Candles flickered in the cold as 14 people gathered in Red Deer’s City Hall Park on Sunday night to remember female victims of violence.
It’s been 20 years since 14 female engineering students were killed by a feminist-hating gunman at École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec.
And despite much introspection and debate, violence against women continues to cause new tears and trauma in every community.
Those attending the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women vigil in Red Deer remembered not only the Montreal massacre victims, but also the many Central Alberta mothers and daughters whose lives were brutally cut short over the years.
The latest victims are Teagan Klein, the 23-year-old mom of a three-year-old boy, who was murdered in Red Deer in February, and 44-year-old Debi Volker, a popular teacher who was killed in Delburne in the same month. In both cases, males in relationships with the women were arrested in connection to their deaths.
Domestic violence “is an enormous societal problem, and a complex problem that involves societal norms, values and beliefs,” said Ian Wheeliker, executive-director of the Central Alberta Women’s Emergency Women’s Shelter before the vigil.
And it’s a changing problem. In the past few years, more recent female immigrants to this province have shown up at the shelter. They tend to come from patriarchal countries, “where men rule and women are subservient,” said Wheeliker, who believes these women face enormous pressure to return to abusive relationships.
“They are told by friends and relatives to go back and work things out.”
But the women are beginning to learn there’s no need to quietly endure violence because Alberta offers supportive services, said Wheeliker. “They have shelter systems. They do have the right to choose.”
Women’s shelter staff works with local immigrant assistance organizations to get the word out. “It’s an awareness process,” said Wheeliker, who added that change is needed on a societal, community, and individual level.
But he’s pleased to see some general progress made in how domestic violence is treated by the courts and police.
Over the past two decades, laws have been changed or refined in most Canadian provinces, offering women-at-risk emergency protection orders that are easier to obtain than restraining orders. “There’s no more ‘he said, she said,’” said Wheeliker.
Protection orders are automatically granted to women who have suffered violence. And, while these 30-day no-contact orders are filed under civil law, they can result in criminal code charges if their conditions are breached.
Many provinces, including Alberta, also have child protection laws that recognize the impact domestic violence has on children.
Wheeliker said family counselling is one mandate of the Child, Youth and Family Enhancement Act. In extreme cases, children can be removed from the home. “It recognizes that children exposed to domestic violence are in need of protection — it’s a matter of prevention.”
As well, police forces have a pro-arrest policy.
Wheeliker said “It used to be thought that this is a private matter and nobody else’s business,” but now abused spouses no longer have to press charges. Suspected abusers are automatically charged by police if there’s enough evidence.
“We’ve definitely come a long way, but there’s still a long way to go,” said Wheeliker, whose words are supported by shelter statistics.
Some 10 per cent more women have stayed at the shelter in six months of this year, compared to the same period in 2008.
In April to September, Wheeliker said the facility provided a safe harbour for 250 women alone — or 385 women and children. “The beds have been full as of a month ago.”