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.


IMG_2434McNally Robinson in Winnipeg describes itself as the most ‘eventful’ bookstore in Canada, as well as its biggest. Clearly, it knows how to throw a party.

We arrived early at the Grant Park store last night for my first book launch and wandered through tall stacks of books and customers, wondering just where and how they were going to stuff several dozen guests and a nervous new author.

But a half hour before the launch, those stacks had magically rolled away to open up a lovely atrium space; events co-ordinator John Toews was merrily unstacking row upon row of chairs (it’s how he gets his exercise, he joked); cookies and drinks had appeared beside a mic-ed up podium and an autograph table loaded with bright pink books and a selection of sharpies.

People started to arrive and claim John’s chairs. Some I knew casually, some I loved dearly; all began to quietly visit and wait for the show to begin. My Grade 9 science teacher was there. My Grade 10 English teacher, old friends and neighbours, family members I hadn’t seen in months. When the chairs had filled up, people spilled out back and stood. Some came because they were on a shelter board, or had worked in the shelter industry, or were still working in a shelter.

But in that crowd was one woman I would not meet. She reached out later, with a comment I’ll never forget.

My speech was basically about how I came to write Runaway Wives, and why it had become a passion for me — about how much I had learned about violence against women, and shelter work. I ended by saying I had two hopes. The first was that these shelter founders and their legacy would be recognized somehow — I suggested they all deserved an Order of Canada. And the second was to raise some money for the nation’s shelters, through donations to the Canadian Women’s Foundation.

John had kindly given his consent to the Shelter Project fundraiser, setting up my girlfriend Susan and her three girls at a wee table near the front so they could take donations and hand out thank-you coasters. When the free-for-all for autographs opened up, I was too occupied to see if anyone was paying them a visit. They were, thankfully. We ended up raising hundreds, far more than my greatest expectation.

And the launch exceeded all expectations, too, turning into a night of hugs and laughter and goodwill. A great party.

For some reason, the woman in the crowd never approached my table. Instead, she went home, found this website, and sat down to write me a note:

“Hello, I attended your release tonight at McNally Robinson in Winnipeg. You commented that you thought these amazing women should receive the Order of Canada.”

She wanted me to know that her mother had recently won one of Canada’s highest honours. And then she explained why she had come to McNally’s that night.

More than 30 years ago, she wrote, her mother, brother and she had “sought safety in a women’s shelter. It was that place of escape, of safety, that gave my mom the opportunity to leave her abusive husband and begin a new life for us. I was reminded tonight of how grateful I am to the women who fought to help women like my mom. They may not yet have been named to the Order of Canada themselves, but they have created a crucial bridge to allow other women to rise to their potential and beyond. Thank you for writing this book.”

My life feels eventful these days. I am so grateful.



Why is ‘launch’ such a scary word?

The invitations to Toronto’s book launch went out today, and I’ve been hearing from all kinds of friends and colleagues in the area. That’s the good part. The scary part is I feel like I’m suited up, sweaty and strapped down in a rocketship just about to be fired. And unlike Julie Payette, I haven’t a clue what I’m about to do.

Just a year ago, I was still writing this book at my cottage, plowing through transcribed interviews and old newspaper clippings gleaned from a cross-country tour in 2012/2013. It was solitary work, and particularly lonely for someone who used to run newsrooms. I discovered I’m a much happier editor than I am a writer.

Today I received two interview requests — Prairie Books NOW is featuring Runaway Wives in its fall/winter issue, hooray!; and La Liberte newspaper in Winnipeg wants to talk before the (there’s that scary word again) launch there Sept. 6.

I keep reminding myself that it’s what I wanted back in 2012 when I started interviewing the remarkable women who founded the country’s first women’s shelters. Few have received any recognition for their work.

Anyway, I am going to do my best to represent them in the coming days, and really looking forward to seeing them all again, from Toronto to Victoria. I just need to figure out what to say and do at a launch, first.

I know what I’m hoping for. I gave a speech to a YWCA conference in Winnipeg the summer of 2013. After my usual unfocussed ramble about how the book began and what my sister and I learned from our winter of amazing luck, I started to tell a few stories about Canada’s first women’s shelter in Toronto. And then I announced to the crowd that one of those women now worked for the Y, and was in fact in the crowd.

I called out her name, Lynn Zimmer, and she waved modestly from her table and the entire audience spontaneously rose to its feet to applaud her. Brought tears to my eyes. These unassuming women deserve all that and more.

So bring on those launches.

I promise to channel my inner Payette and fly straight and true.



I started out this summer wondering how I might raise some money for Canada’s shelter network through my book, Runaway Wives and Rogue Feminists. I had already done three media interviews, and knew that once the book came out in the fall of 2017, public awareness of domestic violence and women’s shelters would be higher.
Could something good come out of it?

I hoped so. First, I looked for the right cause. It had to be national, it had to be credible, it had to fund shelters and support women. A tall order, but I found the perfect one in the Canadian Women’s Foundation. It does all that and more, and my sister Joyce — who helped found and run a battered women’s shelter in Swift Current, Sask. — says it is well-respected in the field.

Then, how to convince people to donate to ‘my’ cause? My husband and I came up with the idea of producing coasters — portable, highly useful, not too expensive — as a nice, unique thank-you gift for donors. But it took weeks before I figured out the right art and theme for the darned coasters. I started out thinking maybe kids at one of the YWCA camps might provide the art. Or a Winnipeg artist who does streetscapes. Or another artist I knew who does amazing calligraphy. But nothing really worked with a shelter ‘theme’ … until lo and behold the answer came to me one day in the Victoria Beach grocery store. On a shelf beside the eggs and milk fridge.

I saw a card with the painting of a house on it. And another one behind that. A series of houses, in fact, by a painter who obviously loves houses. Her name is Jane Gateson, and she is a really talented artist who has been fascinated by houses for a few years. When I contacted her to ask if she might be interested in partnering on this project, she agreed right away. She’s kind, generous AND talented. She’s donating her images to the cause and I am scrupulously putting credits on a thank you slip to be enclosed with each set — so if any of you love an image and want the original for your wall, you know who to contact.

What are the odds we’d run into each other at a little beach in Manitoba?