“Reluctance to support the public remembrance of women murdered redoubles in the case of societally marginalized women compared with women who, by class and race, are more securely positioned within the dominant culture.” This reflection of systemic hierarchical injustice caused resentment among some locals towards the Marker of Change monument to the victims of the École Polytechnique massacre, which was seen to rub salt in the wounds of the many never-commemorated women who had fallen to patriarchal violence in the Downtown Eastside. Although the Marker was dedicated to “all women who have been murdered by men,” it was initiated as a memorial to the fourteen women murdered in Montreal on December 6th, 1989. In addition to the symbolic injustice of placing a monument to these Quebecois women in the heart of Vancouver’s poorest neighbourhood, which is one of Canada’s largest hubs for poverty, sex work and ‘disappearances’ of women, locals took issue with the use of funds to build “fancy little benches, or tombstones.” These funds, some Downtown Eastside residents and workers argued, could have been better put towards creating systems and spaces that would help keep local women safe.
Both the Sisters In Spirit and the December 6th gatherings are simultaneously commemorations of murdered women and recommitments to the struggle to end violence against women. In her 2008 speech at the ‘Not So Silent Vigil’ in Halifax, MP Megan Leslie called upon those present and upon all Canadians to recognize that we live in a culture that reinforces gendered inequalities and allows for the perpetuation of patriarchal violence:
When we talk about December 6th, we place it as an extreme end of a spectrum that begins with domestic violence. I am acutely aware that domestic violence touches many more lives than we are likely to ever know. It is a pandemic problem that provincial and federal governments have done little to address. But I do not feel that the events of December 6th were an exaggerated version of domestic violence. I believe they were an extreme form of the gender terrorism that happens so much all around us that we hardly even recognize it for what it is anymore.
Feminist memorials’ dual purposes as commemorative and as calls to action are what make them the antipatriarchal monuments and events that they are; if either our grief and sense of history or our anger and sense of justice were to fall by the wayside, they would be merely tombstones.
It is in this vein that the Cultural Memory Group questions the relative effectiveness of a monument compared with that of an event, asking, “when and how does a memorial run the risk of serving as a palliative instead of a provocation, inadvertently letting the community off the hook of having to take action on violence against women, on femicide in its midst?” Questions of physicality enter into the equation when one considers the space taken up by the Marker of Change: a circle of granite benches surrounded by another circle of donor plaques which occupies the thoroughfare of Thornton Park, right on the margins of the Downtown Eastside where residents of the neighbourhood intermingle with global travellers on their way from the bustling train and bus station to the public transit that will take them into downtown Vancouver. The Living Memorial Stones, in comparison, are small plaques embedded in the sidewalks of the neighbourhood on the places where missing women were last seen, occupying emotional spaces but at risk of being obscured by dust and mud.
[The Project] is based on the notion that cities need to attend to their emotional landscape via their physical landscape, [stated Sean Kirkham, director of the Canadian Foundation for Creative Development and Innovation]. This art installation serves as an example of a living, personal reminder, because it commemorates where the terror began — in most cases where these women were last seen or where they once lived. It makes it clear that these women were individuals, and gives names to the deceased to keep their memory alive.
Kirkham defended the Living Memorial Stones Projects against concerns that it was a disrespectful way of commemorating the murdered women: “We’ve heard through the critics that the stones only highlight victimhood, and that when pedestrians trample over the names of the dead, some argue they are being victimized again,” he said. “I say the Living Memorial Stones become reminders and voices calling out that these women had a name […] they tell an emotional story to the casual walker who comes upon them: that he or she is standing where this woman once stood.”
The feminist collective behind the Marker of Change emphasized the importance of the monument’s appearance: collective and multiple rather than unitary, horizontal rather than phallic and vertical, the monument interrogates the past rather than glorifying historical violence as heroic. Conceived of as an ‘antimonument,’ the Marker is dialogical yet immovable, a space for healing while taking up seemingly irretrievable space. As to whether passersby are any more or less likely to engage with the Marker than the Memorial Stones, it is difficult to say. Both run the risk of being ignored, but both escape the risk of being solely cathartic in their insistence upon naming the violence that befell the women they mourn. According to Christine McDowell, it was when media and public opinion decried the Marker’s inscription – “women murdered by men” – and threats of renewed violence began to surface against the women’s collective that conceived of it, that she knew they had to retain the message. “That’s when we all learned that you’re not allowed to say who’s murdering women,” she remarked, and that was the moment the epicentre of the struggle became clear: identifying the systemic factors that allow for patriarchal violence against women to go unchecked.
The processes of memory-work and commemoration are acts and journeys of courage, and the construction of counternarratives and alternate histories will always struggle in the face of systemically upheld grand narratives. The work that is being done, then, by feminist, Indigenous and activist groups is laudable in and of itself – but that is insufficient towards the goal of substantive justice and an end to patriarchal and colonial violence against women. Amber Dean problematizes simplistically equating visibility with change: “Is it not also possible that memorials which represent women as always already the inevitable victims of male violence might contribute to perpetuating cultural assumptions about woman-as-victim, even as they attempt to disrupt them?” The only way that this can be avoided is by naming the women as people while identifying the killers as perpetrators of violence which is specifically patriarchal. They are perpetrators of crimes that can only be known as femicides. This entails painstaking processes of commemoration which acknowledge, investigate, and problematize the intersecting forms of privilege and oppression which marginalize and victimize communities of women.
Adrienne Burk celebrates the achievements of these memorials against all odds. These projects have seldom been supported by government, media or civic institutions. Thus their existence is testimony to the power of collectivity. These memorials are used and engaged in the daily life of the communities in which they stand. If indeed public memorials to violence against women have such powerful effects, it speaks to the responsibility of memory-makers of all stripes to parse through the intersecting systems at play in their creation. The power of commemoration to end violence against all women depends upon the contexts in which discussions around memory are framed. These discussions, and feminist action, must acknowledge the disparities between the diverse women in question if equitable and substantive progress is to be made. ♦