Documentary to give voice to key players in violence against women movement

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Eileen Morrow, Gloria Harris, Andree Cote – and the list goes on.

These women may not be household names, but when it comes to violence against women, they’re a few of the stalwarts who have worked tirelessly in communities across Ontario, making a difference within the shelter movement and battling policy-makers and governments, one issue at a time.

Now, a new documentary is in the works to showcase the stories of five Ontario activists and their work spanning more than three decades.

The project is the brainchild of Leighann Burns, executive director of Harmony House, and made possible through a partnership with the Community First: Impacts of Community Engagement (CFICE) program, which is co-managed by Carleton University and the Canadian Alliance for Community-Service Learning, with the support of a secretariat housed at the Carleton Centre for Community Innovation.

CFICE – made up of five issue-related hubs – is a seven-year, $2.5-million action research project that aims to strengthen Canadian non-profits, universities, colleges and funding agencies to build more successful, innovative, resilient and prosperous communities. The violence against women hub is co-led by Carleton Law Prof. Diana Majury and Kim Pate, executive director of the Canadian Elizabeth Fry Societies.

“They have been doing this work over a long period of time, over many changes in policy and many different governments … they were there doing the work at a time when you couldn’t even talk about violence against women, right through to it being on the front pages of the news every day,” Majury says about the activists being interviewed for the documentary.

“They are our sources of experience and knowledge on the issue. This is really exciting that we are going to have them on tape for now and for future generations. We’re hoping, ultimately, to be able to do this with women across Canada and then have some of the newer women working in the area comment and respond, and develop a bit of a dialogue between the generations of women working on this issue.”

While the documentary is in the development phase, Majury says it’s a timely project given the numerous stories in the media about sexual harassment and sexual assault.

“Right now, there is huge interest in this issue and huge interest in the question of why women don’t come forward with some of these issues. These are the women who understand the issues more than any of us because they have worked with the women for 30 years,” says Majury.

The violence against women hub has a steering committee made up of women from across Canada representing a number of organizations seeking to develop research partnerships with academics and community organizations.

“It’s rethinking where we are at, as a movement, across the country and how we can move these issues forward onto the policy agenda in an effective way,” Majury says of the hub’s overall goal.

The documentary will not only provide a historical record, but it will highlight what changes have been achieved, what those changes have meant and what the future holds.

If the recent cases of sexual harassment and sexual assault have shown anything, Majury says, it’s that women are still hesitant to come forward.

“It’s just so hard for women, still. In that way, the yardsticks have not changed. How could there be a stigma attached to being a victim of a crime? There is, hugely, and women are uncomfortable and afraid, still. So, on lots of levels the yardsticks haven’t changed.”

For Leighann Burns, the documentary is a critical tool to capture the knowledge of activists before they leave the movement.

“It was occurring to me that a lot of my allies are retiring or about to retire and leaving the movement and I know the wealth of information that they have in their heads,” explains Burns.

“As a sector, we haven’t been particularly good at documenting our history. We’ve been too damned busy making it,” she says.

Burns is working with a Toronto-based filmmaker on this project. Three interviews were completed in November and more are scheduled for December. It’s not yet known when the final product will be ready.

An example of a story likely to be told is about the impact that activists had when Ontario conservatives under Mike Harris released their 1995 “Framework for Action on the Prevention of Violence Against Women in Ontario,” also known as the “McGuire Report,” which was widely condemned by as a move to dismantle the shelter system within the province.

But Burns says the report was essentially shelved and a new strategy developed as a result of the network of those working in the shelter system.

“It very nearly became a reality if it weren’t for a couple of the women, involved in the film, who grabbed the report and threw it out into an audience of activists who distributed it all over the province. That plan came to a rapid halt as a result.

“That is an example of an action that two women took, on the spur of the moment, that literally saved the shelter movement in Ontario. So, we want to inspire that kind of thing … You can make a difference, your one seemingly small action can have a huge impact,” she says.

The documentary, she says, will serve as a tool for the new guard in the movement, and potentially for educators and policy-makers.

“It’s hard to map the future when you don’t remember the past – to have a record of what happened before … that we were here and that we did stuff and that it did matter, particularly at this time in history when things seem quite grim.

“All the national voices have been silenced through funding cuts and policy changes that have gutted them – it’s been hard to do the work.”

While there are times it seems as though progress has been slow, there has been action that benefits women, she says, and points to improvements within the justice system and how the police and Crown attorney handle these cases as an example.

“The big thing is to record, for posterity, that these women were here and made a difference, often in very difficult working circumstances and with little remuneration. It is my hope that people can learn lessons (from the documentary) and get up to speed faster, they don’t have to go through all the stuff we went through.

Burns says the CFICE partnership has opened the door to this and future collaborations.

“This project is providing resources and possibilities for those of us on the front lines to implement things we would like to do but don’t have the resources to do.

“It’s time in our evolution as a feminist anti-violence movement to formalize our relationships with academics in terms of documenting what we know about violence against women, but also partnering and doing more and better research that would be framed with a feminist lens.”

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Maria McClintock

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