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Open Letter to Council – Victoria Butler

It is easy to love women in public. To tell your Mother you love her on Mother’s Day. To share a photo of your friend and your sister on International Women’s Day. To don, a pair of size 13 red high heels and walk a mile around the Bay, for the good cause of supporting the Women’s Shelter. To use hashtags and stand for photo ops, pepper the word “feminist” into your vocabulary from time to time. Share viral videos of empowering speeches by famous women and declare them your heroes. After all, the future is female, it says so right on your coffee mug.


I have witnessed the above from many, well-meaning people in my life. They have sat across the table and listened as I recounted instances of assault and abuse at the hands of men, men they know, and men I have trusted. They have nodded sympathetically, expressed concern, and care. “Do you want me to beat him up?” is usually what they offer. This proclaimed passion for justice typically fizzles out by the end of the evening. It doesn’t take long before I am greeted with images of these same friends laughing and hanging out with those who they know now to be abusers, to have done truly horrible things to myself and others. But, they’re still “one of the boys,” a phrase used to knight men with invincibility within their circles. I was unaware that brotherhood implied freedom from accountability.


In regards to the issue currently being discussed at city hall, this is what we know. A city councilor committed substantiated acts of sexual harassment against a city employee. No one on city council has resigned since this story became public. When the subject of the events was brought to council, the in-camera conversation included all members of council, meaning the discussion that happened INLCUDED the perpetrator. After this conversation, 5 council members voted not to pursue further legal counsel on the matter, or have the integrity commissioner investigate the councilor. It was not until members of council experienced overwhelming public pressure did they budge on the issue, and vote to pursue legal counsel, although they still did not vote to pursue an investigation by the integrity commissioner. Before the outpouring of emails and phone calls by the outraged public, councilmembers were using the legal jargon that envelopes the case to withhold themselves from any sort of accountability. Phrases like, “the public is unaware of pertinent information in the case” were tossed back at those of us who asked our public servants why they had voted to remain silent on this issue. What “pertinent” information would change the facts of the situation? A public servant sexually harassed a city employee. Full stop.


It is clear that the City is desperate for this issue to disappear. Discussions about the case are listed as “Confidential personal information and solicitor-client privilege matter - Workplace Investigation” in the City’s weekly agenda. The word “harassment” has been replaced with a myriad of city jargon that, unless you were well versed in the matter at hand, you would have very little clue what the agenda was even referring to. Multiple city council meetings were not broadcasted live (as they typically are), but rather posted to YouTube later, and only accessible through YouTube itself, not at all linked through the City’s official website as is custom. “Client-solicitor” privilege has been thrown around endlessly, claiming to be “protecting the confidentiality of the complainant,” however, the council’s urgency to cling to this legal jargon does more harm than good, as it is protecting the assailant. While the complainant must be silent and watch as their elected city officials vote on whether or not their case deserves to be investigated, their abuser continues to sit on Barrie’s city council, without punishment or penalty and continues to vote on matters related to our city.

And what can we do? Those who are responsible for bringing justice, for dealing with the wrongdoing are the ones committing the crimes. Who is there to turn to when the people who are supposed to protect us are the ones causing harm?


City Council is no different than any friend group desperate to keep their mouth shut to protect one of their own, lest they be forced into a confrontation. Accountability is never as important as convenience. Because it’s easier. It takes courage to hold others accountable, and unfortunately, many of those who sit on our city council are sick with cowardice.


So many people in Hollywood were painfully aware of Harvey Weinstein’s crimes. No one said anything. Many people at CBC were aware of Jian Ghomeshi's crimes. Silence. When I worked for the City of Barrie, there were many conversations I had with higher-ups who explicitly told me, there are certain men you should never have meetings alone with because it would not be a safe situation. And yet, they still have their jobs, their lives continue on as normal, while women spend every waking moment contorting ourselves into routines that we hope will keep us safe. The reality is, we will never be able to shape ourselves small enough to be free from harm. There is no way to guarantee our safety when the system we operate within is founded on silence. There is no way to win when the game you are playing is designed for your failure.


I have never wanted any of my friends to “beat up” those who have committed harm against me. I have only wanted them to have a discussion and let them know that their actions are wrong. When no one confronts abusers about their actions, they continue the behaviour. What this city councilor did will happen again, to many more women. Other men in positions of power are being shown that they can get away with whatever they want. That powerful people prioritize the opinions of their own, and they will manipulate the narrative to protect their colleagues at all costs, by shrouding the case in legal jargon and creating multiple roadblocks to prevent the public from accessing the information on the case. Meanwhile, the survivors of these types of crimes bear the brunt of these nightmares, coerced into silence under the guise of “protection,” while having to witness their case play out on the stage of city hall, with no ability to speak up or speak out, hoping that those in their corner will fight for them.


To city council, and anyone reading, I have this to say. Save your sappy Facebook posts and “feminist” photo ops. If you love and support women, show up in ways that don’t prioritize your ego. In ways that make you uncomfortable and require confrontation. Say something to your gross, sexist friend when he says something you know is inappropriate, don’t just laugh along. Listen when someone tells you a friend of yours has caused harm. Speak to that friend. Believe survivors. Do not vote for abusers. Do not jump to defend your male heroes when hoards of women come forward about the harm they have caused. Speak up. Not only when it’s easy, but when it’s hard when you have to confront someone who you may love, a friend or a colleague. You may lose a friend, or money, or end up in an awkward situation, but the trade-off is that more women will be safe. The less you say, the longer perpetrators get away with their actions, and the faster misogyny spreads. In the words of Audre Lorde, “Your silence will not protect you.”


Sincerely,

Victoria Butler

Poet Laureate of Barrie

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