in Montréal on December 6, 1989, to the uncountable acts of femicide, so commonplace and often so casual that they barely make the news.
Feminist memorializing of women victims of violence is a key part in preventing those murders from becoming mere numbers or being denied. Yet the commemorative process is fraught indeed.
Those who pursue the imperative to “First Mourn then Work for Change/Souvenir pour agir” too often come up against scarce resources and public outcry. The struggle increases when memorial-makers confront the systemic nature of violence against women and publicly name victim and perpetrator. Often women spend years of their lives and run huge personal risks making these monuments happen. We need to record, analyze and support these acts of courage.
Violence threatens social groups to different degrees. Women are more vulnerable than men, women in poverty more than middle-class women, women of colour more than white women. The very groups most subject to attack are those with least access to the resources needed for public memory-making, least likely to make memorial forms available to us for analysis, most likely to protect their private memorial cultures from outsiders.
Memorializing violence against women involves a huge range of challenges. When yet another woman’s murder is reported, most often it is treated as an aberrant event, the deed of a pathological individual.
How can memorial forms mark the everyday nature of violence without losing any sense of the horror of each individual act and without themselves, as cultural forms, disappearing into the everyday landscape? How can memorializing be participatory, dynamic and respectful of diversity without either becoming ephemeral or collapsing under the weight of community tensions? How can it garner the necessary material resources and public space without becoming entirely contained by the powers of patriarchy? How can it remain identifiably women centred without being trivialized with stereotypes of sentimentalism? How can it enact public political protest without betraying the privacy of the woman murdered or her friends’ and family’s private grief? How can it take advantage of the aesthetic power of public art without prettifying the memory of violence?
In other words, how can feminist memorializing promote active, resistant remembering that encourages communities to take responsibility for the systemic nature of gendered violence while respecting individual trauma and individual accountability?
Vancouver: Missing, murdered and counting
In Spring 2002, almost as soon as the remains of Vancouver’s “missing women” began to be recovered from the Pickton site in Port Coquitlam, BC, the need to memorialize them made itself felt both powerfully and painfully.
On the partly excavated site a healing tent was set up, which represented each of the women with a candle and a tag bearing her name, and a First Nations healing ceremony was held. A makeshift memorial of candles, flowers, pictures, poems and stuffed animals, also took shape at the farm gate.
Longer-term memorial plans have proved more controversial. The reaction of Karin Joesbury, mother of Andrea Joesbury, one of the women Robert Pickton stands accused of murdering, had a different response. In April 2002, she filed a civil lawsuit to prevent the Pickton farm from being used as a memorial site.
Other tributes have also emerged that are not site specific. Vancouver artist Wyckham Porteous developed the Buried Hearts Project with the support of some 80 Canadian musicians. This musical tribute was recorded as a permanent memorial to the missing women, with the proceeds going to a residential treatment and recovery home in Vancouver’s Downtown Eastside, the heavily deprived area of the city in which most of the 69 or more women worked.
Some members of the Missing Women Trust Fund, led by family members, resented the musicians’ initiative. The Missing Women Trust Fund also linked their memorializing to fundraising and education efforts. In addition to working towards a rapid opiate detox centre in the Downtown Eastside and establishing other support systems, they responded in a positive way to young people’s expression of interest. “We had four teenagers come to the pig farm and light candles in honour of our missing women, and we were so touched we offered to come to the Archbishop Carney School in Port Coquitlam, talk about how our loved ones came to be on the Downtown Eastside and the dangers of alcohol abuse and drug addiction,” said Val Hughes, sister of Kerry Koski, who disappeared in 1998.
More recently, the Downtown Eastside Women’s Centre announced plans for a memorial garden on 100 block East Hastings, to honour the many missing and murdered women. Organizers hope to involve the local community in the creation of the memorial. Meanwhile, the Spirit’s Rising Memorial Society is joining women and youth at risk in a totem carving project, slated for erection in Wendy Poole Park at Main and Alexander. These memorials join with others in Vancouver seeking to occupy public space and shift the tide of consciousness, such as the Missing Women’s Memorial in CRAB Park at Portside (established in 1997), Marker of Change in Thornton Park (1997), and the Women’s Memorial March on Valentine’s Day, which began in 1991.
The stakes in these efforts and disagreements are raw and immediate: how to honour women’s lives while marking the violence of their deaths; how to specify individual victims while including all abused women – across lines of race, ethnicity, class, economic situation – in the remembrance; how to acknowledge that these social and cultural conditions put marginalized women at much higher risk; how to make a memorial publicly acceptable without compromising on naming murder; and how to make memorializing politically effective, not deflecting from but contributing to the struggle against violence against women.
Remembering the memory makers
The political significance of remembrance, especially for marginalized groups, has been proven yet again by recent campaigns and reports protesting violence against women. When Sisters in Spirit launched their campaign to end violence against Aboriginal women in March 2004, one of their most moving strategies was naming hundreds of Aboriginal women murdered, under the banner “Remembering Our Missing and Murdered Aboriginal Sisters...Always in Our Hearts.”
When Amnesty International produced the report Stolen Sisters: A Human Rights Response to Discrimination and Violence Against Indigenous Women in Canada in October 2004, it devoted over a third of the report to remembering, in detail, the stories of nine missing and murdered Indigenous women. A hefty report on workplace violence and harassment released in the same month opened with one author’s agonizing memory of the harassment and murder of her mother, Theresa Vince.
Acknowledging violence against women in a visible and permanent form is a significant step towards social change. Each memorial tells at least two stories: the terrible one of unremitting violence against women and the triumphant one of women joining against all odds to make these monuments happen. We need to celebrate the achievements of those who have brought about such memorials and inscribed such words into public space against consistently daunting odds.
We need to remember the past in order to change the future; violence against women must end.
This excerpted and abridged essay originally appeared in Remembering Women Murdered by Men: Memorials Across Canada by the Cultural Memory Group (Sumach Press, 2006) and appears here with permission from Sumach Press and the authors. To order the book, visit: www.sumachpress.com or contact: (416) 531-6250.
To support these efforts, or to find further information on memorial projects, please visit:
*CWHN does not endorse or maintain quality control assessments of these websites, which have been recommended by the authors of this article.
Sewing the Earth: The Downtown East Side Women’s Memorial Garden
The Global Women’s Memorial Society
Vanished Voices-Angela Jardine
Seen Me Lately
Highway of Tears
Please Help Find our Daughter
Sex Trade Workers of Canada
The Doe Network: International Center for Unidentified & Missing Persons
Outpost for Hope
Sisters in Spirit Campaign, Native Women’s Association of Canada