WiTOPoli Weekly: Friday, April 1st


A roundup of some of the latest news in women, Toronto, and/or politics this week. What stories did you read this week? Tell us in the comments.

  • The Black Lives Matter demonstration at Toronto Police Headquarters is still going strong, after protests started on March 21st. This week, BLMTO released a mixtape featuring Toronto artists to support their cause, and 3 councillors delivered a petition and motion on police accountability to city council
  • Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam hosted a great panel of women’s political engagement this week – catch up on the conversation here if you missed it.
  • After last Sunday’s attacks in Lahore, Pakistan, Toronto’s Pakistani community organized a vigil at Queen’s Park on and shared their solidarity in the wake of the tragedy
  • Sponsorship groups for Syrian refugees are expressing concerns about the slowing pace of arrivals.
  • PEI announced that islanders will soon have access to abortion services, which has been unavailable in the province for over 30 years. Earlier this year, PEI pro-choice activists made plans to sue the provincial government over the long-standing lack of services.
  • A whole bunch of stuff was discussed and voted on at City Council on Thursday, including plans for SmartTrack and the East Gardiner. Check out Neville Park’s liveblog for Torontoist for the most salient details.


Female city councillors & candidates to explain #WhyWeRun for office

Women in Toronto Politics (@WiTOpoli) invites female leaders from across the city to join a Twitter chat about #WhyWeRun for municipal office and school boards. Join @WiTOpoli for this online conversation happening on Twitter at the hashtag #WhyWeRun on Wednesday, July 16th from 7 – 9pm.

This chat will feature women who currently hold municipal office in Toronto, as well as mayoral, city council and school board candidates in the upcoming 2014 race.

This spring, Equal Voice Canada launched their #RespectHer campaign to expose the everyday sexism experienced by female politicians across Canada. In light of these revelations, the #WhyWeRun chat will bring together local leaders to discuss what inspires their political engagement, the obstacles they’ve faced, the tools, resources and support they’ve drawn upon to overcome them, and how to make politics a more welcoming space for women.

Join @WiTOpoli on July 16th for the #WhyWeRun chat.

Ask Your Candidate: Public Health

By: Lauryn Kronick

Access to physicians, community healthcare services and programs is essential for Torontonians to maintain a healthy body and mind and to be able to get the care they need. Women, especially those from low-income communities, expectant mothers, single parents, and senior citizens, often don’t have adequate access to the health services they need. Here are some questions you can ask your ward’s candidates about the city’s public health concerns.

  1.    What are ward candidates’ ideas for Toronto Public Health to increase and improve their services and programs for marginalized communities? Last year,Toronto Public Health identified that racialized community members were more likely to experience poorer health outcomes and ‘high priority’ areas show the signs of inequalities of health. This increases the risks of further health complications and disease especially with the common scenarios of over-crowded walk-in clinics that have long wait times. Proximity to transit which connects people to community health centres, accessible programs with flexible hours and more family physicians who have openings for new patients are all issues which continue to affect marginalized communities and should be a priority on ward candidates’ agendas.
  2.    Ask your candidate on how they plan on addressing public health access for street-involved folks and harm reduction services, which are constantly on the chopping block for cuts each year.  It’s no secret that shelters in Toronto are over-crowded, resources are stretched thin and there is a need for a shelter specifically for LGBTQ youth. The 2014 city budget drew concerns that shelter occupancy rates are still at 90%, and city council hasn’t followed through on the promise to bring this number down. For street-involved women and women who need access to harm reduction services, there is room for improvement in moving forward to ensuring that the city’s more vulnerable women in these situations are getting the services and care they need. Are candidates in favour of cutting harm reduction services that are offered through community health centres and AIDS Service Organizations? What are their views on extending resources for street-involved populations beyond the downtown core and addressing homelessness numbers in areas that may be overlooked?
  3. How do your candidates prioritize the health of children and youth? Are they in favour of continuing to support programs that focus on keeping kids active and healthy? Initiatives that focus on healthy and active living,specifically for children, are a great way of encouraging youth to take care of their health in the early stages of life. Student nutrition programs in schools have received sufficient funding over the past few years; does this remain a priority for the candidates in your ward? Youth mental health is one area that’s been largely talked about in the public sphere recently—does your candidate support programs and initiatives that provide support for children and youth experiencing mental health issues?

While Toronto Public Health and The City of Toronto do offer a wide range of services and programs, many of them specifically for women, public health is one of the areas that experiences budgets cuts each year. Each time a program gets its funding reduced, we may not know how much this actually harms the members of the community it affects. Talk to your ward candidate and see where their priorities lie on the public health spectrum and see if they truly have their community’s best interests covered.


Ask Your Candidate: City Programs and Grants

By: Lauren Simmons

The City of Toronto funds hundreds of programs for residents and distributes a number of grants to support organizations. Some of these programs are particularly important in making our city as livable as possible for women and other equity-seeking groups, and it’s important to know where the candidates in your ward stand.

1. What are your ward’s candidates’ positions on the City of Toronto Welcome Policy? This policy provides a subsidy to help low-income families access recreation programs like swimming lessons and day camps, and is crucial to increasing access to city programs for all Toronto’s residents. In the past, the Welcome Policy has come under fire at City Hall – as recently as January, when debating the 2014 budget, Mayor Ford floated the possibility of charging an application fee for families who use the Welcome Policy. Ask your potential city councillor where they stand on the Welcome Policy – will they defend it, and at what cost?

2. Where does your candidate want to see the City’s grant money go? The City of Toronto supports organizations that do social, economic and cultural work through various forms of community funding. It is helpful for voters to know which of these grants a candidate supports, and to what extent they want to allocate city funds to these interests. Find out what your candidate’s priorities are when it comes to allocating grants – do they support arts and cultural organizations? Services for newcomers? Community organizations? LGBTQ programs? Environmental groups? Assess your candidates’ grant funding priorities and see if they align with yours.

3. Does the city currently have the funds for the programs your candidate supports/proposes, and if not, where does he/she believe the should money come from? It’s easy for candidates to say that they want to see more money go to improving the tree canopy, or supporting libraries, or LGBTQ youth, but where would they take that money from? Seeing which programs your potential councillors de-prioritize can be just as telling as seeing what they put at the top of the heap, so take time to ask them where you think our money doesn’t need to go.

The various programs and grants covered by the City of Toronto budget are as complicated and faceted as the residents of the city itself, and no one candidate will be able to declare support for all of them equally. By taking time to assess which programs matter to you, to your communities, and to the equity-seeking groups you belong to and support, you can be better informed when discussing these programs with your potential representatives.


We want to meet you at the WiTOpoli mixer series!

Siva Vijenthira & Susan Gapka at a WiTOpoli mixer in early 2013

Siva Vijenthira & Susan Gapka at a WiTOpoli mixer in early 2013

As we approach an election year, Women in Toronto Politics is beginning to formulate plans for community outreach and resident engagement. It’s the perfect time for women invested in the city and its communities to connect with one another and dream up ways to ensure women’s voices are heard on the campaign trail.

In that spirit, WiTOpoli is hosting a series of mixers in Toronto (Scarborough, downtown, Etobicoke and North York) as well as one mixer via Google hangout. All events will be held in bars or restaurants and children are welcome.

Check out our events page for more info on times and places. You can sign up for our mailing list to be notified of the dates, times and locations of future events.

We look forward to meeting you!

The 7 Deadly Myths of Online Violence Against Women

By Jessica Spence (@jmspence) and Steph Guthrie (@amirightfolks)

WiTOpoli does a great portion of its advocacy and activism work online. As part of this work, we have come to have a much better understanding of what happens online and have often been asked to speak about it. In preparation for these speeches, we learned a lot more than we bargained for. Given the dearth available on this subject, we thought it appropriate to share our work in hopes that more people will realize how serious a problem online violence is.

One of those speeches was before a gathering of employees of the Law Society of Upper Canada in recognition of the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women and the 23rd anniversary of the shooting massacre at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal by Marc Lépine, who was on a mission to “fight feminism.” On December 6, 1989, Lépine killed 14 women, wounded 10 and then killed himself. The women he wanted to kill weren’t just any women, they were female engineering students, in fact the small minority in a male dominated program. To Lépine, they were women engineering students, therefore they were feminists and he was fighting feminism.

We now have a term for what Lépine did: gender violence.

Gender violence is something that has evolved with technology. Much of modern culture lives on the internet. And so does the culture of gender violence that poisoned Marc Lépine to the point where he felt he needed to kill 14 women. Today, gender violence finds expression in cases like that of Rehtaeh Parsons, the teenager in Nova Scotia who recently took her own life after her gang rape by classmates was photographed, distributed, and became the subject of mockery and victim-blaming by the community at large. Cases like Rehtaeh’s are all too common these days, facilitated by a culture and justice system that does not yet understand nor appreciate the severity of online violence, and the extent to which gender violence is reflected in our culture at large.

Online Violence

Just as the internet and social media can be amazing tools for fighting inequality, they are also amazing tools for fighting equality. In order to better appreciate this, we asked the women of Twitter to share with us their experiences of online violence. Women sent us copies of the messages they’d received: derogatory comments about a woman’s appearance, intelligence and worth, a woman’s “place” in society, sexual worth and subservience; threats of physical and sexual violence, rape (often violently depicted) and murder. Most shockingly, we saw women equated rape threats to their online eminence: a rite of passage. One message suggested that the author must be tweeting about something important because she had received her first online rape threat. This is what we mean when we say online violence.

We saw messages:

  • asking a Toronto politics tweeter how much money she spent on hair colour and makeup every month;
  • directed at a female Toronto city councillor suggesting she was so stupid it was difficult to tell whether or not she was drunk;
  • to a Toronto politics Facebook page author from male supporters of a right wing Toronto mayoral candidate telling her that she was ugly and should go make dinner;
  • on Twitter asking whether the two recently appointed women to the TTC Board were there only to bake better cookies for the meetings;
  • directed at a Toronto woman suggesting that she should celebrate International Men’s Day by performing a sexual act for the writer;
  • Suggesting a Toronto politics tweeter was sexually promiscuous and susceptible to acquiring sexually transmitted diseases;
  • sent to the @SlutWalkTO contact account suggesting that the organizers had been “asking” for “a good beating” and “raping.”

Just as we needed to create the terminology to discuss, understand, and seek to address things like domestic violence, child abuse, and sexual harassment, the conversation about this dark side of online behaviour would benefit from its own terminology.

We propose the general term “online violence”, which can be qualified to refer specifically to online gender violence, online racial violence, or any other type of hatred expressed online:

“The use of the interconnectivity, instantaneity and insulation of the internet and social media to facilitate campaigns of harassment, intimidation, humiliation, emotional distress and terror against targeted individuals.”

It’s fairly well accepted today that neither a man beating his female partner because she didn’t get dinner on the table fast enough, nor a man suggesting to a woman that she should perform sexual favours to get a promotion is a “private, trivial matter,” “part of the territory” or something that can be just be walked away from.

But, these are exactly the kinds of myths that confronted the women who first started to speak out about domestic violence and sexual harassment.

People said things like…

  • “it’s harmless”
  • “it’s not real”
  • “men get it just as bad”
  • “it only happens to certain kinds of women”
  • “that’s just the way it is”
  • “there’s no law against it”
  • “there’s nothing you can do about it”

The idea that domestic violence is harmless or isn’t a crime seems ludicrous now, yet we say these things about online violence all the time.

Myth #1: “it’s harmless”

What does online violence look like?

It starts with disparaging remarks about women’s bodies, sexual history, intelligence and social worth, threats of violence, rape and murder, denial of service attacks on personal websites or blogs, the hacking of accounts and theft of personal information, and the posting of that personal information, including social insurance number, address, name and telephone number in online fora. Such information may often be posted with appeals to rape, assault or even murder the woman, or suggestions that the woman wants these things to be done to her. Embarrassing, pornographic and violent doctored photos of the woman may be included in these posts.

The attacks may continue with the creation of fake email and social media accounts in the woman’s name, which are used to further disseminate disparaging information and photos, and attack or harass the friends, family and colleagues of the targeted woman. Information gained in the process of hacking the woman’s account may be used to escalate the violence through phone calls, e-mails, letters or notes to her or her colleagues or employers.

In some cases, the violence continues offline through stalking, physical attacks, sexual assault, rape and finally murder or attempted murder.

In 2009, a Wyoming man posted a Craigslist ad in the name of his ex-girlfriend, saying that she had fantasies of being raped by “a real aggressive man with no concern for women.” Another man responded by breaking into her house and raping her. Studies conducted by Working to Halt Online Abuse found that 60% of online attacks escalate to more serious behaviour. Only 50% of harassers are strangers, the other 50% are known to the target.

Myth #2: “it’s not real”

Online violence has an impact. Even if you never have physical contact with your online attacker, the abuse takes its toll.

Targets of online violence lose their right to speak freely online. The group Anonymous, often portrayed as the internet’s Robin Hood, has shut down over 100 feminist blogs, which is a huge loss to both their authors, but also to society. Simply imagine what the world would be like if 100 newspapers shut down overnight. Free society thrives on heterogeneity of voice and opinion.

Targets of online violence lose their reputations and the economic opportunities that come with them.  Consider the recent case of an Ottawa restaurateur who was jailed for her online harassment of a woman in reaction to a bad Yelp review. The campaign of violence included creating false OKCupid profiles in the woman’s name and sending sexually explicit emails to the woman’s employer (claiming to be her).

Consider also the case of Holly Jacobs. She was in a long term relationship with the man of her dreams, or so she thought. After they broke up, she noticed that a naked picture of her had been posted to her Facebook account. Then those intimate photos were posted to “revenge porn” sites with her name and email address and commentary about “what a slut she was.” Knowing she was a TA, the malicious poster uploaded an intimate video of her entitled “Professor Holly” together with her employment information. While she worked tirelessly to have them taken down, they kept cropping up on other sites. Then she received an email threatening to send those pictures to everyone she worked with. It wasn’t an empty threat.

Holly had to quit her job. She had to cancel the presentation of her thesis at a conference because pictures of her with the conference, date and time were posted. Police could do nothing. In the end, she had to change her name.

Online violence can have a profound effect on a woman’s mental health: fear, anxiety, depression, withdrawal. And physical health: exhaustion, chronic illness. Online violence takes lives.

Just because it’s online does not mean it’s not real.  Online becomes offline very quickly.

  • Megan Meier, 13 years old, took her own life after she was harassed on MySpace by her friend’s mother.
  • Ciara Pugsley, 15 years old, took her own life after she was harassed by ask.fm users as far away as Latvia. Classmates told her to kill herself.
  • Amanda Cummings, 15 years old, took her own life after suffering constant harassment on Facebook and at school. The abuse continued after she passed away on her Facebook memorial page.
  • Asia McGowen, 20 years old, one of the few women of colour whose death received media coverage (and only by independent media), was murdered by a man who stalked her on YouTube.
  • Amanda Todd, 15 years old, took her own life after posting a YouTube video detailing the blackmail, harassment, and physical assault she endured. Moving twice wasn’t enough to stop the violence.
  • Rehtaeh Parsons, 17 years old, was raped by four classmates at a house party. Her attackers took pictures of the assault and shared them widely. She was harassed and shamed at school. After the RCMP refused to lay charges despite the photo evidence, she took her own life.

Myth #3: “men get it just as bad”

We regularly field questions from skeptics who don’t believe that women experience more (or more severe) online harassment and violence than men. The truth is, while research on gendered online harassment is still relatively sparse (it’s a new area of inquiry), several studies support the contention that women are disproportionately subjected to online violence.

In fact, women are 27 times more likely to get sexually explicit/threatening messages online. In one study of IRC, bots with female user names received on average 100 sexually explicit or threatening private messages compared with the 3.7 the male user names averaged.

Working to Halt Online Abuse, an organization which has been collecting data on online violence since 2000, found that 73% of online abuse survivors were women. Men accounted for 61% of the harassers whose gender was known.

Myth #4: “it only happens to certain kinds of women”

People think online violence only happens to young women and girls, likely because their stories are considered more newsworthy, and more closely linked to popular discourses around “bullying”. The truth is that online violence, like sexual assault, is primarily about power. Our personal experience has been that the stronger a woman appears to be, the more vicious the attacks are. In our view, this is because online attacks are an attempt to preserve the patriarchal status quo by scaring women offline.

One such example of this kind of targeted attack was the recent case of Anita Sarkeesian, a feminist media researcher who started a crowdfunding campaign on Kickstarter to raise money to create a video series examining how women are represented in video games.

Anita Sarkeesian

Anita Sarkeesian launched a Kickstarter Campaign to raise $6,000 to make a video series which would explore and deconstruct common stereotypes in female game characters. In just a few days, pledges reached $158,922.

Many people (mostly men) who are part of the gaming community took great issue with her initiative, and responded with an online campaign of venomous, torrential harassment. They left sexist, misogynistic and anti-Semitic comments on her YouTube and Kickstarter pages. They made pornographic drawings and photoshopped her face onto them. They vandalized her Wikipedia page. Worst of all, one Ontario man created a crude video game  inviting the player to click on a close-up shot of Anita Sarkeesian to watch bruises and contusions appear, until her face was so bloodied it was virtually unrecognizable.

What was the game creator’s objection to Anita’s research funding drive?

“[Anita Sarkeesian] claims to want gender equality in video games, but in reality, she just wants to use the fact that she was born with a vagina to get free money and sympathy from everyone who crosses her path.”

Myth #5: “that’s just the way it is”

Steph, one of the authors of this piece, confronted the man who made this video game on Twitter and asked him if his attitudes toward women were the same offline as they are online. He (and his supporters, who besieged her with her own campaign of online harassment) failed to comprehend or acknowledge the gendered nature of their attacks. In fact, they ridiculed her for complaining about the game at all – Steph was told time and time again that “that’s just the way the internet is,” “welcome to the internet!” or other similarly patronizing things.

The police officer to whom Steph reported some of the death threats she had received also seemed to believe that “that’s just the way the internet is,” despite having a less than rudimentary grasp of how the internet works (including how to send an email). Steph’s report was treated with indifference, as the officer perceived that “this kind of thing happens all the time on the internet.” The truth is, online violence does happen all the time  – because we aren’t doing anything about it. And we need to start.

Myth #6: “there’s no law against it”

To suggest that online violence is not a crime in Canada is to be painfully ignorant of the Criminal Code of Canada. In fact, we have more than a few laws which prohibit the types of behaviours mentioned earlier. We’re just not enforcing them.

What is online violence? Online violence is hate speech (publishing a blasphemous libel). Online violence is hacking (intercepting a private communication). It’s identity theft. It’s stalking (criminal harassment) and uttering threats. Online violence is telling someone to kill themselves (counselling suicide). Online violence is suggesting all feminists should be killed or miserably subjugated (advocating genocide).

But do we need more laws? At the moment, it is not illegal in Canada to distribute a nude or sexually explicit photo of an adult without her or his consent. Cases like those of Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd are bringing to light an old phenomenon that has become more rampant in the internet age. Particularly as mobile technologies become more accessible and widely used, it has become more common for individuals to distribute nude or sexually explicit photos or videos without the subject’s consent. Much of the time, the images or video in question are created for a romantic partner with the expectation that they remain private. But then the relationship turns sour and the former romantic partner shares it with the world in order to hurt or humiliate the woman – hence the phenomenon’s colloquial term “revenge porn.”

Consenting to the capture of images for private use is not the same as consenting to public distribution of those images. It is quite obviously an act undertaken to harm the subject, and its consequences can include job loss, stalking, sexual assault, and as in Rehtaeh’s case, suicide.

Right now in Canada, there is no recourse in criminal law for adult women whose lives are destroyed by revenge porn. However, MP Robert Chisholm has put forward a private member’s bill, which would add a new section to the Criminal Code making it illegal to distribute, with malicious intent, images of someone nude or involved in a sex act without that person’s consent. Malicious intent would be presumed if the image in question was shared without consent, unless the accused were able to prove otherwise.

While the NDP has committed to support the bill, the federal government has not, and private member’s bills are rarely passed. The new section has been criticized for its presumption of malicious intent because placing the burden of proof on the accused may violate the Charter right to be presumed innnocent until proven guilty. However, this bill forms part of a conversation (both legal and social) about how we should tackle revenge porn. In the mean time, the Nova Scotia government has brought into force the Cyber-safety Act, which among other things, clarifies the responsibilities of educators in dealing with online harassment of their students and creates parental liability for online harassers who are minors.

Bottom-up cultural interventions (with the public education system playing an important role) will inevitably be necessary to eradicate the problems that underlie revenge porn: specifically, the use of women’s bodies to subjugate, punish and silence them, and the victim-blaming that many women face after any kind of sexual violation. These problems pervade many of the institutions that make up our justice system, just as they pervade our culture. The justice system is particularly unlikely to support and protect women of colour, trans women, Indigenous women and sex workers.

Trans-exclusive radical feminists (TERFs), one confused and hypocritical school of “feminist” thought (we’d hardly deem it feminist), has incited particularly vicious online harassment of trans women, including, but certainly not limited to, revenge porn. It’s important to note that the aggressions trans women face online mirror the offline world. Online violence is merely the latest incarnation of systemic violence long endured by many populations (including women, people of colour, and queer and trans* people). This violence is deeply rooted and will not be resolved with a new law alone.

Myth #7: “there’s nothing you can do about it”

People say there’s nothing to be done when they don’t want to take responsibility for a problem. People said this about domestic violence and sexual harassment. And there was actually a time when people believed that it was a man’s right to beat his wife or that sexually harassing women at work was a “job perk.” Change in perspective can happen with online violence too.

Three things need to happen. First, identification. As a society, we need to identify online violence as objectionable and criminal, something that cannot be tolerated. We need to call it a crime and we need to stop using trivializing language like “bullying.” We need to stop letting it go and stop looking the other way. We cannot condone violence.

Women who find themselves targets of online violence, and observers of online violence, can take steps to address it. Whenever possible, we should not let perpetrators think it’s acceptable – because it’s not. Identify it as unacceptable behaviour early. Call on your social media community to support you, and make public references to their behaviour to address any harm they may try to inflict upon you. If you wish to do so, report online violence to police. And keep records. It’s easy to record online activity – save a copy, take a screenshot. There are even tools such as Storify that can help you compile evidence in a single document.

Second, we need to educate ourselves, teachers, parents, police, prosecutors and judges about the technology, the behaviour and the harm. We are making progress. There are social media savvy people in our institutions – many can be found on Twitter – but if you find yourself dealing with a less savvy teacher, police officer or other individual, you may need to educate them.

Finally, we need to devote appropriate resources to the equipment used and technological education of personnel employed in our institutions, such as schools and police forces. Information which is so difficult to permanently erase should not be so problematic to investigate if police officers receive a complaint. To our knowledge, most police officers are not provided with smartphones. The average first response officer spends a lot of time in a police cruiser, so she or he needs to be equipped with the technology required to properly investigate online violence.

Meanwhile, teachers need the everyday tech literacy and comfort to be able to relate to students’ use of it, and incorporate it as a natural and seamless thread in class activities and assignments. Most students already know how to use social media, but they need to be encouraged to think about how they and their peers use social media, how it feeds and challenges them, and how they can create mutually respectful spaces online.

Organizations need to be supportive of these changes through policy and atmosphere. They need to praise internet savvy new people and encourage resistant members to learn from them. Training should be incentivized or mandatory. Internal policies must be consistent with operational requirements: internet protocols that block “time-wasting” websites like FaceBook or YouTube must not impede access to valuable investigative resources.

There was a time when women believed there was nothing that could be done about sexual harassment or domestic violence. In fact, there was a time when these terms didn’t even exist because the behaviour was considered so unremarkable. Now, we think it’s abhorrent. Things changed because people and institutions chose not to accept the status quo. We can do the same with online violence.

Great credit is owed to Professor Danielle Keats Citron, University of Maryland Law School, who is responsible for the most thorough and extensive research on online violence against women, without which this work would not be possible. We recommend you check out her paper.

Further Resources 

Jane’s Walk: The Past and Present of Toronto Women’s Activism and Engagement

When WiTOpoli was offered the opportunity to lead a Jane’s Walk, we jumped at it. For those of you who’ve never heard of Jane’s Walks, we’ll borrow from their site:

Jane’s Walk celebrates the ideas and legacy of urbanist Jane Jacobs by getting people out exploring their neighbourhoods and meeting their neighbours. Free walking tours held on the first weekend of May each year are led by locals who want to create a space for residents to talk about what matters to them in the places they live and work. Since its inception in Toronto in 2007, Jane’s Walk has expanded rapidly. In May of 2013, more than 600 walks were held in over 100 cities in 22 countries worldwide.

May 5, 2013 was a warm, sunny Spring day and we were very excited to see over forty people attend our first ever Jane’s Walk. For those of you who were unable to attend, here’s a rundown of the highlights with information about some of the people, places and organizations we talked about on the tour: including a link to the Jane’s Walk page for our walk (for as long as it’s active) and our route map.

Toronto Police Services HQ

We started at walk at Toronto Police Services HQ where Jessica told us about the history and impact of SlutWalk and the women who started it.

We started our inaugural Jane’s Walk at Toronto Police Services HQ where Jessica told us about the history and impact of SlutWalk and the women who started it.

We began our walk at Toronto Police Services HQ, the destination of the first SlutWalk, a protest led by Sonya Barnett and Heather Jarvis in reaction to comments made by TPS Constable Michael Sanguinetti at a January 24, 2011 safety briefing at Osgoode Hall Law School, York University. Const. Sanguinetti suggested that in order to avoid being victimized, “women should avoid dressing like sluts.” Const. Sanguinetti’s comments, which many believe were honestly intended to be helpful, revealed a gross misunderstanding of the pathology of sexual assault and the problems associated with a crime response that stems from a root belief that a woman who is assaulted is somehow responsible for the crime committed against her. 

The SlutWalk website puts it perfectly:

“As the city’s major protective service, the Toronto Police have perpetuated the myth and stereotype of ‘the slut’, and in doing so have failed us. With sexual assault already a significantly under-reported crime, survivors have now been given even less of a reason to go to the Police, for fear that they could be blamed. Being assaulted isn’t about what you wear; it’s not even about sex; but using a pejorative term to rationalize inexcusable behaviour creates an environment in which it’s okay to blame the victim.”

The walk, which took place on April 3, 2011, attracted over 3,000 participants. SlutWalks have occurred since all over the world, including in the United States, Australia, India, London and Jerusalem.

We took a moment to remember one of Toronto’s great sex worker advocates and former Osgoode Hall Law School student, Wendy Babcock. For a time before entering law school, Wendy was a sex worker and activist for both the rights and safety of sex workers in Toronto. She contributed to a number of initiatives, including the Bad Date Coalition, Regent Park Community Health Centre’s Safer Stroll Outreach Project and  Sex Workers Women’s Drop In, the Health Bus Sex Worker Stop and Wen-Do safety training for sex workers and was on the advisory group to the TPS Special Victims Unit. She participated in documentaries, wrote on sex worker issues and testified at the Bedford trial. In her short life, she went from being homeless to respected activist to pursuing a law degree at one of Canada’s most reputable and respected law schools.

Toronto Police Services HQ

Det. Suzanne Kernohan talks about being a woman police officer and the progress her unit has made in supporting sexual assault survivors.

We also had the privilege of hearing from Detective Suzanne Kernohan, Sexual Assault Coordinator of the TPS Sex Crimes Unit, on the progress that the Toronto police have made in the meantime. She told us about the implementation of the final four of sixty recommendations of the City Auditor report on sexual assault investigations, Sexual Assault Awareness Month and a current project that TPS recently launched in collaboration with Seneca College students (“Report/Support”). She also gave us a window into how much things have changed for women officers from the time she first became a police officer to today, and the hard work she has put into improving the support for survivors of sexual assault. TPS is fortunate enough to be supported by a number of Toronto support and advocacy organizations who participate in its Sexual Assault Advisory Committee.

From there, we made quick stops at the Native Child & Family Services of Toronto, the Ministry of the Attorney General, the Human Rights Tribunal and the Mature Women’s Health Centre. The latter is run out of Victoria General Hospital and is geared to older women’s needs, including sexual health, which is unique as older women tend to be treated as non-sexual beings by most health providers. They offer medical and counselling services to women dealing with hysterectomies, menopause, and osteoporosis, and provide research and resources about controversial topics like hormone therapy.


As early as the 1870s, YWCA Toronto has been a resource for women and girls, and an agitator for women’s safety, equity and dignity. While its inception was motivated by a desire to keep young women away from “immoral” activities like drinking, gambling, or going to the movies while finding financial independence, the YWCA has consistently been  an organization with strong values of inclusion, anti-racism, and anti-colonialism. Their service delivery is built on an understanding of intersectionality.

Since the 1870s, the YWCA has developed programs to support women exiting the prison system, settlement services for women immigrating to Toronto, skills training programs, affordable housing, emergency shelters, parenting, mental health, domestic violence, counselling, interest-free loans and many more.

YWCA Elm Centre

We hear from Steph about the Elm Centre and the amazing ways it’s supporting women in Toronto.

The YWCA has also been a strong advocate for women’s rights. In 1965, they began advocating for birth control and sex education programs, complemented by taking an officially pro-choice stance on the abortion debate in 1971. The ‘70s were a key period for the gay rights movement, and YWCA Toronto was on the frontlines as an advocate for lesbian rights beginning in 1973. Beginning in 1998, the YWCA has offered public support for the rights of trans people as well as being a voice in the successful bid to legalize same-sex marriage in Canada in 2005. They began working in support of gun control in 1997 – particularly long guns, which are regularly used in incidents of domestic violence.

YWCA Toronto has partnered with Wigwamen Incorporated, St. Michael’s Hospital, and the Jean Tweed Centre on their Elm Centre, which we stopped at on the walk. It is both the headquarters of YWCA Toronto and an affordable housing project, with 300 units, and is the largest one Toronto has seen constructed in at least a decade. The Elm Centre’s philosophy is a combination of affordable and supportive housing designed with an understanding of the many issues and oppressions that intersect with poverty and precarious housing. 

The Elm Centre is also home to Oasis Centre des Femmes, which is an interdisciplinary centre dedicated to Francophone women 16 and older, in the GTA. Oasis provides support and assistance to women affected by violence in all its forms, including sexual assault and domestic violence. Whether through housing support, counselling, job search or entrepreneurship, Oasis’ programs and services help empower women to gain their independence. 

On our way to the next stop, we passed by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, whose Chief Commissioner is Barbara Hall, Toronto’s second female mayor, a community activist and well-respected leader.

Toronto City Hall

Toronto City Hall

We stopped to talk about Toronto’s first and second female mayors: June Rowlands and Barbara Hall.

From Nathan Phillips Square, you can see Old City Hall, where Toronto’s first female city councillor, Constance E. Hamilton, worked from 1920-21. There, we profiled Toronto’s first female mayor, June Rowlands. June was also Toronto’s first female budget chief, and first female TTC commission board member. Armed with some helpful information from June’s children, we heard about a woman who worked hard, who was extremely intelligent and never worried about being a woman in a “man’s world.” Before her political career, she was involved with the Women Electors Group, a non-partisan group of council observers, who produced and circulated very well-regarded reports on council activity and decisions. While June did not consider herself to be a feminist, she is certainly admired by women who do.What allowed June to forge ahead where other women didn’t? According to her daughter, she’s very strong-willed, determined, and highly intelligent, and always followed her own path regardless of what others thought.Toronto’s second female mayor, as mentioned before, was Barbara Hall. Barbara was the last mayor of the unamalgamated City of Toronto, a lawyer, and is now Chief Commissioner of the OHRC. In her pre-politics career, she worked with rural black families in Nova Scotia, created youth programs and started one of Toronto’s first alternative schools.During her time in office, Barbara consulted Jane Jacobs on urban planning decisions, one of the most successful being the “Two Kings” projects: King and Parliament and King west of Spadina, which in the 1990s were known for old empty warehouses. A 2012 study by the Altus Group estimated that 38,000 jobs and more than $7 billion in economic activity have been generated by the Two Kings. The re-use of existing buildings and new development projects increased total taxable assessments by about $400 million between 1998 and 2002 alone. What about Two Kings residents?  62% bike to work, walk or take transit. And 42% don’t even own cars. The best part? Changing zoning by-laws cost City Hall nothing.

Osgoode Hall

On our way to Osgoode Hall, we stopped at the Law Society of Upper Canada, Ontario’s lawyer and paralegal regulatory body and the organization that controls who enters the professions most often used to fight battles in equality. The Law Society is a strong promoter of women and recently approved a new law school at Lakehead University to promote Aboriginal law, issues and lawyers.

Originally opened in 1889 as Osgoode Hall Law School, one of Canada’s oldest, and now the home of the Ontario Court of Appeal, Osgoode Hall is the place where some of the most important cases for women have been argued and won.

Jane Doe v. Metropolitan Toronto (Municipality) Commissioners of Police

One of the most famous was that of Jane Doe. In 1986, Jane Doe was raped at knifepoint by a stranger who broke into her apartment from her balcony while she was sleeping. Little did she know that this was not an isolated incident, as four other women in her neighbourhood had reported very similar attacks in the seven months prior to Jane’s. The police did not dedicate a lot of resources to these assaults and did not immediately realize they were related. Once they did realize the connection, they chose not to warn other women who matched the characteristics of the other women who had been attacked.

Jane Doe brought a lawsuit against the Board of Commissioners for the Metropolitan Toronto Police flowing from the way the police handled the case. At the time, most legal commentators would have said that you could not sue the police for doing a bad job. Jane Doe, with the help of some creative lawyers, brought the action on three grounds: one, the police were negligent in failing to warn her; two, her right to equality was violated because the investigation was conducted on the basis of sexist stereotypes about women and rape myths stemming therefrom; three, her right to security of the person was violated because in deliberately withholding valuable information from her about the rapes, the police denied her the opportunity to take steps to protect herself.

Jane Doe was successful on all three claims after twelve years of litigation. She didn’t win a large settlement, but did receive formal apologies from Toronto City Council and the Toronto Police Services Board. The most concrete evidence that the City was paying attention to this case was the 1999 City Auditor Report on the investigation of sexual assault complaints. In total, the Auditor made over 60 recommendations. It’s taken some time, but all 60 of these recommendations have now been implemented.

Bedford v. Canada

Osgoode Hall

The Ontario Court of Appeal is where Terri Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott took on Canada’s prostitution laws last Spring – and won.

When three women, Terri-Jean Bedford, Amy Lebovitch and Valerie Scott, took on the Criminal Code of Canada, they showed us that sex workers can be some of the most powerful women you’ll ever meet. As many people know, sex work, or prostitution, is not illegal in Canada. What is illegal, is everything else that comes with it, including: public communication for the purposes of prostitution, operating a “bawdy house” or living on the avails of prostitution. These laws have been challenged before, with little success. What was always lacking was a true appreciation of how sex workers are actually affected by sex work. The three argued that these laws, which purport to protect women, actually put them in harm’s way by depriving them of opportunities to take steps to protect themselves (sound familiar?). Preventing women from communicating with potential clients prevents them from screening them. Preventing women from using any place they have control over ( i.e. a “bawdy house”) prevents them from having a safe place to work – no security cameras, intercoms, locks, panic buttons, baseball bats. Preventing women from paying others from their earnings prevents them from hiring body guards. All of this means that women must work in secret and give up opportunities to seek help. In a very detailed decision, the Court of Appeal agreed to strike down the bawdy house provision. The Court also “read in” to the living on the avails provision a requirement that the circumstances be exploitative; in other words, body guards are fine, but pimps are not. The Court of Appeal did uphold the communication provision, though. The Attorney General of Canada has appealed this decision to the Supreme Court of Canada and it is scheduled to be heard on June 13, 2013. The hearing will be webcasted.

Toronto Court House

Up the street from Osgoode hall is the Toronto Court House, which is one of the buildings comprising the Superior Court of Justice, and is where the Family Court sits. Here we talked about Supreme Court Justice Rosalie Abella. When she was appointed to the Ontario Family Court, she was Canada’s first female Jewish judge and the country’s youngest judge ever. She was also Canada’s first pregnant judge. On the Supreme Court, she has been an ardent supporter of women’s rights and is most famous for her contributions to the law on equality.

Equal Pay Coalition

Equal Pay Coalition

Leah tells us about that time when Frances Lankin and the Equal Pay Coalition sold sandwiches to women for $0.70 and men for $1.00 to highlight gender pay inequality.

The Equal Pay Coalition, located at 400 University Avenue, is the organization Frances Lankin was supporting when she infamously sold sandwiches to men for $1.00 and women for $0.70 in order to highlight systemic pay inequality. Frances Lankin is the former president and CEO of United Way Toronto, and a former Ontario MPP and cabinet minister. She currently co-chairs a government commission review of social assistance in Ontario. Frances was also one of the first women correctional officers to work at the Don Jail, an all-male institution.Frances’ brilliant stunt was several years ago – and not much has changed. In 2010, Canadian women made $0.68 cents for every $1.00 men made (Statistics Canada).  That means women need to work an extra 15 years to make the same as men. The gap is greatest among people with less than a high school education, where women only make 52% of what men make and lowest among people with some post-secondary education (73%). 70% of part-time workers are women. The stats get more dismal when you add on layers of intersectionality: race, religion, sexuality, gender identity and expression.The wage gap is even more harsh when you consider gender-based pricing. Ever wonder why it costs three times as much to dry clean a woman’s shirt than a man’s or to cut a woman’s hair? Scarborough MPP Lorenzo Berardinatti’s 2005 private member’s bill against gender-based pricing did: after his marriage (to current city councillor Michelle Berardinetti) made him aware of the steep disparities in price for the goods and services many consider important to project a professional appearance, and have a professional career, he proposed a bill that would give consumers the right to take cases of purely gender-based price differences to the Ontario Human Rights Commission, with fines of $2,000 imposed for the first offence and $5,000 for a subsequent offence.  The bill passed second reading and was referred to the Committee on Finance and Economic Affairs at the Ontario Legislature, but has never been called for examination there, and has not moved forward in the eight years since.

Art Gallery of Ontario, Mary Ann Shadd and Heritage Plaques

The AGO holds art from some of Canada’s pioneer female artists, including Emily Carr. For the art enthusiasts, the AGO offers private guided tours centred on women in art. While taking a minute to rest in the shade, we discussed Timeraiser, an annual auction where art lovers can bid hours of volunteer time instead of money for works of art – and which is one of the newer sources of eager volunteers for a multitude of women’s organizations in Toronto.

From the AGO to our next stop at Dundas and Spadina, there are a number of heritage plaques. We discussed the importance of these plaques and HerStories Cafe, which holds monthly lectures around the city on women’s roles in Toronto history, and their May talk on the history of Toronto’s women in commemorative plaques.

George Brown is known for being one of Toronto’s preeminent newspapermen, but fewer people know about Mary Ann Shadd. There are a number of heritage plaques dedicated to Shadd in Toronto. Shadd was a free black woman who came up from the United States following the passage of some particularly egregious legislation. After arriving in Toronto, she started the Provincial Freeman, an anti-slavery newspaper which advocated equality, integration and self-education for black people, and known for its excellent writing. Not only was Shadd the first woman newspaper publisher in North America, she was exceptionally articulate and literate considering the levels of education of women, particularly black women, in the 1850s. Shadd is also responsible for the founding of racially integrated schools. After her husband died, she moved back to the US and became one of North America’s first female lawyers and continued her activism.

Emma Goldman’s Apartment

Emma Goldman has been called the most dangerous woman in America.

We stopped at Emma’s original apartment in Toronto, on busy Spadina Avenue, just north of Dundas. Emma was an anarchist known for her political activism, writing, and incendiary speeches. She played a pivotal role in the development of anarchist political philosophy in North America and Europe in the first half of the twentieth century, and was a writer and renowned lecturer on anarchist philosophy, women’s rights, and social issues, attracting crowds of thousands. She was imprisoned several times for “inciting to riot” and illegally distributing information about birth control. In 1906, Goldman founded the anarchist journal Mother Earth and is the arguable founder of anarcha-feminism, which challenges patriarchy as a hierarchy to be resisted alongside state power and class divisions. In 1897, she wrote:

“I demand the independence of woman, her right to support herself; to live for herself; to love whomever she pleases, or as many as she pleases. I demand freedom for both sexes, freedom of action, freedom in love and freedom in motherhood.”

Emma was also an outspoken supporter of equality for gay men and lesbians, which was a belief almost unheard of in her day. 

Former Labour Lyceum

The Bright Pearl Seafood Restaurant  is the location of the former Labour Lyceum. It is rumoured to be haunted and once housed the International Ladies Garment Workers Union. On April 14, 1937, Emma Goldman gave a talk here called “The Youth in Revolt” on the role of youth in politics. Here we discussed how young women are impacting politics today, from the Toronto Youth Cabinet to Gashanti Unity and Rathika Sitsabaiesan, Canada’s first Tamil MP, who was elected at age 29.

The Labour Lyceum was the centre of labour activity for Jewish garment workers for over four decades and served as a cultural centre for various Jewish societies and fraternal organizations. It hosted a range of activities from lectures and rallies to dances, plays, and concerts.

Toronto Women’s Bookstore

Toronto's Women's Bookstore

Did you know that this Kensington hangout used to be the first stand-alone home of the TWB? We miss it too 😥

Now home to quintessential Kensington Market hangout The Last Temptation, this was the first proper, stand-alone home of the Toronto Women’s Bookstore.  Founded by Patti Kirk and Marie Prins as a shelf in The Women’s Place on Dupont Street, the bookstore settled into Kensington for a handful of years, where it provided space for literary and non-fiction discussions of women’s stories, women’s ideas, and women’s conversation. It later moved up to its last home at Spadina and Harbord, where it was  neighbour to the Morgentaler Clinic, and mistakenly firebombed in 1983 – in one of the many pro-life attacks the clinic has endured over the years.Here we talked about CWILA (Canadian Women in the Literary Arts), a new organization that is carrying on TWB’s work of supporting and amplifying women’s voices in print. CWILA raises public awareness about issues of gender, race, and sexuality in Canadian literary culture by collecting data on Canadian authors and publishers, keeping track of book reviews by gender, and establishing a Poet-In-Residence position for a woman poet – all in less than a year!  Looking ahead, they will be conducting an analysis of systemic inequities in reviewing practices on the basis of race and sexuality.

Take Back the Block

Our own Steph Guthrie came along to tell us about the Take Back the Block parties last fall. Over the summer, there was a steady increase in the number of tweets about public sexual assaults in Toronto – links to police reports and news stories, plus women venting their fears and frustrations about these assaults. Some of those assaults happened right around the outskirts of Kensington, one at College and Spadina. The annual march against sexual assault, Take Back the Night, was something many of us said we looked forward to, as it would give us all a sense that we had a constructive place to channel our anger and hurt. But we were also vocally wishing there was something happening in the specific neighbourhoods these assaults were taking place (they were clustered in a handful of specific areas, including this Kensington, Christie Pits, and Ryerson).Steph mused in a tweet “I wonder if block parties in the neighbourhoods affected would work. Like Take Back the Night after-parties.” A single tweet morphed into an idea for a thing that simply must happen. The idea resonated with women (and men), many of whom stepped forward to help, including a leader for each of the two parties we were planning. Neither of these women had taken on leadership roles in an activist context before and both were a tad apprehensive, but were also energized by the challenge. And both of them rose to it beautifully. We held two parties: one at the Pitman Hall Quad at Ryerson, and one in Kensington’s Bellevue Square Park with the support of councillors Vaughan, Wong-Tam and Layton, MP Olivia Chow, and nearby taco purveyor Seven Lives.

While the parties were about staying safe, we placed the emphasis on safety being a community responsibility rather than the responsibility of individual women. The parties’ philosophy explicitly drew on Jane Jacobs’ theory of “eyes on the street”: the idea that a well-used public space is more likely to be safe than a deserted one. If we make active use of our public spaces and keep our eyes on them, especially at night when we feel safe to do so (for example, sitting out on our porches at night or in a park with a group of friends), it will be more challenging for people to inflict violence on others.

Kensington Cornerstone

After our 4km journey into Toronto Women’s History, we were delighted to be fed FREE COFFEE, thanks to David and the excellent folks at the Kensington Cornerstone, where we had an opportunity to sit down face to face, chat about what we had learned, and get to know each other. We want to give a big thank you to the folks at Kensington Cornerstone for giving us a room to ourselves – and lots of cold water too!

Of course, this was only our first walk!  Due to the nature of a Jane’s Walk (it has to be walkable!) and the sheer amount of amazing women’s history – and women’s advocacy – all over Toronto, our 4km journey barely scratched the surface.

The only solution: next year!

We’re already looking forward to leading a walk in another area of Toronto next time out, and highlighting a different set of amazing contributions to and by Toronto women.  If you know an amazing person or story that should be told to everyone, please let us know, and see you on the sidewalks!

Jessica Spence (@jmspence), Leah Bobet (@leahbobet) and Steph Guthrie (@amirightfolks). All photography in this post © Philippe McNally, 2013 and many thanks to him for the photos!

Women explaining politics to each other


Jennie Worden holds up some ideas we generated

Last night was a perfect example of how passion, ingenuity, and a sense of humour can turn a frustrating incident into something constructive.

On Sunday, Mayor Rob Ford made some (I expect) very well-intended but clumsy comments offering to “explain how politics works” to interested women in Toronto. Many women in my Twitter feed seemed outraged in that kind of bemused, exhausted way. We needed an outlet.

On Monday, we penned an open letter to the Mayor to take him up on his offer and organize a WiTOpoli event about running for office at which the Mayor could be keynote. On the same day, Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam did us one better and organized an event for the #WiTOpoli community (i.e. any woman interested in Toronto municipal politics). She cheekily called it the “Explain How Politics Works to Women” Coffee Party, and framed it as a collaborative opportunity for women to discuss the representation/inclusion of women in politics amongst themselves, with the input and support of a councillor. A portion of the proceeds from food and drink sales will go to Fife House, a supportive housing organization for people living with HIV/AIDS. Naturally, we were enthusiastic.

Last night over coffee and beer, we shared our experiences engaging with politics and politicians, our perceptions of the unique challenges women might face breaking into the field, and what kinds of changes we could effect on a micro or macro scale. I met a bunch of whip-smart people for the first time, including firebrand activist Susan Gapka (who I’ve admired from afar for some time and was thrilled to finally meet). The room was filled with other women whose names I expect will become familiar to you in the future as they shape the political landscape in Toronto.


Siva Vijenthira and Susan Gapka – new friends!

New friend Arianne Matte circulated sheets of flipchart paper with ideas about how to break down some of the barriers for women who might otherwise run for office. Other attendees jotted down their thoughts on post-its until every sheet was covered with them. I chatted at length with one attendee about the logistics and challenges of deputing before Toronto Council committees. I chatted at length with another about her plans to run for office in the near future. Read more in Robyn Doolittle’s Toronto Star article about the evening.

It was hard not to be inspired and energized by the ideas, connections and ambition that emerged from what began for many of us as a negative experience. From mayoral lemons, a truly delicious lemonade.

Steph Guthrie is co-founder of Women in Toronto Politics. You can follow her on Twitter at @amirightfolks.

Open Letter to Mayor Rob Ford

Yesterday on his radio show, Mayor Rob Ford lamented the dearth of women in politics, and offered to make himself available to the women of Toronto to explain to us how politics work. It was an offer Women in Toronto Politics couldn’t refuse, so we issued an open invitation for Mayor Ford to speak at an upcoming WiTOpoli event at his convenience.