Daring and dedicated feminist pioneer, activist, and visionary.
“I look to a future where women live in autonomy, peace, and freedom, without the hideous enforcer phenomenon of violence against women.”
Resourceful, resilient, and street-smart, Lee Lakeman has worked tirelessly for over thirty years, both nationally and internationally, to combat violence against women. The life and work of this longstanding staffer and spokesperson for the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, an all-woman, all-feminist collective, offers a stellar example of how a true feminism adapts and develops. This dedicated activist who “can’t conceive of a feminism that is not anti-racist and anti-capitalist,” once thought herself immune to male violence. Her viewpoint now? “None of us are secure by virtue of being feminists. None of us can claim a foolproof sensor to detect which men will allow themselves to assault under which conditions.”
Born into a working-class family in Hamilton in 1946, the oldest of five, Lakeman reluctantly started on a journalism career after high school. Finding herself pregnant in her first year, she left the Ryerson program to give birth to her son Christopher in 1967. Teacher training followed and then teaching, until a lunch with close friends in the early 1970s redirected her life. A discussion arose around a hospitalized woman who had been severely beaten by her husband and was unable to return home to her children because she had no money. Lakeman decided to convert her communal home into a transition house while her friends signed on to provide monetary support. Within a couple of months, the house was filled with women and children. With further community backing, a first mortgage was secured for the Woodstock Women’s Emergency Centre. This was the first CMHC mortgage granted for a transition house.
In 1978, Lakeman relocated out West and joined the Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter, which had been established in 1973. Countless challenges followed. In 1982, they lost their funding because, in order to protect the anonymity of victims, they refused to allow the Canadian government access to victims’ files. Debates about such issues as men’s involvement in the shelter have continued to place them at the centre of controversy. Lakeman maintains that “it is still impossible to work effectively in a rape crisis centre or a transition house and not be breaking the Canadian law on a regular basis.” She says she grows more radical by the year.
The experienced, opinionated, and articulate Lakeman has published numerous articles and is the principal author of Canada’s Promises to Keep: The Charter and Violence Against Women (2003), an inquiry undertaken by CASAC (Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres), which was subsequently revised as Obsession, with Intent (Black Rose Books 2005). This study examines one hundred criminally assaulted women who used the justice system in eleven locations across Canada and offers the devastating conclusion that the obligations to Canadian women under the Charter of Rights and Freedoms are often grossly ignored and/or violated by those responsible for emergency services, the police, and prosecutors.
Lakeman, who eschews the label of optimist or pessimist, now desperately strives to safeguard the operation of what she calls Canadian feminism’s greatest gains − namely, the transition houses, rape crisis centres, and women’s centres, where female solidarity has been fostered. The anti-feminist backlash that followed the École Polytechnique massacre on December 6, 1989 brought massive losses including funding cuts that have forced both activists and academics to compete for diminished funds.
Public awareness about violence against women has increased over the course of the past few decades but the litany of devastating statistics remains. Lakeman regards changes in the law as critical to social transformation. She believes that women’s gross underrepresentation at all levels of government must be addressed since it affects not only funding but our sense of national priorities. However, these are (would be?) partial responses to very complex problem.
Lakeman, a member of the World March of Women, has helped establish and foster transition houses in Japan, Indonesia, Russia, India, Nepal, and Bangladesh, societies where women face difficult challenges given the lack of a social safety net and where, she claims, the most significant feminist work is currently being done. She continues to organize Take Back the Night marches and, in her role as the representative for British Columbia and the Yukon on the board of the CASAC, works with anti-violence lobbies petitioning government. She has been honoured by former Justice Minister Alan Rock as his special advisor to a UN meeting in Cairo for her expertise on violence against women.
According to Statistics Canada, half of Canadian women have survived at least one incident of sexual or physical violence; over a quarter (29%) of Canadian women have experienced spousal assault; four out of five people murdered by their spouses are women murdered by men; in 6 out of 10 spousal murders, police were aware of previous violent incidents in the relationship.
"The Canadian government pretends to the rest of the world that it has violence against women covered and promotes that, exports it as one of the great things about our society. It is not, of course, true, but it is true that there is a phenomenal achievement among non-governmental organizations in Canada and that, consequently, even government officials know more about violence against women than their counterparts in most countries, so it’s good and bad.”
“Shelters that actually do anything are less well funded today; centres that promise to treat women one by one and that see women as the problem are getting more money.”
“We are perilously close to decriminalizing violence against women and criminalizing acts of self defence against that violence. We already charge as criminal, women who defend themselves from violence and poverty with self defence, petty fraud, or prostitution.”
“Rape and the fear of rape are control mechanisms that serve to keep all women from exercising our freedom and responsibilities. The man who rapes or batters has offended more than one woman and more than one man is benefiting from the terrorism.”
“Until men stop raping and beating, women will be living in the belly of the beast adapting as best we can.”
“It is women’s solidarity that keeps each of us safe when we come and go in daily life or enter and leave a shelter. It is never the proximity of the police or the bulletproof glass that makes the difference.”
“We know there is no female herstory that will not prejudice the courts. If she is a virgin, she is suspect. If she is sexually active, she is suspect. If she has no lover or a woman lover, she is suspect. If she has children she is suspect and if she had an abortion she is suspect.”