Yesterday, December 6th, marked the 26th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre; the day Marc Lepine walked into Ecole Polytechnique and consciously chose to murder 14 women whom he despised simply because they were women and because he perceived them as feminists. Each year, on this day, people gather at monuments to reflect, to light a candle and to ignite that fire within that the violence perpetuated against women that continues to this day must be stopped. For many here in Renfrew County, yesterday was also a remembrance of the three women killed recently in Wilno, ON and surrounding area when a man who was out on parole and hell bent on revenge, walked into their homes in the morning of September 22nd 2015 and shot them. He was eventually captured outside of Ottawa later that day but three families and the community at large were left in a state of shock and asking the question, “How could something like this happen?”
Three days after the shootings, the tiny community of Wilno invited me to create and lead a candle light vigil ceremony to support those directly and indirectly affected by this violent act. Although my training as a Certified Life Cycle Celebrant includes the creation and benefits of community ceremonies, this was a first for me and one that I knew carried such importance. It was my intention to create something meaningful that would aid in the collective grief we were all experiencing.
I opened the ceremony with these words:
“Good evening and thank you to each of you for coming out tonight to support one another, this community and most of all to remember Anastasia Kuzyk, Nathalie Warmerdam and Carol Culleton: three local women whose vibrant lives came to a tragic end this past Tuesday. We gather this evening in solidarity and in shared grief and shock in the events that unfolded here in Wilno and the surrounding area on the morning of September 22nd. Gathering together tonight eases the suffering that we have all felt since hearing the news that three beloved members of this community died prematurely in a tremendous act of violence.
Experiencing this type of trauma and sadness in isolation only intensifies it. By coming tonight and seeing the faces of your fellow community members and the faces of those who have travelled from afar to be here tonight in support, helps us to understand that every one of us has been deeply impacted and forever changed by this tragedy. It is my hope that this gathering tonight will ease some of the isolation you may have been feeling. I urge you in the days and weeks to come to reach out to your neighbours, your friends and family, your spiritual leaders or community professionals if you are having difficulty understanding or processing the very normal but complicated feelings that occur in the aftermath of a tragic event such as this one.
It is a natural response to try to place blame and to figure out how something so horrific could have been prevented. Tonight, I urge you to take a deep breath and set aside these feelings of rage and blame and instead reach down into your heart and bring forth compassion and love for one another and especially for the friends and families of Anastasia, Nathalie and Carol who suffer most deeply. I also ask that we keep the Borutski family in our hearts, understanding that they, too, suffer as they attempt to come to terms with what has happened.”
After the opening words, a local man and friend of one of the victims came up and sang a moving a Capella rendition of “Tears in Heaven.” At this point, the 400+ attendees were instructed to keep their candles unlit. We stood together in semi-darkness until each slain woman was honoured by a personal friend. As each person got up and spoke, the candles were gradually lit until we stood together in the glow of hundreds of flames. Yes, we were engulfed in darkness with this tragedy and yet as each woman was honoured and her individual characteristics and personality were celebrated, we lit up that dark night with hundreds of little flames…….beacons of hope
Photo by Ryan Paulsen (Pembroke Daily Observer)
The moment of silence for private reflection was broken by a chilling and powerful song called “Warrior” by the Wyrd Sisters and sung by local musician and singer, Stephanie Pinkerton. I encourage you to listen to the song here. Following this song, everyone was invited to come forward and lay flowers at the makeshift altar. A local choir sang Leonard Cohen’s “Halleluiah” as mourners silently came forward. I closed the ceremony with the following words: “Together as a community, we share in a collective grief, that will need time and tending to before healing will occur. Our lives have forever been changed and the memory of this day will be etched in the history of Wilno and the Madawaska Valley. It is my sincerest hope that in these sacred moments of remembering, we may come closer to accepting the unacceptable and we may find some meaning where there is no meaning. May we always remember our pain so that it can be transformed into action so that we will never see history repeating itself.“
I presided over two more vigils that week; one after the annual Take Back the Night event and another community candlelight vigil in the town of Petawawa. By the time I did the Petawawa vigil, a week had passed since the shootings and the feeling in the community was one of anger. The shock was transforming and people were really furious at how this could happen: “As a community we can’t help but feel deep sadness and as the reality sets in, we are faced with a new challenge. How do we make sure this type of violence never happens again in Renfrew County? How do we begin to shift cultural perspectives and create lasting change? This issue belongs to all of us. We, as a community, can no longer turn away while women continue to be terrorized. We must be willing and vigilant in creating an environment of safety and one where women can seek assistance to feel safe and protected and actually achieve it. As the grief settles into your bones, your feelings may shift to that of anger and rage.This anger can fuel change; lasting change and tonight, I hope that as we come together and reflect on these three beautiful women, that we will all pledge to do whatever we can to prevent this from happening again. We all care about what has happened. We feel deeply about what has happened and we must now heed the call to end violence against women once and for all.”
I urged the crowd to “never forget the devastation and pain.” I talked about how we must take these raw emotions and transform them into action. It was clear to me then that in the not-so-distant future, we would resume our regular lives and so it was critical that we vow to keep the momentum going to find constructive, effective solutions. Not long after the shootings in Wilno, people did return to their normal daily lives and soon there were groups cropping up to begin fund raising for the wave of Syrian refugees who would be coming to Canada in the coming months. I had originally signed up to be a part of this grassroots group but I felt an internal struggle. I was amazed at how local people rallied together and came up with incredibly creative fundraisers and events to raise thousands of dollars in a relatively short amount of time to support new Canadians. Although I understood and supported their efforts, I couldn’t help but wonder what would happen if the same amount of energy, creativity and support was shown for the women living in Renfrew County right now who live in terror every single day and night; terror bestowed upon them by their intimate partners. And I felt frustrated that, as I had predicted, we went back to our normal lives and nothing had been done or changed since the Wilno shootings. The Wilno shootings shed light on the insidious problem of violence against women and people were left with a deep need to help and yet not sure how to do so.
I recently met with JoAnne Brooks of the Women’s Sexual Assault Centre of Renfrew County and I asked her what people could do right now to support women in crisis. This is what she had to say: “Women who unexpectedly experience violence tell us that practical help makes a difference. Gas cards from the Canadian Tire gas bar means that lawyers appointments can be gotten to, medical advice can be sought – especially in our large geographical region where we have no buses. Walmart and Giant Tiger gift cards mean that women and children can get some food and items like underwear, socks, shoes, shampoo. When women are ‘matched’ with other folks kindness it often provides a ‘glimmer’ of light that a stranger cares. Especially the winter season when it is dark and cold a wee bit of ‘comfort & joy’ can go a long way to making a difference for a woman and her children.”
In this season of giving, as you make your way around to the various shops and stores in Ottawa and Renfrew County, please consider adding a gift card to your shopping list knowing that your generosity does make a difference in the lives of women who are in violent situations. JoAnne goes on to say: “Every holiday season WSAC distributes holiday gifts for women and children in Renfrew County. Though gifts are wonderful and we are extremely appreciative for your donations. The holidays are often a time when women feel that they don’t have many choices. Gift Cards provide them with the freedom to make choices specific to their families wants and needs for the holidays. We appreciate any and all offerings that can be shared with women and children. Gift Card Suggestions: Grocery Stores, Gas Stations, Walmart, Shoppers Drug Mart, Dollar Store, Giant Tiger.“
If you want to contribute to the well being of women in Renfrew County consider sending a monetary donation or a gift card donation to: WSAC, PO Box 1274, Pembroke, ON K8A 6Y6
Sadly, there is a need to support women and children in our own communities. If you were devastated by the Wilno shootings and have wondered ever since how you can help, please consider JoAnne’s suggestions above and make a donation to your local women’s shelter and/ or women’s sexual assault centre.
“I am an older woman now
And I will heed my own cries
And I will a fierce warrior be
’til not another woman dies
I can and will fight
I can and will a warrior be
It is my nature and my duty
It is the womanhood in me.”