December 6: Workplace Violence Against Women in Canada Today
On December 6, 1989, 14 young women were murdered at Polytechnique Montreal, one of Canada’s most tragic acts of violent misogyny. Every December 6 onward, we commemorate the lives lost in this event and renew our collective commitment to fighting violence and misogyny. Even after three decades, this fight is far from over in Canada. It was only two years ago that a Toronto van drove into pedestrians in April 2018, killing 8 people and severely injuring many more, motivated by the accused’s hatred of women.
While we often think of workplaces as safe havens, they also are not immune to violent acts against women. Attacks or threats against women have been unsuccessful, thwarted, or deescalated at their workplaces that don’t make the news but this doesn’t reduce the gravity of this issue. The stories that make headlines are unfortunately the most serious and heartbreaking. We should remember that in 1996, Theresa Vince was murdered by her Chatham Sears department store manager after years of sexual harassment. In 2005, Lori Dupont was murdered by her ex-partner, a coworker at Hotel-Dieu Hospital in Windsor, Ontario after staff failed to speak up and intervene earlier. A vengeful ex-partner or abusive partner coming to the worksite constitutes workplace violence.
As Ontario Federation of Labour Secretary-Treasurer Patty Coates stressed in 2016, “no woman should have to choose between her safety and her job” in reference to December 6, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Workplaces can play a pivotal role in protecting and preventing violence against women, regardless of who the perpetrator may be, so long as employers are willing to make the effort to protect their workers. After all, there is much more to setting up a proper safety plan and support system than compiling support hotlines for employees. If we can take any lessons away from the stories of Theresa Vince and Lori Dupont, it’s that their coworkers could have made a difference if employees knew how to recognize harassment and potential violence and felt confident in how to respond. Companies can contribute so much more to normalizing conversations about violence against women to proactively protect all employees.
First, setting up formal and mandatory training ensures that all employees can recognize and name signs of violence and know how to respond helps. Through this training, workers should understand what constitutes harassment and assault in the workplace and that it won’t be tolerated. Second, if there are security personnel on-site, it’s important to leverage their input in the creation of procedures as they are most familiar with logistics and work most closely with imminent dangers. Whether it’s screening visitors, physically responding to a concern or threat, or controlling workplace access, it’s critical that they have input into and know the safety plans. Third, the employer must have robust and thorough plans on addressing harassment and assault. Many questions need to be proactively addressed for smooth execution when the policies are launched. For instance, what immediate steps are taken once someone expresses concerns for their safety or others’ safety? Who makes final decisions about the company’s response? What department oversees concerns? Would Human Resources immediately arrange a meeting with the employee or does this take over a week? If the perpetrator is an employee, what is the response and when is it initiated? Are there widely-known and standardized rules on relocating or separating employees? If an organization is engaged and confident in the creating and implementing plans to stop violence against women, then their employees will feel more empowered to contribute to the fight.
December 6 isn’t just a day to remember a Montreal tragedy that rocked the nation 31 years ago. It’s also a reminder that the fight to eliminate misogyny is far from over, but we are not helpless in protecting women and ourselves from future dangerous incidents, especially if they occur at work. We can prepare ourselves to respond quickly and appropriately, making everyone feel safe when they arrive. Putting elaborate safety plans in place isn’t a small task, but it’s worth the hard work when no employee has to think twice about choosing between safety and their job.