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Open letter to Council - #ChooseToChallenge

Updated: Mar 9

(or, why some seemingly innocuous things are actually a "big deal" to many)

Dear Councillors,

Next week, March 8, is International Women’s Day – so Happy one-week-before IWD 2021! This year’s theme is #ChooseToChallenge – something I tend to do all year round. Many of you already know me through my participation with various local advocacy and activist organizations, but today I’m addressing you as just myself.

“Just myself” is a musician, writer, public speaker, performer and creator – with most of my work involving bringing taboo subjects into the light, and being a voice for the voiceless. Much of it stems from my own “survival story”, and living with the Complex Post-Traumatic Stress Injuries that come from a highly abusive childhood, followed as an adult by sexual violence and domestic abuse. Not easy things to create art about, since we’ve all been trained to not discuss so many of these issues. But I’ve become quite used to speaking up about the things “we aren’t supposed to” speak up about – and now that it is safe for me to do so, I tend to feel it’s my duty, especially when others are being silenced.

Still, I have learned that my being comfortable talking about a difficult subject doesn’t automatically make another person readily prepared to absorb what I have to say – so in my work I tend to start in more vague, general areas, rotating back through ever-smaller circles before finally zeroing in on the “punchline”. I’ll try to reduce the circles here, so as not to take up too much of your time, but please bear with me for a bit, I’ll get to my point soon, I promise.

One of my main creative projects at the moment is co-writing a theatre piece (thanks to a generous grant from the Ontario Arts Council – I am supposed to mention that whenever I talk about the project, although I’m not sure they meant in letters to City Council) that was inspired by Barrie “winning” the CCPA’s title of “Worst Place To Be a Woman in Canada” in 2019. A title that, as I stated in my recent “Rabble Rousers to Watch in 2021” interview, this city is very likely to hang on to, after everything the women of this city went through in 2020.

Because we’ve seen very little change in the issues that sent Barrie to worst place – in fact, some of them probably got to the worse-than-worst level, if that’s possible. Lessons of both the distant and the relatively recent past do not seem to have taken hold. History repeating. The system protecting the system, the powerful protecting the powerful. The glimmers of hope for change, which we all stubbornly insist on clinging to, being extinguished as we are re-traumatized watching the inevitable repetition of the same system crushing the underdog and uplifting the already-high-and-mighty.

I spoke of the many typical power systems of the already-powerful in my previous show, “Music For The Changing Voice”, which received its world premiere at Barrie’s own Talk Is Free Theatre in 2019. About how the voices of the victims are silenced, not just by their primary abusers, but by the people and organizations that swoop in to protect (and often deify) the accused, instead of the vulnerable person(s) they were purportedly meant to protect.

If you talk to victims and survivors of abuse, you will often hear them say that they were able to heal from the actual (initial) abuse fairly easily, because it was quite clear that what was being done to them was wrong. But that it was the reactions of others when they spoke their truth that became the most difficult to recover from. That the greatest harm came when the people and organizations who should have protected them turned their backs or swept it all under the carpet instead — or worse, re-victimized them by taking their abuser’s side.

Such as, for instance, relying on HR and workplace health and safety policies and procedures to protect you from workplace harassment, only to be met with “procedural irregularities” that leave you stranded. Instead, having to watch those in power debate and vote on whether you are even worth protecting. Wanting more than anything for the person who caused you harm to have to face consequences for his actions, or some meaningful form of accountability, yet watching the people with the most control over not just your workplace but your entire hometown vote against allowing it to be properly investigated by the one official who could have imposed any meaningful disciplinary action. Reading the official press release about the “happy ending” to your trauma, which spends more time protecting the identity and reputation of the one who harmed you, and those who helped keep him safe from the consequences of his own actions (not to mention, the amount of self-congratulatory gaslighting rhetoric inserted) than it spends offering even the faintest whiff of apology or remorse or compassion for your (easily preventable) ordeal. Or, for instance, being one of the well-over-one-third of adults who has endured abuse and/or harassment at some point in their lives, watching the slow-motion repeat of their own betrayal and their own silencing, as the same time-tested structures at play push this new member of our disillusioned fold towards the same inevitable, unsatisfying and re-traumatizing conclusion.

(Yes, this is where those circles I mentioned would have come in handy. My apologies, I’m trying to save trees.)

Let’s circle back a bit to my 2019 show for a moment. The heartwarming musical about systemic familial abuse.

There is a scene partway through the show, after the ten-year-old protagonist has finally had the strength to speak up about her abuse, and asked for help, when she starts to itemize some of the “homages to self” her grandfather has suddenly begun to bestow upon many public organizations. Which are not just testaments to his insatiable ego, or attempts to improve his “brand”, but also constant (and permanent) reminders of who holds the power in this relationship, and in her relationship with the rest of the world. Not only do these tributes remind everyone of the existing power structure, they seem to cause a certain amount of amnesia for the churches, schools, and hospitals that are more than happy to accept his money in return for displaying his name in perpetuity. (Yes, of course child abuse is bad, we would never condone or accept such a thing, but there’s nothing to see here…)

Just in case you were fooled by the flimsy facade, and were thinking this show was just a hypothetical work of fiction, I should probably mention that “Music For the Changing Voice” was 100% autobiographical.

Even though he’s been dead for fifteen years (and I am most definitely older than ten!), these “monuments” my grandfather placed at universities and hospitals in every major city in the country are a constant reminder of his control over my life, and the fact that he and my other abusers were able to get through their entire lives without any consequences to their actions, because of the power they held. (It doesn’t take a degree in psychiatry to figure out how I ultimately landed in a city with no university).

While we’re dropping facades, could we please also stop pretending that the identity of the Respondent in the aforementioned City workplace harassment case isn’t perfectly clear to anyone who has been paying attention? You know, the Councillor who managed to get awa