Today is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. With a vigil in Centennial Park, we remember the 14 young women who were killed in an act of violent misogyny at Polytechnique Montréal on December 1989 and all the other women who have lost their lives to gender-based violence. More than thirty years after the Polytech Massacre, women, girls and people who identify as women in Canada and around the world still face unacceptable violence and discrimination. Salt Spring Island is no exception.
Text: Marcia Jansen
It was in the winter of 1991 when a woman on Salt Spring Island was almost beaten to death. If she hadn’t fought back ferociously to protect herself and her 8-year-old daughter, she would have been another name on the too-long list of women who have died from gender-based violence.
The woman, Marie-Té, was a friend of Shellyse Szakacs, who had moved to the island in 1990 to work on her master’s degree.
“This is a powerful story about a very courageous woman,” Shellyse says. “What happened to her was horrible, yet it resulted in some very important changes in our community. It was the start of two organizations, the first, now called Islanders Working Against Violence (initially Gulf Islands Women’s Resource Network) and The Circle Education (formerly SWOVA); which respectively provide support, resources and refuge for women who need it, and address change at its roots with educational programs for youth with the goal of preventing violence in the future.”
When Shellyse met Marie-Té, they became instant friends. “Marie-Té was of indigenous and French-Canadian descent, she was an artist and an activist, and a fierce, powerful, and compassionate person. I was immediately struck by her presence.”
Marie-Té and her daughter lived in a lovely cabin at the far side of Weston Lake. When they came home one winter evening they were confronted by a violent man in their home, who immediately attacked them. “We never found out why he did it, but it was extreme: he grabbed a riding stick with a very heavy brass head and hit Marie-Té repeatedly. Marie-Té did everything in her power to protect her daughter,” recalls Shellyse. “She eventually managed to push the man down the stairs and ran with her daughter to the lake. Severely battered, she got herself and her daughter into a water-logged paddle boat. In the dark and cold, she bailed and paddled with her hands, shattered protecting herself from the blows to her head. Slowly and painfully, they made their way to the other side of Weston Lake to safety.”
After an all-out manhunt on the island, the man was caught and charged. He was convicted of attempted murder and sentenced to ten years in prison. “I visited Marie-Te in the hospital and her injuries were so severe that I did not recognize her,” Shellyse remembers. “When she was released, she couldn’t return to her home again because of the trauma. She had nowhere to go. There were absolutely no services on the island to support Marie-Té and her daughter through their recovery and I realized this was true for any woman on Salt Spring who wanted to escape a violent relationship.”
Vigil in Centennial Park
After the incident, Shellyse, and a small group of other women, organized a vigil in Centennial Park in the early spring of 1991– which later on dovetailed with the December 6th Memorial to commemorate the Montreal Massacre of 1989 – and started to have weekly meetings with feminists on the island who wanted to help women like Mattie-Té. It was the start of the Gulf Islands Women’s Resource Network (which later became IWAV and SWOVA), a transition house and services for women who are facing violence in their relationships.
Shellyse is proud that both IWAV and The Circle Education nowadays have a strong presence on the island. “Women know where to go for help and The Circle Education is focused on community development and education, which is how we started and gave us the stats to support the need for services. It is so heartening that The Circle Education continues doing important work for children and youth on Salt Spring Island.”
All these years later, gender-based violence is still a huge problem in Canada, and Salt Spring Island is no exception. “Through our community development work in the initial research project, funded by the BC Health Research Foundation, we received a lot of support from the community, but there was also a huge backlash: harassment, public attack and I even received threats. The most common response we heard was: ‘what do you mean violence on Salt Spring? This is paradise!” Thirty years later, the island understands that that is not true. It is a huge problem on Salt Spring Island. Part of the problem is that if you live on 10 acres, no one will hear what’s going on, so no one calls the police, and safe refuge is further away. There is more awareness about it now and the community is not in the same kind of denial it was 30 years ago, but it still happens.”
A hard won fight
After the trial in 1991, Marie-Té made plans to move off-island. She changed her name and lived, despite the disabilities caused by the incident, a beautiful life. She recently passed away in her seventies. “A few years ago, her daughter visited Salt Spring Island as a grown woman. Her last experience here was so traumatic. I made arrangements and took her to all the places in both organizations to see the services that grew from her and her mom’s experience. It was very meaningful to her to meet staff and hear about the work they were doing. Both organizations were very gracious and she was very moved.”
Shellyse feels it is important to share this origin story. “We dedicated a lot of time and energy to establish services and support. It was a hard-won fight, but with grassroots organizing and the power of the collective, we created change, we built services, and we learned and we educated our community. about the realities of violence and abuse in relationships.”
Shellyse Szakacs was the first coordinator of Gulf Islands Women’s Resource Network, now IWAV. She is a Board member of DAISSI (Diverse and Inclusive Salt Spring Island), and coordinates the RedDress Project in honour of Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women, Girls and Trans every year on May 5th.