What a slut…

The internet and by extension cell phones have changed the way we communicate and with that, have changed the way we express ourselves. We can share anything we want with whoever we want, there are seemingly no limits. However, what happens when we share something that doesn’t belong to us? When we break a trust and destroy privacy, exposing someone to the world in their most vulnerable form. Revenge porn, or non-consensual porn, is when images or videos that are of an explicit nature are given to a trusted person and then shared with someone else, someone who was never intended to see them. This type of porn grows from sexting and ends with an assault on dignity and sometimes death.

The Centre for Free Expression held a panel to discuss what can be done about sexting and revenge porn in Canada. The panelists were Wanye MacKay, Lara Karaian, and Peter Jacobsen. MacKay is a professor of law at Dalhousie University, chair of the Nova Scotia Task Force on Bullying and Cyberbullying, and former director of the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission. Karaian is an associate professor at the Institute of Criminology and Criminal Justice, Carleton University and expert consultant to the Australian International Consultation on Sexting. Jacobsen is one of Canada’s most distinguished media and defamation lawyers.

In the United States 60% of children between the ages of 9 and 12 and 50% of adults between the ages of 18 and 54 have sexted or shared intimate pictures or videos. These statistics may come off as alarmingly high but what is more alarming is that 1 in 10 of these people have been threatened with exposure, and that’s not taking into account that these threats are underreported. Majority of these threats come from men and are aimed at women. This makes revenge porn a predominantly women’s issue and I will go as far to say that it is violence against women. This is not to say that men cannot be victims, however for some reason when a woman is exposed to society in this way we seem to take a harsher tone, it is somehow more controversial. Women are often shamed for revenge porn and attacked by both the perpetrators and society. The victims of revenge porn are often blamed, wrongfully, for sharing intimate photos. This means that not only are they humiliated and degraded by the perpetrator, but by society and their peers as well and this is where the real issue of revenge porn lies; the victim isn’t to blame, the perpetrator is.

Creating and sharing an intimate picture or video of oneself is not illegal. For adults to share intimate pictures and videos with consent is not illegal. Sharing intimate pictures and videos without consent is illegal. So then why do we as a society come together to shame the creator of the picture and not the one who shared it without consent? Why is the victim at fault? It could be said that if the picture had never been created then the crime would not have happened, but the crime would also not have happened had the picture not been made public, had that person respected basic privacy and kept their trust. The creation of an intimate photo is an expression of sexuality and adults are free to share their expression in this way. However, when the non-consensual sharing occurs we jump on the creator for being stupid or foolish, we blame them and say they had it coming, as though they deserved it. We turn the creator of the picture into a slut and tell them that they are to blame, that this is their fault. However, we don’t turn the perpetrator into an assailant, we don’t tell them they assaulted someone and they were wrong to do it. If someone is a slut do they deserve to be humiliated and punished for their immoral ways? That’s the way society thinks and acts, but that is not true. Being a slut isn’t wrong and it doesn’t mean you should be ruined and chastened; it doesn’t mean you should be ostracized and it doesn’t mean you should be killed. The social death that comes with this level of humiliation and shaming is a real death for the victim, and it can and has led to suicide.

When someone is the victim of revenge porn they suffer emotional distress due to the shame of the incident and the alienation and bullying they receive. This attack on the mental health of a victim is very dangerous and Canada has seen too many cases where this occurs. When someone is constantly harassed and shamed it can destroy their self-confidence and it can destroy them. We as a society know the harm that can come from bullying and yet we still do it, we still allow for bullying to occur in these cases because for some reason it’s ok to bully a slut; it’s ok to hurt someone because they were dumb enough to bring it on themselves. Why don’t we bully the perpetrator? Why are they not shamed and demeaned by the public? They committed a heinous crime against someone’s dignity, they virtually assaulted someone, and we let them go on, we continue the violence.

As a society we need to start putting the blame on the perpetrators of revenge porn and not the victims. Intimate photos are a form of self expression and should not be thought of as wrong or immoral. We are taking away a form of free expression and reinventing it as filth that is to be wiped clean. We seem to be afraid of this kind of self expression, that it’s dirty and somehow of a lesser value. But how can we praise Manet’s Olympia and burn a Hustler magazine, at the core they are providing imagey of the same thing. Does society shame Olympia? Or even Manet? Blaming the victim only makes the situation worse and when it concerns the mental health of a child we as a society are taking large risks in attacking them, not the other way around. Sharing these photos is thought of as a risky behaviour and that only perpetuates the idea that intimate photos are going to get you in trouble. It should be that the non-consensual sharing of intimate photos is a risk, it’s wrong and will get you in trouble not the consensual sharing. When we share something of an intimate nature we have a certain level of trust that it won’t go any farther than that person. When it makes its way to the world that trust has been broken and that person degraded. That’s the crime here and the fault sits with the Judas that broke that trust not the victim.

But what is the truth?

Lying is a part of being a human. We lie all the time for different reasons. We lie to each other and to ourselves. Does that mean it’s ok to lie? In certain situations lying can be beneficial and in others it can lead to destruction. Knowing that humans have the ability and motive to lie, does that mean we shouldn’t trust each other?

Recently, Jian Ghomeshi, former radio broadcaster for the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation, was put on trial for four counts of sexual assault and one count of choking for which he was acquitted because it was found that the accusers were lying. The judge believed that the complainants were being “deceptive and manipulative” with their evidence and therefore could no longer be a trusted source of the truth. The court no longer had sufficient faith in the reliability or sincerity of the complainants and thus was left with a reasonable doubt. That closed the trial on Jian Ghomeshi and at the same time transformed these women from victims into perpetrators, and into liars. However, what if these women really did feel that they were victims of sexual assault? Will this trial change the way we see sexual assault victims?

The Centre for Women and Trans People at Ryerson hosted a crafternoon in support of survivors of sexual assault on the same day that the Ghomeshi trial ended. This event was to show that regardless of this trial we should believe survivors of sexual assault. This is also why the Centre has a survivor support line (416-260-0100) and offers services and supplies for safe sex and a safe space for women and trans people.

Sexual Assault can be a difficult issue in court because it can sometimes rely on “he said, she said” evidence, this is why victims often feel they will not be believed, they feel like they don’t have proof. This is also why there are few sexual assault convictions, without witnesses or physical evidence a court can have difficulty convicting. This is also why it is important to tell survivors you believe them and to support them because if no one says anything nothing can be done to stop it and more people will be victimized. The Department of Justice notes that sexual assault is among the crimes that are the least likely to be reported and in 1999 found that 78% of sexual assault cases were not reported to police in Canada. Additionally, sexual assault incidents are generally reported well after the fact and this can be due to various reasons. The 1999 General Social Survey on Victimization found that incidents were not reported by victims because: they were dealt with in another way, deemed not important enough, or that they did not want to involve the police. Some victims believe that the police cannot or will not help them when they have been sexually assaulted and others fear revenge from their assailant.

Another serious issue that comes out of sexual assault is that victims often do not seek out help or support. Fear and shame are built into sexual assault and the victims want privacy as a result. This is detrimental to their health and to the health of society because again if the police or anyone doesn’t know, then we can’t do anything about it. This is another reason to give support and to believe someone when they confide in you. It is very difficult to relive the memories and to share them and to have someone brush them off or not believe you is devastating. There is another part to this however, the victim usually knows their offender. In 2000, 80% of sexual assault cases were committed by someone who was known to the victim. Almost 30% of the offenders were family members of their victims and 10% were friends. This makes the situation even worse for the victim because the relationship they hold with the accused may hold them back from reporting the crime. It also puts them at risk for a repeat assault and damages their mental health as they must to continue to live their life with the offender and in silence.

I have written a lot about supporting survivors in this column and so I would like to give some ways to do that. If someone tells you that they have experienced sexual violence the best thing to do is listen, hear what they are saying and give them the space to say it. You want them to feel that they are not alone and that you believe them, we all have the right to be and feel safe. Do not push for information because it is their story to tell and they will give what they want to and they may not even remember all of it. Shock and fear can cause our memories to be repressed and for them to lose order making it difficult for someone to recall. Also, offer support services. The Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres has a list of different kinds of support services in Ontario that are available to everyone. Additionally, it is important to understand that we all have common beliefs about sexual violence some of which are myths. Doing research on sexual violence can be useful regardless of whether you know someone who was assaulted or not. The Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres is a useful resource for this kind of research and has a list of common sexual violence myths.

Sexual violence is horrific. It has been a part of human culture for some time and unfortunately will probably continue to be, just like lying. However, when it comes to lying and sexual violence do we really know what the truth is? If there are no witnesses and no physical evidence how do we know who is telling the truth and what it really is? Someone can say something happened but what if they lied? Lying about sexual assault is not common in Canada, but that doesn’t mean it doesn’t happen. These kinds of questions and statements are why victims of sexual assault do not speak out, they fear that they will not be believed. Our justice system works by keeping people innocent until proven guilty, but when you are the victim of sexual assault you are also treated like the guilty party and can unjustly be turned from victim into liar.

Black History Month Spotlight: Maryann Elizabeth Francis

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As we continue to celebrate Black History Month, this week, we focus the spotlight on another strong Black Canadian female figure. Mayann Elizabeth Francis was born in Sydney, Nova Scotia and came from parents who hailed from Cuba (her father) and Antigua (her mother). She had strong roots in the church, being brought up and raised surrounded by strong religious influences, especially due to the fact that her father was the archpriest of the African Orthodox Church.

Mayann Elizabeth grew up in a diverse neighbourhood of Nova Scotia, yet, despite the apparent diversity of her community, there were still quite prominent issues of racial discrimination and inequality occurring in various communities surrounding her. Mayann was made aware at quite a young age of the segregation and racial disparities that were occurring in her community, and in communities across the country. She knew that she wanted to be a part of the social justice movements that would work to abolish racial segregation and discrimination on Canada, and was compelled to do her part to affect change in some way. So Maryann pursued higher education at St. Mary’s University, graduating in 1972 with a Bachelor of Arts degree. Following her undergraduate education, she took a job for the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission.

Shortly after her experience with the Nova Scotia Human Rights Commission, she moved to the United States, where she lived for 16 years. In those 16 years, Maryann was able to earn her Master of Arts degree, in 1984, with a specialization in Public Administration from New York University. She used her Masters degree to build a career with a focus on personnel and labour relations issues, issues that influence the quality of people’s lives, and issues that seek to be rectified through public bodies. This was in strong part due to her upbringing in an unstable racial climate in Nova Scotia, where racial segregation and discrimination were very real realities with which she experienced.

After 16 years in the United States, returned back to Canada and settled in the province of Ontario. There, she worked as an assistant deputy minister with the Ontario Women’s Directorate. Shortly after, she became the Director of the same organization. After her experience with the Ontario Women’s Directorate, she decided to return to her roots and pursue her career with the Nova Scotia human Right Commission. There, she became to Chief Executive Officer.

Mayann’s work to bring about social justice and equality within society was widely recognized both nationally and internationally. She received the Harry Jerome Award from the Black Business and Professional Association, the Multicultural Education Council of Nova Scotia Award, and the Golden Jubilee Medla. Furthermore, she is the first woman ombudsman, black or white, of Nova Scotia. She moved on to become the lieutenant-governor of Nova Scotia in 2006. She is also the first Black Nova Scotian, man or woman, and the second Black Canadian to hold this position.

Her extensive experience in various senior public service positions is in large part due to her experience with racism and segregation. As a Black woman during a time where segregation was the everyday reality for all people in the United States and in Canada, Mayann Elizabeth knew first-hand what it was like to be discriminated and judged for reasons beyond control. She understood what social injustice and inequality felt like from a victim’s point of view. These horrible experiences inspired Maryann to live a life of public advocacy; live a life and build a career built on the principles of social justice and equality. To this day, she remains a largely influential and historical figure of Canadian history through her work in affecting change with regards to racial discrimination, segregation, and racial inequality.

Resources:

http://www.blackhistorycanada.ca/profiles.php?themeid=20&id=17

http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.com/en/article/mayann-elizabeth-francis/

http://www.cbc.ca/informationmorningcb/2009/10/mayann-francis.html

The Story Behind The Storyteller

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I think the Internet is full of trolls and it’s not necessarily the safest place to share things, that’s why I love the idea behind The Storyteller.

In a nutshell, The Storyteller is an online platform that gives people the opportunity to speak about things they might not be open about sharing with other people. It is not affiliated to Ryerson or the RSU. The only relation The Storyteller has to Ryerson is that it was started by Ryerson students.

I had the honour of meeting up with the creators of The Storyteller and learning about the inspiration behind it all.

Banner with 'The STORYTELLER' written on it

Banner with ‘The STORYTELLER’ written on it

Trisha Rolfe is a fourth year Child and Youth Care (CYC) student here at Ryerson. She told me that she learned a lot from other people’s stories and that’s why she wanted to start the blog. She’s found that she tends to be a person people come to when they need someone to talk to and it’s made her realize how much she’s learned from being an open ear. She wants to give people an opportunity to learn about aspects of peoples’ lives that they may not necessarily share openly with others. The original plan was to start a blog with her friend however that kept getting pushed back so she just ended up spearheading The Storyteller alone. Now there is a team of four working together to maintain the blog and various other social media sites.

The team! <Jamie Lupie, Kiri Witmer, Trisha Rolfe, Deanna Aguiar>

The team! Jamie Lupia, Kiri Witmer, Trisha Rolfe, Deanna Aguiar

Trisha first recruited her friend Jamie Lupia, a 3rd year student double majoring in creative writing and labour studies at Brock University. Initially, Jamie was just to help with the blog’s illustrations but she eventually started contributing posts based on some of her own experiences as well. She is the one responsible for the beautiful illustrations found throughout the blog. Afterwards, two more CYC students, Kiri Witmer and Deanna Aguiar, joined them.

Around the same time the blog was started Kiri had posted a video talking about her experiences with suicide. Kiri expressed how important it is for people to talk about issues however she felt that she keeps a lot to herself. Trisha saw this video and approached Kiri because she thought that she embodied ideals that would fit well with The Storyteller. Similarly, Trisha approached Deanna as well because she also thought that she would also be a good fit as she is extremely supportive. Each of the four members contribute to the blog in their own way.

Trisha started The Storyteller blog back in April 2015 and it is amazing how much it has grown since then. They have had several events one at Brock University and an open mic night in Niagara as both Trisha and Jamie are originally from there. They also showcased The Storyteller here at Ryerson during the FCS Student Achievement event. Trisha told me that this was her favourite event as there were a lot of people interested in reading stories. Also, it was a great way to bring awareness to our faculty to inspire people to do things outside of the classroom.

The Storyteller booth at the FCS Student Achievement Event at Ryerson University

The Storyteller booth at the FCS Student Achievement Event at Ryerson University

However, the classroom has helped fuel some of the ideas behind The Storyteller as Kiri has told me that they use concepts they’ve learned throughout the CYC program. One extremely important concept being self-care which is something that we can all relate to and should practice. It’s meant to be an outlet for not only sharing experiences but also to educate as well as to be a sort of therapy. The Storyteller also incorporates a strength-based approach because they want to focus on one’s strengths as well as celebrate the challenges or barriers one was able to overcome.

The Storyteller stresses the idea that “You are not alone” and that all of us are The Storytellers. That’s why submissions are strongly encouraged as sharing may find the solution or sharing might very well be the solution. It’s a way for people to get things off their chest so they want your rants! Submissions can be about any topic and in any form of media: stories, poetry, art, songs, etc. You can choose if you want your posts to be anonymous. They will be accepted and shared as long as posts aren’t racist, homophobic, transphobic, sexist, ablist, sanist, or discriminatory in any way. If you’re interested in making a submission click here! 

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OR if you would like to know more or if you would like to contribute in other ways you can email thestorytellerweb@gmail.com or visit any of their social media platforms: the blog, Facebook, Twitter, and Instagram.

 

In Conversation with Stephen Lewis

Human immunodeficiency virus, or more commonly HIV, is a deadly and destructive infection that has plagued our world from, potentially, the late 1800s onward. Researchers believe that HIV can be traced to a type of chimpanzee in West Africa and that contact with their blood through hunting is what allowed the virus to enter the human population. HIV and AIDS came to North America in the mid 1970s and in 1981 appeared on the global medical radar when the level of infection was out of control and the pandemic and pandemonium began. As fear of this unknown killer virus spread through the Western world people began to look for answers, solutions, and wrongly, someone to blame. The scapegoat for HIV and AIDS in the 1980s and into today has been homosexual men as this was a major population the virus infected, while this was entirely false the discrimination still exists and is still stigmatizing. In reality, there are several risky behaviours that put someone at risk for infection with HIV. Also, transmission occurs because the individuals partaking in these behaviours are unaware that they are infected with the virus or that the people they are engaging with are. Unfortunately, the spread of HIV is only one of the problems in this discussion, the treatment of HIV and AIDS and the funding required are an entirely separate demon. This is merely an introduction to one of the most controversial and unsettling discussions our world has had and will continue to have as the fight against HIV and AIDS goes on.   

 

This past Wednesday evening I had the pleasure of attending one of the Stephen Lewis conversations, which is an ongoing series of discussions put on by the Faculty of Community Services and Ryerson University in collaboration with the Planetary Health Commission. The discussion, co-hosted by Dr. Alan Whiteside, was on the AIDS pandemic and where we are now in its development. Stephen Lewis is currently a professor of distinction at Ryerson and at one time was the leader of the Ontario New Democratic Party, UN Secretary-General’s Special Envoy for HIV/AIDS in Africa, Deputy Executive Director of UNICEF, Commissioner on the Global Commission on HIV, Board Member of the International AIDS Vaccine Initiative, and the co-founder of the Stephen Lewis Foundation which works with community-based organizations in Africa that are trying to end HIV and AIDS. Dr. Alan Whiteside is an internationally recognized academic and AIDS researcher, he is the co-author of numerous articles and books regarding AIDS, and he established and is the executive director of the Health Economics and HIV/AIDS Research Division at the University of Natal in South Africa. These are two very short biographies of two very remarkable men who exposed some of the truths of this horrible disease to the world and continue to do so. Both Stephen Lewis and Dr. Alan Whiteside focus their HIV and AIDS work in Southern Africa where the virus is still rampant and where their discussion on Wednesday was localized. I will try to relate what was discussed so as to provide a better understanding for those who could not attend.  

 

It is important to note that the vocabulary in health has changed; we say that people are living with HIV and yes that’s true in Canada, there are people living with HIV because they have access to medicine and can remain on that medicine. However, this vocabulary is not necessarily applicable to Southern Africa where people are dying from HIV, where it is still a threat as it once was in Canada. It is believed that HIV has killed over 30 million people since 1981, and that 2 million people are infected annually. According to the World Health Organization (WHO) 1.2 million people died from AIDS-related causes in 2014. HIV is a virus that we know how to prevent and control, and yet there are at least 6 million people infected with HIV in Southern Africa and 400,000 new infections every year. What is going wrong? Why is it that we have the answers but still haven’t solved the problem?

 

Looking at prevention, there are some very easy ways to slow the spread of HIV. As mentioned above there are certain risky behaviours that put us at an increased risk for HIV infection, these are most commonly having unprotected sex and sharing infected needles. The reason men who have sex with men (MSM) are more readily infected is that HIV is taken up by the body more easily during anal intercourse rather than vaginal. With the added dangers of not using a condom it is more than likely that an untreated individual with HIV will spread the virus to their partner. Unfortunately, the homophobia that is endemic to Africa does not help. Homosexuality is illegal in some African countries. Homosexuals are driven underground and fear death if they are outed, which makes access to medication even more difficult. Another risky behaviour is sharing needles with infected drug users. When intravenous drug users (IDU) shoot up, their blood enters the needle and is then passed on to the next user thus spreading HIV. IDUs have the highest risk of infection as they have direct blood to blood contact with HIV, this makes transmission extremely easy and the virus can spread throughout the community and beyond fairly quickly. One solution to this problem is safe injection sites, such as the Insite in Vancouver, which provides a clean space as well as equipment and medical staff to ensure that IDUs are safe while they are injecting themselves. It may seem odd to help someone inject themselves with illegal drugs that harm them, but these people are suffering from an addiction and still have the right to health. After all, they are still human and if they are going to use drugs we can at least make sure they are doing so safely and negating the spread of disease and avoiding potentially deadly overdoses.

 

Other at risk groups are sex workers, if they are having unprotected sex, and most notably women. In Southern Africa women are the population with the highest infection rates of HIV. The reason women have such high infection rates is because they face sexual violence. Women are often raped and abused sexually and this is the gateway for their infection. These women then have children and pass the infection onto their offspring, who will not live a long or enjoyable life if not given medication. Within the infected female population in Southern Africa, teenage girls have the highest rates of infection; they have 8 times the level of infection compared to boys in the same age group (15-18), again due to sexual violence. This is an at risk population that does not have an easy solution. How do you stop girls from being raped? Unfortunately, I don’t know the answer but I do know that if these girls are given medication and resources they can stop the spread of HIV to their children and other sexual partners and live a much better and longer life. If medication is the answer to this problem and we have the medication, then why is the disease still spreading. The answer is simply that these people are not getting the medication. They belong to stigmatized and oppressed groups that no one cares to think about and often are left to die. HIV infection is in itself a stigmatizing factor in Africa; add in the fact that you are a homosexual, a drug user, a sex worker, or a woman and people stop caring whether you live or die. Aside from the oppression that keeps people from their medication, there are rumblings that global AIDS funding given to African governments keeps disappearing after it is given out.

 

Corruption within African governments is not a new phenomena and it doesn’t seem to be going away. Both Stephen Lewis and Alan Whiteside commented on the way Southern African countries are run by their kings and while the King of Swaziland has a jet his people can’t seem to find their HIV medication. There are billions of dollars raised and donated to AIDS funds every year and for some reason the grassroots organizations in Southern Africa aren’t seeing this money. Where is it going? The United Nations (UN) stipulates that global AIDS funding needs to be distributed through HIV and AIDS committees which give the money to governments and presumably health departments to be used for medication, education, and the spread of resources so that infected individuals can live. However, people are still dying and being infected and kings are buying jets. Of course, some people in Africa are getting medication but money is still evaporating. The only way to determine where this money is going and to make sure it is going to the right places is through auditing. Neither Mr. Lewis or Dr. Whiteside knew why these governments are not being audited. What makes this reality even more terrifying is that AIDS funding is beginning to flatline globally. While the global funding is not going down very much it is not getting any higher and there is a risk of it beginning to diminish. Countries are slowly stagnating with their funding, such as the Netherlands which cut its AIDS funding by 1 billion Euros. Additionally, at the UN the funding for communicable diseases is starting to be targeted by non-communicable diseases as they begin to take a stronger chokehold on global populations. The funding pie is now being sliced for more diseases and more causes and this means that eventually HIV and AIDS will begin to lose funding. This leads into a much larger ethical discussion that is beyond my scope, but I will leave you with a question: how do you decide which diseases need more funding, how do you decide the cost of human life?

 

Dr. Whiteside did have one suggestion for the issue of AIDS funding and it was to be smarter about the way researchers and organizations go about asking for money and how it is spent. Dr. Whiteside was explicit in that governments should be responsible for the health of their constituents and that non-government organizations (NGO) should be there to pick up the pieces and to remind governments of the diseases that are being forgotten. Unfortunately, this is not the case in Africa at the moment. The grassroots organizations are the ones providing health to the people of Africa and the money is going to the government. So one solution is to get the money to the organizations on the ground and skip the corrupt kings and health ministers. How this will be done still needs to be determined.    

 

In our society we don’t always think about the threat of AIDS. However, prevention is shockingly simple and that’s probably the more devastating side of this story. A simple condom or having access to safe and clean injection sites- in essence having harm reduction policies in place will protect us. HIV and AIDS have been devastating our world for over 30 years and they are not going away unless everyone takes the responsibility to be safe. Behaviour change is difficult and it takes time but isn’t it worth it? Isn’t your life worth wearing a condom?

 

HIV and AIDS are two topics that require lengthy conversation and attention and that is why I will be writing about them again in another post on December 1, World AIDS Day. In the meantime, to learn more about HIV/AIDS visit the Center for Disease Control and Prevention, UNAIDS, the Stephen Lewis Foundation, and the World Health Organization. One last side note, free condoms and lube are available at the Student Centre, as well as at Ryerson’s Medical Clinic (KHW 181). Outside of Ryerson but still close to campus there is the Toronto People with AIDS Foundation at Sherbourne and Gerrard and the Hassle Free Clinic at Church and Gerrard (above Starbucks) where free medical testing is also available.  

Our Sisters in Spirit

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Every October 4th there is a vigil for the thousands of indigenous women and girls who have been murdered or are missing in Canada. Indigenous women and girls in Canada, who due to generations of systemic racism, discrimination, and sexualization, have become vulnerable and are having their lives taken away. In Canada, indigenous women are four times as likely to go missing or be murdered in comparison to non-indigenous women. These women are also twice as likely to be murdered by strangers compared to non-indigenous women and abused by close family. The indigenous people of Canada and their allies do not feel that these murders are being taken seriously by police or the government and we need to ask why are there so many cases and why are they going unsolved? Does no one care about these women; are they the children of a lesser God? This is a harsh reality within a country that likes to give an air of acceptance and a welcoming nature but can’t seem to love their own indigenous people.

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This past Sunday was the first vigil I attended with the Centre for Women and Trans People, a Ryerson equity service centre, and while the travesties faced by Canada’s indigenous population are not new to me, this was the first time I really felt them. It is one thing to acknowledge a problem and read about it in a book, it is an entirely different thing to listen to stories and see the heartbreak in someone’s eyes as they relive the pain of losing a part of their family to a violent death. For the first time I cried for these women and girls who every year disappear from Turtle Island and for the first time I smiled with the knowledge that these deaths are not going unnoticed. Indigenous women are loved and while the majority of these deaths and disappearances are unsolved they are not forgotten or accepted.

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Sunday’s vigil, organized by Sisters in Spirit, was held at Allen Gardens, which is home to many Indigenous people in Toronto. Handmade lanterns inscribed with colourful love symbols lit a path up to the doors of the conservatory where a circle of candles brought the diverse crowd of indigenous men and women and allies together. These lanterns are the guiding lights that will lead these missing girls home. Sounds of drums and jingling bells surrounded us as men and women danced and sang for health and safety. The setting of the sun was met with a moment of silence, prayer, and the burning of cleansing sage. As we washed ourselves in smoke and the pungent smell of sage filled our lungs the vigil began.

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Carolyn Bennett, the liberal MP for the St. Paul’s riding here in Toronto, came to the centre of the circle and spoke of the Walking With Our Sisters art exhibition. This is an ongoing exhibition of moccasin vamps (the top portion of the shoe) individually designed and sewn by artists and women. These vamps are intentionally not sewn into moccasins, instead they are left unfinished just like the lives of murdered indigenous women. One vamp (pictured below) in the exhibition that pulled at Bennett’s heart strings was designed by Theresa Burrows, it represents how the perpetrators of murder are often remembered and their victims forgotten. Part of the reason for this exhibition is to restore the individuality of these murdered women. The exhibition is currently in Ottawa and will tour Toronto next November. Bennett ended with a very grim conclusion of how this is not a women’s issue or an indigenous issue but a Canadian tragedy.

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Isadore Day, the Ontario Regional Chief, spoke of the Who Is She campaign which is focused on spreading awareness and finding answers to why Canada is only safe for some people. Who Is She is a First Nations driven campaign to end violence within their communities and bring safety to people. The main goal of the Who Is She campaign is to find where the violence against indigenous women is rooted, what can be done about it, and what they think will end it. Ultimately, Who Is She wants to find a solution that will result in safety, understanding, and respect for indigenous women. Additionally, Who Is She feels that there is a link between the residual effects of the residential school system on indigenous people and this crisis.

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Until November 15 the Mackenzie House in Toronto is displaying the Walking Together 2015 Art Exhibition. This exhibition displays the reactions indigenous high school students had when touring a residential school with survivors of the system. Each student created a mixed-media art piece to illustrate how they felt after walking through the Mohawk Institute, a former residential school in Ontario, and after viewing them you can feel the cold and pain that would have infested those schools. I had a chance to see these art pieces at the Mackenzie House and they are hard to look at – they force you to remember and to acknowledge the hurt that Canadians have caused. Reading through the stories behind each work of art is even harder to do- the abuse, neglect, and hate that inhabited these schools and broke these children breaks your heart. The psychological, physical, and emotional damage caused by the residential school system may have very easily propelled the issue of discrimination against indigenous people into the horrifying crisis Canada is faced with now. The Mackenzie House is open Tuesday to Friday, is located at Bond and Dundas streets, and is free to Ryerson students with a valid OneCard.

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Even closer to home, Ryerson now offers a certificate in Aboriginal Knowledges and Experiences. This certificate is an exploration, analysis, and reflection into the experiences of indigenous people in Canada and their relationships with the government and non-indigenous people. The certificate is open to anyone and would be specifically useful for students who wish to work in occupations that address indigenous concerns. Ryerson also offers support for indigenous students by way of the Ryerson Aboriginal Student Services (RASS) department, located in Kerr Hall West 389. They offer financial planning assistance, peer support, orientation, tutor assistance, admission advocacy, as well as bursary and scholarship options.

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As the vigil came to a close there was one final rendition of a traveling song, which prays for safe travel and return. This reminded me of a woman who spoke at the beginning of the vigil, Denise Aquash, who told the story of her missing niece. As Denise spoke, a small girl ran through the crowd and into the centre of our circle. This child was distracted by the flickering candles and had no idea what was going on in the discussion above her ears. I couldn’t help but wonder if this little girl reminded Denise of her own niece. As she lost her breath and the cold air blew across our faces I could feel Denise’s story; no longer just words but an ache that resonated through my sore body and back down to the frigid earth. The innocence of this little girl running through what in her mind might be a big party was a reminder of the stolen innocence of our indigenous women and girls. Her laughter echoed generations of girls who were silenced by murder and abuse; calling the lost girls as the candles light their dim path home. We need to speak for these women who have lost their voice, they deserve to be remembered, they deserve to be loved, they deserve to live a safe life, and they deserve life.

Here are some links to learn more about this crisis:

Native Women’s Association of Canada

Who Is She

Mackenzie House

Ryerson Aboriginal Certificate

Walking with Our Sisters

Ryerson Centre for Women and Trans People

International Women’s Day Faux Pas

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International Women’s Day was on March 8th.  This day was also the day we lost an hour due to daylight savings time.  In true patriarchal fashion, International Women’s Day only got 23 hours instead of 24 (feminist humour).  Over 5000 people came out to participate in the International Women’s Day March.  There were signs about all different types of issues pertaining to women including sex trafficking, missing and murdered Indigenous women, Islamaphobia, the need for universal child care, violence against women, pay gaps, racism, precarious work and many more.  As with most discussions and events about women, there is always someone doing something they should not be doing.  We will call these International Women’s Day Faux-Pas:

Asking why there is no International Men’s Day:
This seems to be the most popular question of the day.  There actually is an International Men’s Day, it’s on November 19th yet no men seem to discuss it until March 8th.  It’s not our fault you didn’t organize a march.

Telling women what to wear:
At the rally before the march, there were a lot of groups with signs, petitions and flyers for different causes.  The last group before entering the OISE auditorium, where the rally was held, was a single man yelling loudly and carrying a sign that said “no to the hijab”.  The organizers and general consensus of those in attendance is that our feminism is inclusive and intersectional.  That means a woman should be able to choose what she wears based on her own beliefs, including a hijab.  Go home “no to hijabs” man

Being a white feminist:
A white feminist doesn’t literally mean you are white and a feminist.  It means you practice white feminism which is the western status quo of feminism.  It’s exclusive, oppressive and further marginalizes other groups.  It’s made up of a demographic of white women that do not experience other forms of marginalization and view their brand of feminism as better and more “real”.  Check out a list of shit white feminists need to stop doing here: http://bellejar.ca/2015/03/08/4389/

Being the ally that takes up too much space:
Many men joined the International Women’s Day March which is great but allies always have to be mindful of the space they are taking up.  No one likes that guy at the women’s event who is obnoxiously loud, wants to be in the front and keeps running into women.

The street harasser tactics:
Businesses often use street harassment tactics to sell.  Their employees are out on the street trying to talk to you or shouting their message at you.  The entire pathway to the rally was filled with these people shouting, forcing pamphlets in your hands and continuing to yell in your ear.  Street harassment is an issue women deal with daily and using its tactics is not cool.  All of these causes were important and I would support them.  A table with some information would have sufficed.

Bringing zip ties to the march:
Here’s looking at you Toronto Police Services.  As with any march that takes place on a city street, the police are there to escort us on their bikes.  They are often cold, unfriendly and look unhappy to be there.  There never seems to be any female officers at these kinds of events, which would be appropriate.  One of the cops riding a bike happened to leave the bag on the back of his bike unzipped.  Sticking out of the bag was a bunch of zip ties used to bind peoples hands during mass arrests.  Excuse me Toronto Police… what were you expecting to happen?  What were you planning to do?  Did you bring 5000 of those?

MMIW: Criminal Negligence Causing Death

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Section 219 (1) of the Criminal Code states that “everyone is criminally negligent who a) in doing anything or, b) in omitting to do anything that is his duty to, shows wanton or reckless disregard for the lives or safety of other persons”.  Section 220 of the Criminal Code states that, “every person who by criminal negligence causes death to another person is guilty of an indictable offence and liable”.  In regards to missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, the Government of Canada is guilty of criminal negligence causing death.

On February 26th, amidst the national roundtable that took place on the issue of missing and murdered Indigenous women, a study was released detailing the lack of action taken by the Government of Canada over the past two decades.  Researchers with the Legal Strategy Coalition on Violence Against Indigenous Women reviewed 58 reports on violence against Indigenous women and girls.  The documents reviewed included government studies, reports by international human rights bodies, and published research of Indigenous women’s organizations.  Over 700 recommendations were made by these reports yet only a few of these recommendations have ever been fully implemented.

These recommendations were made to reduce the violence experienced by Indigenous women and girls.  Their purpose was to address the high numbers of Indigenous women that are murdered and missing in Canada.  Grand Chief Stewart Phillip, President of the Union of BC Indian Chiefs asked, “How many Indigenous women and girls would have been found or would still be alive if governments had acted on more of these recommendations?”  I think a lot of us are asking the same question.

By not implementing any of the recommendations, the Government of Canada has been criminally negligent, as defined by the Criminal Code.  A government has a responsibility to protect its citizens and failing to act on recommendations to reduce violence against Indigenous women shows a reckless disregard for the lives of others.  The Government of Canada is fully aware of number of Indigenous women who have been murdered or gone missing.  They are aware these numbers continue to rise and that not addressing the issue would result in more Indigenous women being murdered.  Therefore, the Government of Canada has been criminally negligent and that negligence has caused death.

This study further shows why a national inquiry into missing and murdered Indigenous women is needed in Canada.  A government who has refused to implement over 700 recommendations and then has the audacity to claim these reports as reasons for why we do not need an inquiry has no business defining the problem, claiming to not play a role in the problem and certainly does not possess a viable solution for the problem.
Sources Used:
http://www.thestar.com/news/canada/2015/02/26/national-roundtable-on-missing-murdered-aboriginal-women-a-beginning.html

http://www.leaf.ca/legal-strategy-coalition-on-mmiw/

http://laws-lois.justice.gc.ca/eng/acts/c-46/page-113.html

Photo from: Amnesty International Canada

Fifty Shades of Rape Culture

Cover of the book, Fifty Shades of Grey

Let me start by saying I have never read Fifty Shades of Grey and I have no intention of reading it. I am not condemning those who have and those who enjoyed it. But I would like to rant a little about some of those coming out in condemnation of the book and movie. Some analysis of the movie and book has been quite thoughtful, quite well written, but the vast majority that has been snaking its way through my news feed is perpetuating rape culture and the repression of female sexuality.

One post that I have sadly seen more than once is entitled, A Psychiatrist’s Letter to Young People about Fifty Shades of Grey. Some of the points are valid; abuse is never good, women do not need to be meek to attract a mate and so forth. However, near the end the author commenting on sexual experimentation states “Maybe for adults in a healthy, long term, committed, monogamous relationship, AKA “marriage”. Otherwise, you’re at high risk for STDs, pregnancy, and sexual assault.”

No, no, no! Women experimenting and expressing their sexuality does not lead to sexual assault. Rapists are the cause of sexual assault. By all means, let’s encourage both men and women (as if pregnancy should only be a female concern) to practice safe sex, but let’s NOT encourage repression or suggest that if a female is sexually adventurous then she is the cause of an assault.

Yet another response that I have seen more than once is, Don’t Let ‘Fifty Shades of Grey’ Lead Your Daughter Astray: A Concerned Mother’s Response. The author states, “Pornography is not healthy for any relationship: Approximately forty million men currently watch pornography on a regular basis. Men who need to watch porn become addicted to it in order to achieve arousal. Soon your relationship won’t satisfy.”

It’s only men who watch porn or who want visual stimulation? I find it hard to believe that there are 40 million men who can no longer engage in relationships because only porn will get them off. Why is it so hard for us to accept that humans like sex and that is okay. And why is it so hard to believe that women want to express their sexuality, their desire. I mean, if women were as against porn and erotica as this author believes than Fifty Shades of Grey wouldn’t have been so popular.

Read Fifty Shades of Grey if you want, see the movie if you want, but please don’t tell women that we shouldn’t express our sexuality or that if we do, it will mean we were asking for it.

“You promised safe space”

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On November 25th, the International Day for the Elimination of Violence Against Women, I attended a rally put on by the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty (OCAP) with some of the other social work students.  At the rally, we were given signs to carry as we marched down Yonge Street.  The sign I was carrying said “you promised safe space” and was directed at the City of Toronto.

There is a crisis in Toronto and no, it is not transit.  Our crisis is housing, shelters and safe spaces.  On any given night, people are turned away from City of Toronto shelters due to overcrowding.  Women and trans people face particular risks when they are turned away from shelters and forced to spend a night on the streets.  Just over a year ago, a homeless woman was sexually assaulted by two different men as she slept outside near Dundas and Sherbourne.  Incidents like this are not rare and emphasize the safety issues of sleeping on the streets.

OCAP and allies began to mobilize and put pressure on the City of Toronto to open a 24 hour safe space and drop-in for women and trans people.  After relentless advocacy, the city acknowledged the need for this space and promised to open this space before winter.  Winter is upon us and there is no safe space and drop-in.  The city has stalled, forgotten its promise and decided to put this issue on the back burner until next year.  The safety and lives of people are not something to be put on the back burner.

November 25th was a day of action to highlight the city’s unwillingness to address this critical issue and acknowledge the shortcomings of its own shelter system.  After a rally at on Charles Street, we marched down Yonge Street to 21 Park Road.  This building is utilized by the City as part of its Shelter, Support and Housing Administration.  After arriving at 21 Park Road, five women took over the building to demand the City address shelter occupancy issues and fulfill its promise for a 24 hour drop in space.  Since the city refused to open up safe space, they were going to.

Throughout the entire rally and march, there was heavy police presence; more than I had ever seen at similar demonstrations.  The City decided to violently arrest the five women instead of opening safe space.  They are being charged with trespassing and mischief.  The real “mischief” is letting those who are homeless be sexually assaulted and die on the streets.  It’s time for the City of Toronto to realize that their actions of bureaucratic stalling on critical issues such as shelter contribute to lack of safety and possibly the deaths of people in Toronto.

I encourage all citizens, voters and decent human beings of Toronto to get in touch with the City Manager to demand a drop-in space for women and trans people.  The City Manager can be reached at 416-392-8673.