On April 23, 25-year-old Richmond Hill man Alek Minassian allegedly drove a rented van at high speeds through a busy area in Toronto’s bustling North York neighbourhood, deliberately running over pedestrians in the process.
The attack, which took place on one of the first genuinely warm spring days of the year, killed 10 people and injured 16—some critically. The incident, which started at Yonge and Finch and proceeded south along the sidewalk until about Sheppard Ave., was the deadliest of its kind in Canadian history.
While his motive is not entirely clear, evidence suggests that alleged attacker Minassian was connected to the misogynistic “incel” subculture.
That news broke after police revealed that more women than men were hit during the attack.
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A few days after the incident, the Peel Committee Against Woman Abuse (PCAWA) released a statement on the attack, saying that it was crucial to address the role misogyny (or woman-hating) played in the tragedy.
Their statement was fitting, especially in light of the fact that, in 2018, there has been a troubling amount of attacks—many of them fatal—against women.
By March of this year, five Peel Region (Brampton and Mississauga) women had been reportedly killed by family members and romantic partners. In less than three months, Baljit Thandi, 32, Avtar Kaur, 60, Elaine Bellevue, 61, Hoden Said, 30 and Alicia Lewandowski, 25 all succumbed to injuries sustained in attacks by men they allegedly knew.
According to police, Thandi and her mother, Kaur, were allegedly stabbed to death in their Brampton home by Thandi’s husband, 29-year-old Dalwinder Singh. Bellevue was allegedly killed by her husband, Robert (Bob) Bellevue, who was subsequently charged with first-degree murder. Bellevue was also charged with attempted murder in connection with an attack on one of his teenage daughters.
Police say Said was found dead in her Brampton home with obvious signs on trauma in January. A Canada-wide arrest warrant was subsequently issued for 46-year-old Nicholas Anthony Young in connection with her death.
On March 5, police were called to the scene of a shooting that left Alicia Lewandowski, 25, dead. That same day, officers arrested 39-year-old Toronto man Joseph Chang. He was subsequently charged with first-degree murder in connection with her murder.
The rash of femicides was concerning, especially to PCAWA.
“Women’s bodies, women’s autonomy, women’s voices and essentially women’s rights are not valued by society as they should be,” says Sharon Floyd, executive director of Interim Place, a women’s shelter located in Mississauga.
“This is why we have continued acts of violence against women in our society. Then when a woman is murdered we are outraged and so we should be. The reality is women continue to experience and live through repeated acts of violence from the men in their lives on a daily basis and if we do not hold men accountable for this behavior, women will die.”
The statistics on violence against women are troubling.
Data from the Canadian Women’s Foundation indicates that half of all Canadian women have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. The foundation also says that, each year, Canadians collectively spend $7.4 billion to deal with the aftermath of spousal violence alone.
That figure, taken from the Department of Justice, says that those costs include emergency room visits, loss of income and funerals.
The foundation says that 67 per cent of Canadians say they have personally known at least one woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse. It also says one woman is killed by her intimate partner every six days in Canada.
“Out of the 83 police-reported intimate partner homicides in 2014, 67 of the victims–over 80 per cent–were women,” the foundation’s website reads. “On any given night in Canada, 3,491 women and their 2,724 children sleep in shelters because it isn’t safe at home.”
While #MeToo opened a dialogue about how women are treated, misogyny is—and remains—a deeply common and troubling phenomenon worldwide. The “incel” movement that Minassian has been linked to caters to men who identify as “involuntarily celibate.” The movement, which started and flourished online, began garnering mainstream attention in 2014 when 22-year-old California man Elliot Rodger killed six people and injured 14 others during an attack in Isla Vista, California.
Rodger killed himself inside his vehicle before police could arrest him.
In a video uploaded to YouTube prior to the attack, Rodger said that he wanted to punish the women who rejected him and the sexually active men whom he envied.
PCAWA came out strongly against the movement in the aftermath of the van attack in Toronto.
“This misogynistic ideology is the epitome and embodiment of toxic masculinity and rape culture. As a society we must understand that it is this misogynistic way of thinking that is at the root of all violence towards women. It is this type of thinking that renders women as mere objects to be used and controlled by men, with the constant threat of violence should women not comply,” the statement reads.
Floyd says that, in cases of violence against women, power is indeed a factor.
“In acts of violence against women and in situations where women end up dead there is power and a sense of entitlement by the men in their lives that is being threatened or slipping away,” she says. “This loss of power and control is unbearable and violence is the choice made to reconcile this.”
In Peel, advocacy groups have been paying attention to the sudden rash of femicides.
“In the past decade, 32 women have been murdered in Peel,” says Anita Stellinga, director at United Way.
“I can’t quite say that it’s on the rise, but we’re definitely concerned about [the killings in 2018] and the impact on women and their families and society in general. We know that women live at greatest risk than men of sexual assault, domestic violence, harassment and human trafficking. We need to ensure that women have access to services and that we stand up against these crimes against women.”
In many cases, abuse goes unreported because women fear being stigmatized or, in many cases, not believed.
In other cases, a woman may be financially dependent on her abuser and therefore afraid to leave, lest she not have a safety net to fall back on. This scenario becomes even more complex when children or other dependents are involved.
“It takes a lot for a woman to report because of the impact it can have on her and the assumptions that go with being a victim or victimized. The onus is often on women, and there’s a cultural context of violence against women—there’s a shame, a stigma, the impact on the family, not wanting to be victimized again by the process. Many go unreported,” says Stellinga.
“We hear from the community and from our service providers that there’s a great deal of personal cost to women when it comes to seeking help. Even if they were to call an agency to take that step and identify that something is wrong, it can be a frightening experience because it can turn their life upside down. If she’s dependent on income or family circumstances, there’s a lot to consider.”
Floyd says there are also a number of barriers that make it difficult for women to seek help.
“Women experience multiple barriers when trying to report violence. One of the concerns that women face is whether they will be believed or not when they disclose the violence that they have experienced. Women struggle with feelings of shame and guilt that they are partly to blame for the violence they have experienced and that it is their fault and if only they were different then they would be treated differently,” she says.
“Some women stay in abusive relationships because they and their children will be homeless if they leave. It is unfortunate that women have to weigh between living a life of poverty and homelessness or live a life with violence. That is truly not a choice that any woman should have to make for herself nor her children.”
Experts also stress that abuse can happen to any woman at anytime, some women face additional barriers and struggle more as a result.
“Violence against women happens in all cultures and religions, in all ethnic and racial communities, at every age, and in every income group,” says Floyd.
“Aboriginal women, women of colour, women living with a disability and women from the LGBTQ community experience multiple additional barriers each day due to the fact that they need to access systems and supports that were not designed for them. Many of the systems that women rely on are not designed for their inclusion which makes them challenging for women to navigate.”
“More specifically, Aboriginal women are 3.5 times more likely to be victims of violence compared to non-Aboriginal women. Sixty-six per cent of all female victims of sexual assault are under the age of twenty-four (11 percent are under the age of eleven) and 60 per cent of women with a disability experience some form of violence. Immigrant women may be more vulnerable to violence due to economic dependence, language barriers, and a lack of information about community resources.”
In some cases, women who seek help return their abusive partner.
“Due to the multiple barriers that women face they may feel they have no choice but to return to an abusive partner if they see these barriers, such as accessing child care, employment, income, medical supports, legal supports, to be insurmountable,” says Floyd.
“For example, they may be struggling financially and do not have the financial means to support themselves and their children without the support of their abusive partner. Some women may choose to return because they do not want to split up the family and their abusive partner has promised to get help or counselling and because they love their partner, they are hopeful that their partner can and will change.”
When women do decide to come forward, some find out that resources—and beds in shelters—are scarce.
“We know that in the region, we have one shelter for abused women, and both locations are in Mississauga. There is nothing in Brampton or Caledon and the next nearest shelter is in Orangeville. There’s a significant lack of access to services and long waitlists,” says Stellinga.
“People have to drive far to access services, if you have to wait six to 18 months, you can only imagine the impact. We’re very concerned about that aspect. We’re looking to work with other stakeholders and all levels of government to address these issues. We need a fair share of resources for our region.”
In many cases, women aren’t aware of the resources available to them.
“Unfortunately we are not able to fully meet the demand for the services and supports that women need that are fleeing an abusive relationship,” says Floyd.
“There are supports out there however one of the challenges that we face as service providers is ensuring that women know that we exist and we are here to help them and can connect them with other supports in the community as well that can assist them in accessing the other supports that they need to live a life free from violence.”
And while it’s important to increase resources in a growing region, it’s also crucial to—whenever possible—work to prevent tragedies before they happen.
“Prevention should start early in life, by educating and working with our youth promoting respectful relationships and gender equality. Broad, cultural messages make a difference in what young children see and hear, from their families, friends, neighbours and their role models so we need to be mindful of who our children are learning from as role models in real time and through media,” says Floyd.
Floyd also says that men can be an active, integral and positive part of the solution.
“Men play a crucial role in rape prevention as they can and should speak up and not remain silent or tolerate any comments or actions that diminish women or reinforce power over women. It is important that we create opportunities for girls to have full participation in their communities as leaders, innovators and champions.”
Floyd also says the public can work to compel media outlets to depict women differently, all while actively supporting resources within their communities.
“Common gender stereotypes found in the media have a powerful influence over how society views girls and how girls view themselves. Individuals and residents can reach out to donate and offer financial support to their local shelter that is open around the clock to support women and their children access the essential services, supports and resources they need to live a life free from violence,” she says.
“Friends and neighbors and employers can reach out to a woman who they believe has or is experiencing violence and offer to listen. The Region can fund programs and services that support women and their children fleeing violence, they can also fund public education and awareness initiatives and support non-profit organizations in getting the word out there that they exist and how people can connect with them for support. Violence against women and girls impacts us all.”
Prevention also begins by letting women know that they’re valued and that they should be on the lookout for “red flags” in their relationships.
“Keep your eyes and ears open to what’s happening. Understand that you are not to blame for your abuse or to your children’s exposure to it. It has a profound impact on children, children who witness violence are more likely to have psychiatric disorders. People must understand that they are not alone,” says Stellinga.
“There are many forms of abuse—verbal, financial, sexual, physical, stalking, mental, emotional, etc. It’s being cognizant of knowing there are supports in the community. Every relationship needs to be respectful and caring and loving. If you’re threatened or you feel like this kind of behaviour is not what you consider to be loving, such as if there’s abuse or shouting or control or taking things away or limiting who you can talk to, know that these are not part of healthy relationships and this can escalate over time.”
And while experts say there are things to look out for, Floyd says it’s important to affirm that abuse is never the victim’s fault and is not always something that be prevented—especially when society doesn’t take women’s rights, safety and autonomy as seriously as it should.
“Violence against women is a societal issue and not to be positioned in a manner that places the onus on women. It can happen to any woman based on the fact that she is a woman. This fear of violence can affect what women choose to wear, where they go, who they go with, and how they travel. It limits women’s choices on a daily basis,” says Floyd.
“However, none of these things have anything to do with why women continue to experience sexual violence. These are the things that the media and many others focus on in order to blame women and shame women and to avoid what truly has to take place which is holding perpetrators accountable.”
Floyd also says that certain occurrences in relationships should be taken seriously, and that a woman should be wary of any partner who calls her names, insults or criticizes her, controls who she speaks to and when, tells her who she can and cannot be friends with or monitors her clothing and appearance.
“If a young girl or woman feels like she needs to be careful about what she says and/or does to keep their partner from getting angry, or that she is not free to make decisions/choices for herself, she should reach out for help and support.”
As for where women can turn in the event of an abusive situation or emergency, there are resources available in Peel.
“Interim Place has a 24-hour crisis line that is answered by trained staff who respond to women who are seeking crisis intervention, support, help in leaving an abusive relationship or someone who just needs someone to talk to about what it is that they are currently going through with someone else who will understand and listen to them without any judgement,” says Floyd.
“Interim Place also operates two emergency shelters in Mississauga and a Community Support and Outreach Program that supports women in the community who may not access the Interim Place Shelter. People can also go to the Peel Committee Against Woman Abuse website, pcawa.net for a list of resources and supports.
Women who access Interim Place can receive assistance in the form of safety planning, supportive counselling, safe and secure shelter, provision of food and more (clothing, hygiene products, etc) emergency transportation, risk assessments, assistance with housing applications, information on rights, options, and available services, supports for system navigation, assistance with information on immigration, education and employment and referrals to other community supports and services.
Women can also access advocacy and support with legal matters and court support, social, recreational and educational group support and children’s programming.
But while more can be done to strengthen and expand local resources, Floyd says positive change involves working hard, as a society, to condemn and eliminate violence against women.
“Interim Place shelters are often full and are not able to house all the women who contact us that require shelter and there are times when women are supported to access safety and shelter in another Region due to lack of space,” she says.
“Ideally it would be great if women could remain in their homes and the individual in their household who is perpetrating the violence against them is the one who has to leave but that is not the reality that women face. Building more shelters is not the solution, however based on the issues we as organization face in meeting the demands of women who contact us and as long as violence against women exists in our community, we are glad that we have a place like Interim Place where women can go to be safe and receive essential supports for themselves and their children.”
For women who do need immediate help, Stellinga is hopeful that more local resources will become available.
“I’m optimistic that services will grow,” she says.
“The province has proposed [policies that will combat] gender-based violence, and that will hopefully mean that Peel will get a fair portion of their resources. That’s been a very positive occurrence.”
Women who are victims of violence can call Interim Place’s Crisis line at 905-403-0864 or access pcawa.net for a list of community resources and supports.