Moving from words to action at the global and grassroots levels

By Francine Filion
May 31, 2013

Violence against women and girls touches teachers at some point in their professional or personal lives. Too often, one of their sisters, mothers, daughters, teacher colleagues, friends, students or even they are living with the legacies of abuse and violent acts perpetrated by men or intimate partners. Stats Canada reports that half of all women in Canada have experienced at least one incident of physical or sexual violence since the age of 16. The Canadian Women’s Foundation Web site provides more statistics.

Research shows that adults who viewed sexually objectifying images of women in the mainstream media were more likely to be accepting of violence. There is a clear link between consumption of sexualized images, a tendency to view women as objects, and the acceptance of aggressive attitudes and behaviour as the norm. Furthermore, when children are more exposed to violent pop media, Web, social media, television, movies and video games, they become desensitized to that violence. However, despite the emphasis placed on the possibility of violent media as a risk factor for youth violence, there many other relevant risk factors that are less frequently discussed. These include education, discrimination, home life as well as poverty.

In April, the CTF Board of Directors met with MPs and Senators as part of its “Hill Day” to offer the teacher perspective on social issues that can help children and youth better succeed at school and later in life. As teachers, they reiterated their concern about the prevalence of child poverty in a nation as wealthy as Canada. While the majority of their students experience success at school, teacher leaders were worried about some of their students who are slipping through the cracks because of poverty, mental health problems, bullying, discrimination, lack of fluency in the language of instruction and insufficient resources. Teachers know that these are the youth who are most vulnerable and who may lured to human trafficking, abusive relationships and ultimately, violence.

The theme of the recent CTF Women’s Issues Symposium held April 17-19 in Ottawa dovetailed with that of this year’s session of the United Nations Commission on the Status of Women (UNCSW) held in New York in March. (More on that later in this article.)

The CTF Symposium examined the issue from different lens thanks to powerful speakers who came from a myriad of backgrounds and who shared their perspectives on the way forward.

Shari Graydon, Informed Opinions

The symposium opened with writer and activist Shari Graydon, the founder of the Informed Opinions project who has studied the participation of women in media commentary over the years. In her presentation entitled “Overcoming Anonymous: The Power of Presence”, Graydon explained that when women’s voices and knowledge are shared in the media, their views and experiences can help to influence policies and spending priorities. “Women can encourage the media that they consume to better reflect the audiences that they serve by featuring more fully clothed female role models,” said Graydon. She encouraged women to speak up in the media to counter persistent (and often unconscious) sexism and to challenge injustice in all of its forms especially in terms of violence against women.

Michèle Audette, Native Women's Association of Canada

For her part, Michèle Audette, President of the Native Women’s Association gave a passionate and historical overview of the cases of missing Aboriginal Women and Girls in Canada. Through its research project, Sisters in Spirit, her organization has been working for years to raise awareness and to find a solution.

“There is an urgent need to examine the many underlying root causes that are at the core of the high rates of violence against Aboriginal women and girls. A National Public Commission of Inquiry will reveal these root causes and only then can appropriate actions and changes be developed and implemented locally, regionally and nationally to address this tragedy – a tragedy that is affecting individuals, families, communities nations and all Canadian society," said Audette. According to her organization’s research, 40 per cent of all the cases of missing Aboriginal women have been archived with no further police investigation because of systemic discrimination. “Violence against women is a human rights issue,” she added. Audette also shared news of a positive development after a meeting she had had the previous day in Winnipeg in which her organization had finally received support by two prominent political leaders (one being the Premier of New Brunswick) for a National Public Commission of Inquiry. This was a major break for NWAC which has faced constant resistance and blocks by the Harper government. Watch her full presentation on USTream:

Kim Pate, Canadian Association of Elizabeth Fry Societies

Kim Pate, Executive Director of the Canadian Association of Elisabeth Fry Societies (CAEFS) examined the January 2012 Supreme Court of Canada decision in R. v. Ryan, involving a Nova Scotia teacher who was sexually and physically assaulted, emotionally and psychologically abused, was also threatened repeatedly with a gun and told by her husband that if she ever left, he would “kill”, “destroy” and “annihilate” Nicole Ryan and their daughter. Pate examined what the decision means in terms of providing equal benefit of the law for battered women in Canada. The CAEFS intervened in the legal case, in coalition with LEAF, to argue that battered women who take steps to use force against their abusers in order to save their and their children’s lives, are entitled to criminal law defences. “Too often, women and girls are left without support because of the legal system’s shortcomings,” said Pate. Watch Pate’s presentation on UStream:

Paul Taillefer, CTF President

For his part, CTF President Paul Taillefer described the impact of violence when it occurs in educational settings: “Teaching and learning are obstructed, the working environment of teachers is tainted and the students’ quality of learning is affected.” Taillefer also referred to Rehtaeh Parsons, the Nova Scotia teenager who was taken off life support after trying to commit suicide in April. Her grieving family said she was not only the victim of bullying, but also of sexual assault by four young men. This familiar horror story is one reminiscent of the case of Amanda Todd, the 15-year-old from Port Coquitlam, B.C., who died by suicide in 2012 after a blackmailer circulated a topless photo of her. Taillefer also referenced the court case involving teenage girls who are accused of human trafficking and leading a prostitution ring in Ottawa.

“These girls are our students,” said Taillefer. “How do we stop these incidents from reoccurring is a question everyone is grappling with.” CTF has been lobbying since 2008 for the federal government to take action against cyberbullying.

Educators perceive bullying and cyberbullying as major concerns, not only as they affect students, but as they affect teachers and education workers who are mostly women.

According to the 2006 Census, 83.6% of all elementary teachers and 57.3% at the secondary school level are women. Studies show that bullying and/or violence can occur at any point during their career.

According to a 2010 teacher survey conducted by the Nova Scotia Teachers Union (NSTU), approximately 25% of respondents reported they had experienced at least one act of physical violence from students since the start of the school year.

Teachers who responded to the survey said that experiences of mistreatment, particularly incivility from parents, coworkers and administrators and acts of violence from students, were associated with poorer health and negative job attitudes.

A 2005 teacher survey in Ontario found that bullying by parents or guardians is the second most prevalent form of bullying, after bullying by students, with 36 percent of teachers and education workers working in elementary schools and 22 percent in secondary schools reporting having been bullied.

Violence strikes women and girls from all kinds of backgrounds and of all ages. It can happen at work, in the school yard, on the street, at home and even in public places and on public transportation.

The recent gang rape and death of a young woman on a bus in India has incensed the world and coalesced action to reduce violence against women. Other similar incidents have since happened in India causing women tourists to stop visiting this country altogether for fear of their personal safety.

The Taliban shooting attack on Malala, the young Afghan girl who promoted equal rights to education is another example of violence against girls. These high profile incidents are but the tip of the iceberg for violence against women and girls in many areas of the world.

It is against this backdrop that union women from around the world gathered at the UNCSW in New York earlier in March. Eighty-five delegates came from the International Trade Union Confederation (ITUC), Education International (EI), Public Services International (PSI) and UNI Global Union. Eight teacher leaders from CTF Member organizations were also part of the EI or Canadian Labour Congress (CLC) delegations. Read the first-hand account of her experience at the UNCSW by Heather Smith, President of the New Brunswick Teachers’ Association.

Left to right: Sheena Hanley, former Deputy Secretary General of Education International; Vicky Smallman, Canadian Labour Congress and Andrée Côté, Public Service Alliance of Canada

CTF Symposium participants heard from Vicky Smallman, Women’s and Human Rights Director at the CLC; Andrée Côté, Women’s and Human Rights Officer at the Public Service Alliance of Canada (PSAC) and Sheena Hanley, former Deputy Secretary General of EI and former CTF President. Each provided an insider’s look at the UNCSW, its history and the role of the global trade union delegation. Smallman walked participants through a typical day for a trade union delegate at the UNCSW and outlined the various activities that take place – from lobbying UN Member states to preparing draft agreed conclusions to writing for the blog ( For her part, Côté described the negotiation process of the Agreed Conclusions, the challenges and successes in light of this year’s theme. Hanley spoke about the strong presence of right-wing groups which attempt to derail the democratic process of consensus-building at the UNCSW and to bring women back into roles of inequality.

Kathleen Monk, Broadbent Institute

And finally, the last speaker was Kathleen Monk of the Broadbent Institute who urged participants to flex their political muscles: “By banding together and supporting one another, we have the power to challenge the status quo and champion the kinds of issues that women care about. Together we can put forth the progressive policies that we need if we want to save our communities, our provinces, our nation, and our planet. It is only by putting more women in leadership roles that we can ensure that our governments are addressing the kinds of issues that women care about and that affect all Canadians.”


Lily Cole, Newfoundland and Labrador Teachers' Association

Lily B. Cole, Chairperson of the CTF Advisory Committee on the Status of Women spoke of the importance to teach our kids early in life about issues central to gender equality. “Education can empower young girls and boys to understand that any form of violence, abuse or controlling behaviour in a relationship must not be tolerated,” Cole said. “Using materials and resources that promote positive role models for young men and young women and challenge gender stereotypes can be an important part of examining women's representation in media and popular culture.”

And what about the men?

An ever-increasing number of men are working hard to end violence against women by promoting gender equality, especially within CTF Member organizations. Men can be champions by speaking out against violence against women and girls and by acting as role models and influencers of children and other men. The responsibility to ending violence cannot rest solely on women’s shoulders.

So let’s flex our political muscles, speak out in the media, teach our children and work for change. As a society we all stand to benefit from the ripple effect of these actions which, in the end, aim to soften our world for future generations.

8 Members of the CTF Advisory Committee on the Status of Women proudly wore their purple shoes at the Symposium to symbolize their belief in the feminist movement. Left to right: Heather Smith, NBTA; Lily Cole, NLTA; Michelle Vanhouwe, STF; Maureen Weinberger, ETFO and Shelley Morse, NSTU. Missing at time photo was taken: Shari Worsfold, YTA.



Francine Filion is the Director of Communications of the Canadian Teachers’ Federation.

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Perspectives web magazine is published by the Canadian Teachers’ Federation (CTF), a national alliance of provincial and territorial teacher organizations that represent over 273,000 elementary and secondary school teachers across Canada.

Editor In Chief: Francine Filion | Translation and Editing: Marie‑Caroline Uhel and Marie‑Hélène Larrue
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