Article and image by Shannon Clarke.
Though they are similar in attendance, location, and itinerary, there is something different about this rally against sexual violence. The 32nd annual Take Back the Night on September 15 followed an unprecedented number of sexual assaults that have occurred in Toronto this month. At this time of writing, there have been six reported sexual assaults on the Ryerson University campus and a series of break-ins and assaults in Etobicoke. Adding to this, there have been at least ten cases reported in the Annex/Kensington neighbourhood over the summer.
The frustration was palpable on a chilly Saturday night as people poured into the tiny park behind the Masaryk Cowan Community Recreation Centre in Parkdale.
The evening was carefully organized and because of this the representation of women speaking and in attendance is incredible. Trans women, racialized women, disabled women and gender non-conforming individuals spoke and were accommodated during the hour-long rally and subsequent march through the neighbourhood. The rally also brings out women and families from other cities, prepared with blankets, folding chairs and great walking shoes.
Taiva Tegler, a support worker at the Sexual Support Centre in Ottawa, stands under a tree listening to the performances. Only in the city for the weekend, she felt compelled to come out.
“I participate and organize Take Back the Night in Ottawa,” she said. “I’m from Toronto, so I felt it was a really important thing to come out to and support this incredible space.”
The march has a long, and bittersweet history.
It began in Philadelphia in 1975, after Susan Alexander Speeth, a young microbiologist, was stabbed and killed while walking home alone. A year later, At the International Tribunal for Crimes Against women in Brussels, Belgium, a reported 2,000 women marched in a candlelight vigil for Speeth, marking the first international Take Back the Night. The first march for women in Canada was in 1978, in Vancouver.
It has grown since, taking on different names along the way—“Reclaim the Night” in Europe, Australia and India.
The marches have continued for over 30 years and so have the crimes and violence. The pushback in recent years, however, has meant more women and allies are eager to speak up, especially when women are told to keep quiet and “take extra precaution” after each fresh wave of attacks.
A stage is set up next to the Hope Garden. The evening includes poetry (from Toronto poet, Truth Is), music, and a five-minute wen-do lesson. There are speeches from survivors, organizers and members of Slutwalk Toronto: Heather Jarvis, Colleen Westendorf and Angela Sinclair.
There are far fewer news cameras than there were at Slutwalk and in the Annex a few weeks earlier. A single CBC news van sits at the entrance of the park, but, for the most part, the crowd is left alone.
“We’re not stopping traffic,” says one woman to her friends as they wait to turn the corner out of the park and onto the street.
“What do you mean we’re not stopping traffic? Of course we’re stopping traffic!” someone replies.
It’s tacitly understood that Take Back the Night is a literal instruction. Rather than simply occupy space, it’s the time to be inconvenient and loud.
Somewhere between Elm Grove and Melbourne Avenues, someone wisely decides to blast Aretha Franklin’s “I Will Survive.” People are dancing with complete strangers and finding familiar faces among the crowd. Along the way I make eye contact with members of the Miss G_Project, a grassroots intuitive that has been fighting the Ontario government to kick-start a women’s and gender studies course in high schools since 2005. Shouting over the shouting, traffic, drumming and cheers, we catch up and others around us do the same.
It’s dark and anyone unfamiliar with the area has no idea where they are, one residential street blending into another. But if there was any time to feel safe on unfamiliar streets on a Saturday night in the middle of the city, it is this night. During the lulls in chanting, men and women introduce one another, coo over babies (of which there are many, being pushed in strollers and carried by their parents), and admire signs and outfits. Because it’s mid-September, still somewhere in-between summer and autumn, we’re a weather-confused crowd. Some people wear shorts and flip-flops others wrap scarves around them and strut comfortably in fall boots.
As it was two weeks ago in the Annex, people are drawn to the crowd weaving through the city, but this time they’re moved only as far as their windows and foyers.
Those who do venture out, mostly curious teenaged boys passing by, are wrapped in sweaters and layers of shirts. It’s only 7 C.
It might be that it’s Saturday night, or that the march is so iconic, or the city really is getting used to these demonstrations, but there are more cheers of support. People peer out of streetcar windows and wave, or roll down their windows at stoplights and pump fists in solidarity. Of course when this happens, we all burst into a round of applause.
It’s a testament to the strength of the community assembled that, despite the frustration and pain that accompanies rallies like these, there could be just as much, if not more, hope, joy and celebration – of what it means to survive and really take back the night.
Photo slideshow to come.