December 14, 2012

December 6th and the politics of memory

by Katie, Outreach Worker at the AMS Sexual Assault Support Centre (SASC)

December 6th, 2012 marks the 23rd anniversary of the shootings at L’Ecole Polytechniqe, otherwise know as the Montreal Massacre. Across the country, candles were lit, moments of silence were held, and the names of 14 women were uttered, as a solemn reminder of the violence they faced. These memorials, which are typically held on University campuses, allow the stories of these women to live on. For those who remember the actual event, the memorial may serve as a stopping point in their daily lives, an intervention in their routines to recall the moments of tragedy. For those who were not alive in 1989, or who do not remember, the memorials are sites of learning. They are sites that instill a memory that they didn’t experience, yet are told to remember with diligence.

In 1991, Canada named December 6th the National Day of Action and Remembrance on Violence Against Women. In doing so, they conflated the shootings in Montreal with a nation-wide tragedy, not only to be remembered annually, but also to be used as a signifier of ongoing action to fight all violence against all women. There is no doubt that the shootings on December 6th, 1989 were a tragedy. There is no doubt that we must mobilize to end violence against women, or that the lives of these women should incite remorse and memory. However, the fact that this event of violence is singled out, and deemed worthy of national remembrance, warrants some concern.

In naming this event a “national tragedy,” thousands of acts of violence are erased and forgotten. In fact, most of Canada’s ‘national tragedies’ represent certain bodies (read: white). If, as a ‘nation’, we are told to remember acts of extreme violence, of misogyny and patriarchy, and of systemic discrimination, we need only look to the very land we’re on. I ask you, reader, what land are you on? What is the name of the traditional territory? What is the name of the nation that was dispossessed for you to be there? Most folks living in Canada cannot answer these questions, a telling sign of how certain memories have been purposefully kept from our consciousness.

The dispossession and occupation of Turtle Island was not peaceful; in fact, colonial occupation of what is now known as Canada is the largest ongoing violent act in the known history of this land. For centuries, Indigenous Peoples of this land have been – and continue to: be systemically and institutionally marginalized; have their identity regulated and contained through racist legislation; face horrendous amounts of physical and sexual abuse from state authorities; have their traditional lands and food bases destroyed; have their culture and traditions stolen, erased, or appropriated; and this only scratches the surface.

Indigenous women, in particular, have faced the most extreme violence throughout Canada’s past and present. The number of missing and murdered women in Canada is upwards of 500, though just 1 should be enough for national attention. There are countless examples of state-sanctioned violence against Indigenous women that occur daily, but do not garner so much as a news article, much less a national day of remembrance. Now, I know what you may be thinking – the Montreal Massacre is noteworthy because the women were killed solely because they were women. However, the colonial state of Canada participated in explicitly sexist violence, specifically targeting Indigenous women, long before these shootings occurred.

Take, for example, last year’s BC Missing Women Commission of Inquiry, now known as the sham inquiry. The vast overrepresentation of police and RCMP, the disproportionate lawyer representation, negligence around vulnerable witnesses, and the utter denial of including and collaborating with local DTES organizations, made this process utterly reprehensible. In organizing an inquiry to ‘address’ the factors that led to a tragedy – far more systemic and impacting far more women than the Montreal Massacre – the state made a clear move to ignore the voices of Indigenous women. As many activists and writers have said before, if these were white women who had been missing and murdered, the Canadian state would address it in an instant.

Some of you, in this discussion of memory, may be thinking of The February 14th Women’s Memorial March. Indeed, the march serves as an important reminder of the violence faced by Indigenous women, and thousands of people show up to the DTES each year to commemorate their lives. This community-led grassroots memorial is distinctly opposite from that of December 6th, namely in its recognition from the state. Having state recognition elevates December 6th into national consciousness, thus signifying the violence as truly reprehensible and worthy of remembrance. By naming December 6th as such, the Canadian government portrays itself as sympathetic to violence faced by women, while also implicitly creating boundaries for what is acceptable violence, and what is unacceptable. The mass recognition and visibility surrounding December 6th deem the shootings ‘unacceptable’ in the Canadian nation. Therefore, the invisibility – so far as the state is concerned – of the extreme violence and dispossession faced by Indigenous Peoples for the last 500 years is deemed ‘acceptable’.

That being said, state recognition is not the ‘answer’. In writing this, I am not arguing for a mirror image of Dec. 6th memorials, nor am I asking the state to finally recognize the violence they perpetuate. I am simply asking us to complicate our understanding of December 6th memorials. If you do come across a vigil, a speech, or a gathering that is centered on remembering this day, ask yourself why you are being told to remember these things. Challenge yourself not allow your memory to be guided by what the state deems acceptable. Think about whose bodies are being remembered, whose names are being uttered, and for whose memories are we lighting a candle for.  Learn the name of the land you are on, remember it daily, and stand in solidarity with the people who have been resisting for centuries. 

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