Agency and Urgency: An Advocacy Project on the Defence of Provocation

As a student of Women’s Studies, a worker at a shelter for abused women and a black woman who witnessed violence in my life, I believe the Provocation Defence is a blatant injustice to women. Honourable Minister, our beloved country has fought long and hard to establish laws, which recognize a woman as a person. The Defence of Provocation is sending a clear message once more that she is not.

– Patricia Peters (Students gave permission to reprint excerpts from their letters.)

The fact that a ‘Defence of Provocation’ is enshrined in the Canadian Criminal Code came as a shock to students in my York University Women’s Studies class on “Women Organizing”. Undoubtedly, the existence of the ‘Defence’ brings the government and the courts into disrepute in the minds of my students, many of whom are young women. How can they feel that the law will protect them when such an egregious opening exists for men to blame their partners for their own violence and literally to get away with murder? How can they feel that their government supports a woman’s autonomy when a woman’s desire to leave a marriage can be construed as ‘provocation’ and used as an excuse for men’s rage, violence and murder?

Outrage at the ‘Defence’ offered a vehicle to engage students in political advocacy. Students frequently complain that their university education is not relevant to the ‘real’ world, and this complaint is one made strongly by Women’s Studies students who often feel they should be doing something active to address the inequalities women face. Writing politicians about the ‘Defence’ as part of a class project both encouraged a sense of political efficacy and helped students define themselves as political agents, both as individuals and as part of a collective. It also challenged the sometimes binary of student and activist, and made permeable the seeming-barriers between and among the community, civil society, government and academy.

In preparation for writing the letters, students read newspaper accounts of the violent deaths of Susan Klassen and Donna Stone at the hands of their husbands; they learned how both men invoked the Defence of Provocation and had their sentences dramatically reduced as a result. Students also read a lengthy excerpt from NAWL’s April 2000 brief on the Defence: Stop excusing Violence against Women. As a group, we collectively identified some of the main issues; each student then wrote a letter to the Prime Minister, Justice Minister Martin Cauchon or the Minister for the Status of Women Jean Augustine. Students also sent copies of their letters to NAWL and to MP Carolyn Bennett, who has been instrumental in setting up an all-party caucus of women from the House and the Senate.

White Space Speaks

Much to their surprise, the students eventually received replies to the letters mailed in November 2002.

White space speaks. So does evasiveness. So does silence. The government has met our letters with all three and little else. The class wrote 27 letters on November 25. With the exception of an encouraging reply from MP Carolyn Bennett, contact for the fledgling All-Party Women’s Caucus, we have yet to receive acceptable responses. After four months, and several follow up emails and calls to his office, the Minister of Justice Martin Cauchon finally responded.

Among the silences, there is also clutter. In a response dated, 10 January 2003, the Honourable Jean Augustine, Minister for the Status of Women, wrote, ‘You may know that the Defence of Provocation is currently under review by the Department of Justice to ensure it is considered in its full legal and social context.’

However, Greg Yost, counsel at Justice maintained that there has been no reference to the issue since March 1999. In February 2003, Joanne Klineberg of the Department of Justice confirmed, by email, that the Defence is not under review. In a letter dated 26 March, Augustine’s office finally replied to our written requests for clarification and our entreaties that as Minister for the Status of Women, she take up this issue: “My officials have been in contact with the Department of Justice, and we understand that the Department continues to examine the Defence. Any legislative action, however, falls within the purview of the Minister of Justice. Please be assured that I will continue to work with the Minister of Justice and my other Cabinet colleagues to identify areas where we can work together to eliminate violence against women.”

Cauchon’s letter of March 31, 2003 referred to his commitment “to ensuring that the law reflects modern values and works fairly for all Canadians” and “reconciling society’s need for denunciation and punishment of intentional killings and the objective of providing some measure of compassion to accused persons in appropriate circumstances.” He did not address the concerns about women’s safety raised in our letters; in fact, he made no reference to gender at all.

Despite the limits, this correspondence did offer more than the two sentences from Prime Minister Jean Chretien’s office. “Please be assured”, his Executive Correspondence Officer told us, “that your comments have been given careful consideration.” Email queries asking for clarification have not received replies.

More encouragingly however, MP Carolyn Bennett responded promptly by 17 December 2002. She attached a copy of a letter she had sent to all women MPs and Senators in which she said, “These young women point out this section of the Code is archaic and a remnant of a time when honour killings were acceptable in law. This loophole has allowed men to argue in court, upon charges of murder, that their female partners provoked them… This is unacceptable! I urge you to push this issue within your own caucuses.”

Evidently, writing letters to MPs requires emails, phone calls, and time, a long process that calls attention to the barriers to accessible and accountable politics.

– michelle elle pettis

Agency-Based Learning

This project is an example of what I call agency-based learning. Such a pedagogical approach helps to re-position activism from a marginal to a mainstream activity and encourages students to understand and experience themselves as political actors. For those students who have internalized negative stereotypes of feminists, activists and organizing, this represents an important shift.

This kind of project also challenges students’ political pessimism; a not insignificant achievement in the current context where equity gains are under serious attack and demoralization is often the norm.

Courses in Women’s Studies, which focus on women’s experience may inadvertently encourage a view of women as victims, and as a result heighten students’ sense of powerlessness. As students understand the discrimination and violence women face, many feel discouraged and disempowered. Integrating a practice of advocacy into Women’s Studies classrooms balances the reality of women’s victimization against the practice of women as agents.

Women have a long and remarkable history of organizing to resist oppression, expand their rights as women and citizens, protect their families and communities, defend traditional values, and change their societies. They have organized in, through and sometimes against revolutionary, nationalist and transnational movements, unions, autonomous women’s movements and mainstream political institutions; states, schools, workplaces, communities, and religious institutions; public and private spaces; and issues and identities. I encourage teachers to include agency-based projects in their classrooms and to become part of this long tradition of organizing. At the same time, I hope that community-based feminist organizations will reach out to the large numbers of women in Women’s Studies programs across Canada, and help bridge the barriers of community and academy.

For more information about the course on Women Organizing (including the instructions for this “Advocacy Project”), see www.arts.yorku.ca/sosc/lbriskin/courses/3125/index.html. See also Briskin “Women’s Organizing: A Gateway to a New Approach for Women’s Studies.” Atlantis, Vol. 26, No. 2, 2002, pp. 78-91.

Linda Briskin is a Professor in the Social Science Division and the School of Women’s Studies at York University. She has published widely on women and unions, community-based women’s organizing and inclusive pedagogies. She has both an activist and scholarly interest in these areas.

Louise Hamelin is a third-year Women’s Studies major at York University who hopes to study law in the future.

Christina J. Hollingshead will graduate cum laude with her Specialized Honours Degree in psychology from York University in 2003. She intends to complete her Master’s Degree in Interdisciplinary Studies, her Ph.D. in Clinical Psychology, attend Osgoode Hall Law School, and become a Judge in the Criminal Courts.

michelle elle pettis is a fourth year womyn’s studies and English major interested in the politics of the classroom and turned on by peace-ing together art activism.

Elizabeth Taylor is a second year Women’s Studies major at York University. She plans to complete a Bachelor of Social Work and then go to graduate school.