National recognition

When I first started talking about Canada’s women’s shelter founders — some six years ago at a YWCA convention in Winnipeg — I always expressed the hope that some day they would be recognized for the phenomenal work they did.

Well, now they are.

On May 1, our women’s shelter founders will be formally recognized before the House of Commons by the federal government’s Minister for Women and Gender Equality Maryam Monsef.

The next day, there’s a lunch and panel discussion at the Ottawa Art Gallery, with Lorraine Kenaschuk (Saskatoon Interval House), Janet Currie (Ishtar Transition House) Lynn Zimmer (Toronto Interval House) and Natalie McBride (National Aboriginal Circle Against Family Violence).

And me. Can’t believe I’m invited.

I just sent a thank-you note to Fernwood Publishing for letting me tell this story.

I grew up on a diet of history books written by men about men. No knock against the Pierre Bertons and Peter C Newmans, but it is so important for the rest of society to tell their stories, too. I remember pitching this story to Fernwood in 2017, saying that it was a Canadian legacy, a part of our history, that had not yet been told.

When I look down today to see the agenda for this two days in Ottawa next month: “Honouring the Founders of the First Women’s Shelters in Canada,” my heart is full.

It ain’t history until somebody writes it. And even then, it goes nowhere until somebody agrees to publish it and send it off into the world. Runaway Wives is in bookstores across the country, in libraries, on Amazon, rated on Goodreads, translated into different languages, available as an audiobook for the blind.

Thanks to Fernwood, these women’s achievements are now history, their stories are now our stories. And we will honour them next month in the nation’s capital.

How cool is that?


Two awards for Runaway Wives!

35648082_1965141453517804_3188796222647304192_oRunaway Wives and Rogue Feminists won two Manitoba literary awards this month: the Alexander Kennedy Isbister Award for Best Non-fiction, and the Eileen McTavish Sykes Award for Best First Book by a Manitoba author.

I had spent weeks trying to dissuade my family from attending the awards June 15 because I was up for three, and convinced they were going to watch me lose THREE TIMES.

This photo is of all the night’s literary winners. That’s me to the right with the big smile and the wrong-coloured sandals, apparently.

The fellow next to me is Michael Kaan, Book of the Year winner for his historical saga called The Water Beetles. Heading to McNally’s this week to buy several of the winners’ books, plus a few (OK, more than a few) others.

The list is looking . . . expensive. But excellent.



Breaking (great) news …

Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists has been nominated for three 2018 Manitoba book awards.

I am thrilled, and grateful to the judges, the Manitoba Writers’ Guild, Fernwood Publishing and pretty much the rest of the world.

The three nominations are the Eileen McTavish award for best first book; the Alexander Kennedy Isbister for best non-fiction; and the McNally-Robinson award for Book of the Year.

I’m also really happy for my friend and former Free Press colleague Bill Redekop, who is up for three awards himself (including best non-fiction) for his outstanding book on Lake Agassiz.

The shortlist is here:


Nevertheless, they persist

barefoot-beach-blonde-hair-1116613It’s been a while since I checked in. We’ve moved back into the cottage, planted the garden, dusted off the furniture, replenished the cupboards and can’t wait for company. I love this place. But politics, as usual, intrudes — even in this summer resort on the shores of Lake Winnipeg.

Our council fired the fire chief, whose squad is standing behind him. There are ridiculous rumours of sabotage of the water treatment plant as an invasion of zebra mussels clogs pipes and litters the beaches. Another fractious election looms.

One province over, it’s anybody-but-Doug-Ford, unless you’re a Postmedia publication. Don’t get me started on the nutty old man running the circus down south. And as someone who has worked in Edmonton and Victoria, I’m torn by the pipeline debate, knowing how desperately much it matters on both sides of that border. (But I laughed at Maclean’s Paul Wells’ quip on Twitter: “Weird week. Suddenly I own a pipeline and I can’t afford mayonnaise.”)


Meanwhile, the Canadian Femicide Observatory continues to quietly, grimly, inexorably do its job, counting the number of women killed in Canada. The number goes up every second day. Today they cite 70 women and girls killed since January.*

I’ve written about this group before; it’s a game-changer for those in the domestic-violence trenches. We’ve never had these kinds of statistics before; as a society we’ve refused to acknowledge femicides as anything but aberrations, crimes of “passion,” random acts of violence.

We can do that no longer. The observatory, which launched just before this year began, is keeping track of each femicide in this country, and its Twitter feed is a wake-up call, a voice for those who no longer have a voice, a grim reminder that violence against women continues.

It calls for more transparency from police forces who are inexplicably beginning to refuse to release homicide victim’s names. It links to news stories on femicides, often with brutally similar lead-ups. It offers unsolicited advice like this:

Media tip: Media often refer to male jealousy to explain men who kill female partners/ex-partners. Terms used are ‘love gone wrong’, ‘from love to murder’, ‘crime of passion’. It’s a crime, but it’s not passion or love.


It is showing us what we suspected for years — that more women are being killed than ever before recorded.

My stats when I wrote Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists were a vague “every five and a half days, a woman is killed by her intimate partner.” So far, in 2018, the observatory has recorded a death every second day. And we’re not halfway through the year.

Feminists in this country and elsewhere need to support and amplify this ground-breaking initiative’s work. It’s a reality check for us all — even those trying to bury their heads in the sands of summer.

Follow them at @CAN_Femicide

*This statistic was earlier posted on their website as “at least 57.” It is now at 70. At the end of June, the observatory will post a six-month list.

The kindness of strangers

Many years go, my middle son Mac won a silver at the Winnipeg music festival, playing one of the most beautiful piano compositions I’d ever heard. It was written by a local artist, a woman moved to compose it following the terrorist attacks of 9/11.

She must have been sad when she wrote it. It is a beautiful, haunting song.

I remember hunting her down (annoying journalist that I am) so I could send her an email to thank her for writing it. I just wanted her to know how much the piece moved me, and all who heard it. I never expected a reply.

But I got one.

She told me my email had arrived on a bad day, a bad week, a not-very good month. She told me how much a note like that meant, coming out of the blue from a stranger. A gift. An unexpected hug. A reason to keep working.

I got one of those myself this week, in the middle of a bad day, a bad week, a not-very-good month. It came from a stranger in Toronto, an award-winning writer who also records book for the blind with the CNIB.

She is currently recording Runaway Wives, and decided to drop me a line via this website to say she is enjoying it, and likes the way it was written. It was a small thing and a very big thing, and I wrote her back to thank her — not just for letting me know about the talking book (yay!) but for her kind words and impeccable timing.

It reminded me of that exchange with the Manitoba composer.

The negativity in this world confounds me at times. So many walking wounded out there, lashing out. So much random anger, cynicism, backbiting.

Reaching out to say something nice to someone can mean so much. It’s the opposite of trolling in this age of rage.

We may not know why we do it. But we are somehow compelled to do so.

Perhaps we all know, deep inside, how much we are warmed by the kindness of strangers.



[“Speak ill of no man, but speak all the good you know of everybody.”IMG_1007 –Ben Franklin]

A huge step in the right direction

As powerful as they are, no social media campaign will ever save a woman trapped in an abusive relationship. Battered women facing escalating violence in the home do not, dare not share their stories online.

But a new and comparable media-savvy force has emerged to speak for those who have no voice.

It’s the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability, based out of the University of Guelph’s Centre for the Study of Social and Legal Responses to Violence. 

After decades of inaction on violence against women in Canada, it’s a huge step in the right direction.

The project has begun counting femicides across the country for the first time ever, and tracking each case as it proceeds through our courts and the media. How many women are killed every year? What were the warning signs? How did the community respond? Who are these people?

It will focus our attention on a problem Canadians seem to think long-solved, ‘fixed’ by a string of women’s shelters dating back to the early 1970s. But those shelters continue to be built and filled. They’ve become part of our landscape, numbering more than 625. And still, about every five or six days in Canada, a woman is killed by her intimate partner.

We don’t know how many because we’ve never conducted a national count. 

For some reason these crimes have always been treated as random tragedies, spontaneous crimes of passion. Unpreventable.

That’s not what those on the front lines of domestic violence believe. They know that femicides are most often the tip of an iceberg, the tragic end result of prolonged violence in the home. 

Sgt. Dave Dunbar of Hamilton’s domestic violence unit told the Globe and Mail recently that they get 18 calls a day. And Dunbar warns his officers not to dismiss even those calls that seem innocuous. Because what may begin as a ‘harmless’ verbal dispute often turns into something more toxic, more violent.

“I can tell you right now that there is always an escalation,” Dunbar said.

For every woman who ends up dead, countless more are abused every day. Professor Myrna Dawson, the spokeswoman for this ground-breaking project, says its ultimate goal is to find a way to prevent the killings from happening; to stop the violence before it becomes fatal.

“The reality is these are not disputes,” Dawson told the Globe. “Intimate femicides rarely occur out of the blue.”

That’s why putting numbers, and faces, to this issue, is so critical.

The founders of Canada’s first women’s shelters learned this lesson long ago. Back in the early ‘70s — when almost no one believed we needed shelters at all — there were no statistics on violence against women. It was a personal shame, a private affair between a husband and his wife. Police didn’t track assaults according to gender, and were loath to intervene. It wasn’t their business. 

If a woman chose to leave an abusive partner, she and her children had nowhere to go. 

So they stayed. And some died.

Faced with such ignorance and complacency, the first shelter founders pulled statistics together as best they could, keeping track of the women they helped, and widely sharing what they knew. Their data, meagre as it was, fuelled a remarkable series of changes.

Governments started funding shelters and rape-crisis centres; rewriting property and marital laws; creating laws to deal with criminal harassment. Police and courts changed how they operated. There was widespread public awareness, and reason to hope that change was coming.

Unfortunately, a 1993 Stats Can survey was the first and last of its kind. No more attempts were made to measure the problem on a national scale, and it dropped off our radar. 

And if you don’t measure a problem, if you can’t clearly delineate a problem, then you have no problem. Problem solved.

The issue itself was neutered. Politicians started calling it “family” violence and “domestic abuse,” effectively killing any need for uncomfortable conversations about male behaviour.

And so ended our public conversation, briefly rallying once a year on the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. 

Which is why this new project offers such hope.

For the first time in our history, we are counting, coalescing and combing through what to date have been treated as disparate and isolated events.

Just as the #MeToo movement exposes how commonplace sexual misconduct is in our society, so, too, will the femicide project change the way we look at male violence against women. The collective weight of these womens’ stories promises to challenge attitudes and shine new light on a very old issue.

Make no mistake; this is a game-changer. Follow this project on Twitter at @CAN_Femicide

It won’t save the lives of those it studies. But it may well save the lives of those who follow.

#MeToo, marches and mudwrestling: what are we learning from all this?

I just read a brilliant opinion piece in The Guardian by Sarah Solemani. “The Aziz Ansari furore isn’t the end of #MeToo. It’s just the start”

Older feminists are dismayed and fretting that #MeToo has become a ‘witch hunt’ that is tarring too many men with the same brush, threatening to dissipate the movement itself. They are speaking up, cautioning that women need to respect due legal process, that we risk alienating all men in our rush to indict all. Seemingly unfettered and empowered on social media, younger women need to take care or risk losing all of their hard-won gains.

Younger feminists like Lalonde have come rudely roaring back — stand back and shut up, older feminists, you no longer have the mic. Your years of catering to and accepting men’s behaviour are over, you have been complicit, ignorant and oh so privileged. It’s time to recognize that your experiences and your perspectives add no value to today’s discussions.

And I’ve been watching all this fallout, mostly just pissed off that women are fighting each other again.

Maybe it’s the middle child in me. Can’t we find a way to get along better, or at least argue better in public? We’re supposedly on the same team.

It’s the same reaction I have to women dumping on last weekend’s women’s march for not being inclusive enough, or for being too political, or (OUCH!)  too full of white women trying to take credit for the repudiation of a president 53% of them voted for.

What makes us turn on each other like this, when solidarity is so vital at this time in our history? How can we move forward if we can’t even get our own act together?

When I researched Runaway Wives, the great divide cropped up a few times. The shelter founders were deeply hurt that many younger feminists view the whole second-wave movement with contempt. They didn’t ‘get’ intersectionality; they didn’t ‘get’ how privileged they were. I hoped the book might bridge that gap, show younger feminists how and why these women did what they did. They were in their twenties once, too.

But having read Solemani’s essay, I have come to the conclusion that it is indeed time for older women to shut up and listen and learn. We need to support those now on our front lines, unreservedly and with love.

The future is in good hands.

Read the whole thing. Then read again the last paragraph and know that this is true:

Let’s at least permit ourselves to picture life in a new reality, wandering the spaces men roam freely – a strange pub perhaps, or India, or the nighttime. Imagine going to a nightclub on your own just because you like the music. Imagine boarding a bus, not noticing it was full of men, because you were enjoying the view. Imagine a really good orgasm as standard. Imagine the decent bloke you know being the norm, not the exception. Imagine the movement you were a part of that changed everything. Imagine. Imagine. I dare you.


En francais, mais oui

According to my publisher at Fernwood today, a Quebec-based publisher is “strongly interested” in having Runaway Wives translated into French. This would be wonderful.

The only problem is they’re asking for some context on Quebec.

It makes sense; any readers there would want to know what happened in their home province. I’d like to know myself. Unfortunately, I don’t.

My book focussed only on the first five shelters — so Toronto, Aldergrove, Calgary, Saskatoon and Vancouver — with a taste of Edmonton tossed in.  (As a proud westerner, let me just point it out yet again that four of the first five shelters began west of Saskatchewan.)

But I’d love to be translated into our other official language, and have it available for French-speaking communities across Canada. So I’m trying to figure out how to do this, and still keep the book intact.

If anyone knows anyone who was connected with the feminist movement of the 1970s in Quebec, please contact me. (Je parle un peu de francais, avec le vocabulaire d’un enfant.) Until I know what happened there, I really can’t say whether it can be woven into my narrative. But I’m definitely intrigued.


Message in a bottle

“To give one’s work to the world is an experience of peculiar emptiness. The work goes away from the artist into a void, like a message stuck into a bottle and flung into the sea.”

Those dour words and sentiments belong to American writer Joyce Johnson. I don’t share ’em.

It’s been three weeks since I flung my own bottle into the sea, and I don’t feel empty; I am cautiously hopeful. My book is not cased in glass and bobbing alone on the ocean; it’s a just-released bird. Fragile as hell, but its heart beats and it is free.

And as I begin to hear from people celebrating the stories and courage of the women of Runaway Wives, I am the opposite of empty; I am cautiously grateful.

The story is out there. I think it’s living and breathing and flying on its own.

Have I done enough? Could I do more? I heard a Telegraph story yesterday about how Marcel Proust a) self-published his manuscript of Swann’s Way when no publisher would touch it; b) wrote his own glowing third-person review and then paid major newspaper Le Figaro almost $1,400 in today’s dollars to publish it — on its front page; and finally  c) bribed another major paper to run a friend’s equally rapturous review. This all had to have cost him thousands and was clearly unethical, but, um, it created momentum.

Within weeks of its publication, the Telegraph reports, the widely rejected manuscript was being hailed as a work of “genius.”


Runaway Wives is no work of genius, but I do know that momentum is a great thing. Making the bestseller list at McNally Robinson these past four weeks has put the book front and centre every day in the store, on its own special table with the other bestsellers. Selling more books clearly sells more books.

“Bestseller” placement and marketing is so vital, I heard one author bought an entire case of books one time just to keep his sales in the prize ring one more week.

I don’t have the chutzpah or the energy. I have just two pulpits left to preach the word — this week in Vancouver and later this fall in Victoria.

Runaway Wives has to be good enough to go it alone.

I may be running out of steam. But I can’t help but hope this bird travels far, without me.

From the girl with only one dress

IMG_0739I feel sorry for my friends on Facebook these days. As Runaway Wives rolls across the prairies, with stops in each of the five cities where those cool women founded the first battered women’s shelters, I’ve been getting more attention than I’m due.

Liane Faulder of the Edmonton Journal wrote an amazingly thoughtful piece from a truly haphazard and random telephone call. I don’t know how she did it. My husband, who heard my rambling side of the conversation, thought she was doomed.

Deborah Bowers wrote a positive book review (first and probably only, knowing how scarce Books Pages and book reviewers are these days) in the Winnipeg Free Press, which was awesome.

And the book launches themselves — in Winnipeg, Toronto and Saskatoon this month — have resulted in a whole lotta pictures of me.

I am thrilled and embarrassed at the same time. They’re either ginormous headshots or me in the same dress. (I have an explanation! I was on the plane to Toronto when I accidentally tipped a glass of tomato juice onto my only pair of pants. I spent an hour trying to sponge it up with teeny little Westjet cocktail napkins, but disembarked with a truly appalling rear end and an eau de gazpacho. Two-minute walk of shame to the closest bathroom and voila! Into my now Official Book-launch Dress.)

Anyway, the highlight in Saskatoon on Saturday was when Lorraine Kenaschuk and Hayven Curd, who started the first women’s shelter in Saskatchewan back in 1973, showed up. They were their usual down-to-earth humble, self-deprecating selves. But I was so glad the crowd could acknowledge them for their work, and their place in history.

Lorraine’s story is at the heart of Runaway Wives.

I’ll never forget interviewing her on a snowy night in Saskatoon, when — after at least a half hour of chatting about her role in establishing of Saskatchewan’s first women’s shelter — she finally divulged that she herself had been in an abusive relationship. For 10 years prior.

And from that awful experience, Lorraine vowed that no other woman should have to endure what she went through. Saskatoon Interval House is still going, and went on to help countless other women establish safe houses in their cities and towns.

And now Saskatoon is creating a subdivision in her name — Kenaschuk Crescent, Kenaschuk Avenue, etc.. Coolest thing ever.

She’s an inspiration. And so are all the other founders I’m getting to see again this year, as we steamroll across the west. It’s a great ride.