Julie Girard-Lemay | CUPE Staff

On December 6, 2022, CUPE Quebec opened its Human Rights Symposium with an event to commemorate the women victims of the Polytechnique massacre. At the end of the province’s 12 days of action to denounce violence against women, CUPE members were invited to attend sessions on dealing with systemic racism, discrimination against Indigenous peoples and violence against women, and identify concrete solutions to combat the different types of violence that women face.

On December 6, 1989, an armed man stormed into the École polytechnique de Montréal and murdered 14 women, injuring another 10. Among the dead was 25 year-old CUPE member Maryse Laganière, a budget clerk for the school’s finance department, killed as she was leaving at the end of her workday. The shooter blamed women for his rejection from the engineering program. This massacre is a femicide — the most extreme form of discrimination and violence against women and girls. These women died simply because they were women.

In 2021, 173 women and girls were murdered. This represents a 26% increase in violent killings of women and girls compared to 2019 pre-pandemic numbers. It comes as no surprise, as most cases of spousal violence take place in private, at home, a situation made worse by pandemic lockdowns.

There are several types of femicide. For example, women worldwide are much more likely than men to be assaulted, raped or murdered by a current or former partner. In this case, the killings of women are known as intimate or family femicides, or more commonly, domestic homicides.

There are non-intimate femicides, when women are killed by a stranger merely because they are women, such as the rampage at Polytechnique Montréal in 1989.

There are also femicides rooted in gendered racial violence, such as when Indigenous women and girls are murdered. The victims in these cases are at higher risk because of their combined identity as Indigenous women. Many other types of femicide exist as well, including armed-conflict or lesbophobic femicides.

Regardless of the descriptor, femicides are proof that discrimination, violence and inequalities that women are subjected to are still spreading like wildfire in our society.

Workplaces are allies in the face of violence against women

The workplace is often the last refuge of freedom for women who are victims of domestic violence and provides them with an avenue to outside help. For these women who feel isolated and have lost control of their life, work can become a safe space where they can reveal their situation. Unfortunately, domestic violence often follows victims to work in the shape of abusive communication, stalking, harassment and even abusive contact with co-workers. This is why colleagues and unions are crucial to help them find a foothold to access assistance and information.

There are different warning signs that we can pay attention to at work, that could suggest that a woman is a victim of domestic violence, such as coming in late, absenteeism, self-isolation or hurried responses to phone calls or text messages, while appearing to be stressed and fatigued. Domestic violence can be physical, but also psychological, financial or take another form.

Together, we have a duty to listen and offer help to a co-worker who reveals they are experiencing domestic violence. The question is whether we are doing enough.

Employers must ensure the safety of employees exposed to situations of violence at work. To do so, they should be proactive and adopt a domestic violence policy, which should:

  • Identify the risks of domestic violence in the workplace or nearby and adopt safety measures such as secure building access;
  • Prevent family femicides in the workplace by prohibiting family members from loitering there;
  • Develop a training plan for all staff on spotting signs of domestic violence, resorting to appropriate intervention techniques, and sharing information on resources to help women victims of violence;
  • Establish a procedure to be followed when an employee reports domestic violence, that guarantees their right to privacy and confidentiality, and includes the implementation of an individual safety plan (changes to their schedule, to their phone number or email address, etc.).

Unions also play a key role in fighting domestic violence. They can put in place joint union-employer processes to establish a risk prevention strategy and intervention mechanisms when cases are reported, or to adopt a gender-based violence policy.

Through collective bargaining we can ensure that collective agreements include crucial provisions for paid leave for court dates or appointments that victims of violence would benefit from. Collective agreements should also include paid domestic violence leave and shield women from discipline and administrative monitoring, guarantee their job security if they miss work and safeguard their privacy.

CUPE’s Domestic Violence and the Workplace Bargaining Guide will help you negotiate paid leave and other protective measures for workers confronting spousal violence. You can also consult the CLC’s Domestic violence at work resource centre, which features a map of Canada comparing domestic violence legislation across the country.

Furthermore, every local should identify key people who are specially trained to listen to women victims of violence and support them. We must strive to make our locals safe, judgement-free spaces that welcome all victims of any form of harassment or violence. This is particularly important in work settings where women are repeatedly confronted by disproportionate levels of harassment and violence, particularly in public service sectors.

A candle in memory of one of Polytechnique's victimsNow, 33 years have passed since the tragedy at Polytechnique Montréal, yet we still desperately need safer workplaces, schools and homes. The National Day of Remembrance and Action to End Violence Against Women, held every December 6 in the memory of the 14 young victims at Polytechnique Montréal, invites us to commit to doing more.

We must keep asking our governments to do more. They need to take real steps to develop and implement the long-awaited cross-sectoral national action plan against gender-based violence. A collaboration was announced between the federal, provincial, and territorial governments on November 9, 2022 consisting merely of a wish list of actions.

In addition, all provinces should follow the example set by Quebec, Ontario, Alberta and Saskatchewan, which have taken a step in the right direction by adding measures combating domestic violence to their occupational health and safety legislation. But even in these four provinces, the situation remains critical and activists are begging the authorities to do more to protect women from violence and from attempted murder.

Canada must start investing in public services that keep victims and survivors safe, meaningfully address violence and harassment in the world of work and introduce strong monitoring and enforcement mechanisms.

Days of action to end violence against women

“It is time to take off our rose-coloured glasses,” CUPE members pledged at CUPE Quebec’s Human Rights Symposium, December 2022.
Every year in Quebec, from November 25 to December 6, we observe 12 days of action to denounce violence against women. In Canada and around the world, activists mobilize against gender-based violence for 16 days, until December 10, International Human Rights Day. These campaigns are an opportunity for everyone to reflect on the violence that affects women in all settings and to develop action plans to eradicate this crisis.

Every year, CUPE marks the National Day of Remembrance and Action to End Violence Against Women, December 6, joining our voices with those across the country calling for change.

In 2023, you too can plan ahead to organize or take part in an activity to highlight December 6 in your workplace or your community. Moreover, you can use the opportunity to press for concrete commitments from the provincial and federal governments to eliminate ongoing systemic violence and protect women at work and at home.

Consult CUPE’s Stop Workplace Sexual Violence Guide to raise awareness, support survivors and challenge gender-based violence. You can also download and share CUPE’s Violence Prevention Kit.