In No Uncertain Terms: the Victoria
The shape of the Victoria Park Women’s Monument puts viewers in mind of a black gap opened into the sedate landscape of Victoria Park, the oldest public park in London, Ontario. Two granite slabs facing one another on an oval concrete base, one side of the monument presents a group of women’s faces etched into the stone, while on the lower half of the other slab’s polished surface is carved the monument’s inscription. Artist Leigh Raney used the granite for its effect: rain makes the faces disappear, slowly to re-emerge as the monument dries.2 Viewers’ faces are also reflected in this stone,; they are included among the people who have a stake in remembering the Montreal Massacre, on the fifth anniversary of which the Monument was dedicated as "a place to remember and reflect upon violence, particularly violence against women, and the women and men who work to end it."3 The Victoria Park Women’s Monument creates a space of its own designed for reflection on the events that it commemorates; viewers can actively participate in the Monument by moving between the slabs so as to read its dedication. The Monument has also come to serve as a gathering spot for various ceremonies that draw attention to violence against women. For individuals remembering privately and for those who wish to share the act of remembering with each other, the shape of the Monument encourages the people of London to treat it as a memory site.
A description of the Monument’s evocative shape is a caution at the beginning of this essay, a reminder of the difficulty of doing justice to the energy and dedication that proponents of the Women’s Monument invested in the Monument’s creation, while at the same time discussing the discursive fields in which the inscription on the Monument less effectively inserts the Montreal Massacre and violence against women in the local community. The Women’s Monument was intended as an intervention in London’s civic history as that history is presented in the monuments of Victoria Park. The Park is London’s primary space of civic memory, a plot of land in the centre of the city dotted with memorials to events, such as the Boer War and the two World Wars, that succeeding generations of Londoners believed to have shaped London’s communal identity. The memories linked to the Massacre weave a web of local and national histories, private and shared memories, narratives that define the community and less well-defined responses to this memorialized event. I will argue that the Monument mediates these differing forms of memory with difficulty because the unequivocal statement about the Massacre and about violence against women that the inscription makes may also make the Monument available to the community’s denial of the history with which the Monument was intended to engage. I wi.ll also argue that an inscription more receptive to the event’s traumatic dimension might have prevented this possibility. The matter of this Monument—a monument to the victims of what has become known as the Montreal Massacre as well as to victims of violence in London, Ontario—is matter of tenuous arbitration between the position of the Montreal tragedy as an event with far-reaching political implications and an event that is also an instance of collectively-experienced trauma.4
Recently, various academic disciplines have given trauma their sustained attention as a physical and psychological impact recognizable in the traces of language (the clues that language leaves in its pauses, rhythm, and repetition) rather than in the denotative meaning of words. Two things become clear in these critical considerations. The first is that trauma is typically imagined as something that cannot be naturalized into the narratives that people make of experience. The second is that trauma is a psychological event, experienced by individuals rather than by groups of people, which exceeds the capacity of language to describe it. This remains the case even if a traumatic event is recorded in collective history, for it is recorded as a fact rather than remembered or imagined as an experience. Such readings make trauma the field of isolated memory only. In the present discussion, however, trauma is defined as an unsettlement of both private and collectively-evolved memory, for there is evidence to suggest that trauma really requires the constant, vigorous reconsideration of a past occurrence that will never become a fixed site of memory. If memory has come to be understood in recent years as a retrieval and a (re)construction of experiences that are definitely past, itself a "monument visited, rather than a context" (Antze and Lambek xiii), then a trauma such as the Montreal Massacre is the wound within that retrieval that makes memory a process once again.5 Such an event challenges the "archival" nature of modern memory, which in Pierre Nora’s words "relies entirely on the specificity of the trace, the materiality of the vestige, the concreteness of the recording, the visibility of the image" (9).
My definition of trauma develops from Shoshana Felman’s and Dori Laub’s description of trauma as history "which is essentially not over" (xiv). Although trauma is an impact that the mind cannot explain within the frames of experience with which it is most familiar, it is also a point at which private and collective consciousness intersect. Trauma means uncertainty, not in the negative sense of not being sure whether there is a memory of the event at all, but in the sense that the memory demands a constant renegotiation because its meaning never presents itself exhaustively. The traumatic memory questions the categories through which Pierre Nora suggests that collective memory has come to be conceived: as a record book in which the documentable fact is separated from and valued over more personal and emotional memory, and in which that "fact" is taken for granted as established and unerasable through the words that name it. Maurice Halbwachs’ The Collective Memory (1950) is still useful as a work against which to illuminate this idea of a sternly separate "collective" and "private." His argument that there is no such thing as a private memory—that memory is always structured by the organization of the society to which the subject belongs—defines the memory as an archive.6 But Halbwachs was not working out his interest in memory so much as his interest in human perception and in time as communal, as opposed to private, experiences. He does not view memory as a practice but as a mental function ancillary to the collective perception in which he believes the subject is always implicated from birth. While Halbwachs’ paradigms have infiltrated modern notions of memory, they cannot explain trauma because trauma enters both private and collective consciousness, providing an impetus to explore the remembered event as a changing memory. Put differently, memory renegotiated by traumatic experience results in the possibility of a memory both intensely shared and personal. A monument to a trauma should, then, focus on the generative potential between "private" and "collective" recollection. Such a monument would also acknowledge a suppleness in memory that the inscription on the Victoria Park Women’s Monument cannot.
Trauma contradicts with renewed intensity the preoccupation with freezing events that Nora identifies in contemporary culture. The danger of this preoccupation is taht some memories will become available to outright denial, to forgetting. By making Nora’s "concrete" trace ephemeral once more, trauma—and the commemoration of trauma—asks that those who undertake to "remember" address themselves to the past as a more nuanced axis of identity. As a political memorial and as a rewriting of a history in which women’s experience is still frequently invisible, the paradox of the London monument to the Montreal Massacre is that the only way to make it historically unelidable is to maintain the always-uncertain meaning of past events, a trace of meaning the emotive and commemorative dynamism of which is unfixable. This Monument needs uncertain terms.
I am not arguing that the Monument is ineffective in its attempt to include the historical reality of violence against women in London’s history. In the contrary, this Monument provokes a re-examination of collective and private memory by trying in civic terms to memorialize a traumatic memory, a memory that resists final definition and that requires a constant re-engagement with the past.The mandate of a civic monument is to inform a given space with the histories of its inhabitants, "to commemorate what [those inhabitants] value and to instruct [them] in [their] heritage through visible expressions in the landscape" (Monk 124). Simply by existing within this space, the Women’s Monument intervenes in a civic self-definition dominated by war memorials, as Victoria Park is. Spiro Kostoff suggests that a public park’s being designed into the "fabric" of a city in the city’s early stages of development7 is evidence that the city’s communities conceive of themselves as selves with a shared identity (277). Londoners’ continuing interest in this park is an active interest that makes the debate around the construction of the Women’s Monument truly a debate over collective memory that merits an attentive exploration. This monument addresses itself to the memorial tradition of Victoria Park by affirming the importance of recognizing women’s experience as experience that the community should value and commemorate.
In an interview on CBC This Morning, Winnipeg art critic Robert Enright adds that monuments to tragedy—in their capacity of invoking memory both of the tragedy and of the responsibility for it—also become "the objects we are obliged, if not forced, to encounter, and for that…[they] perform an important cultural and moral function…Monuments become a way of defeating cultural and moral amnesia which is something that in twentieth century we find ourselves doing very easily because it’s much easier to forget." To the end of preventing amnesia, a monument must not only console, but provoke discussion. In this definition of its "mandate", a civic monument must also stimulate discussion not only among those who already agree with the commemorability of the event(s) to the memory of which it is dedicated, but also among those members of the community who disagree; in the case of the Women’s Monument, it is among this latter group that little discussion appears to have been generated other than automatically to reject the civic importance of remembering violence against women. Moreover, any monument’s spatialization of a trauma such as the Montreal Massacre in a civic monument places deeply private responses to an event which has a specifically gendered character side-by-side with the assertion of the tragedy’s commemorative value to the community. The Women’s Monument in Victoria Park is figuratively positioned at the junction of private and collective memory.
Collective Forgettings: a Frame for Trauma
Lawrence Kirmayer’s essay "Landscapes of Memory: Trauma, Narrative, and Dissociation" (1996) is a useful resource for thinking about trauma in collective terms because it examines the processes by which a community or a culture receives a trauma, and by which that community or culture commemorates a traumatic event.8According to Kirmayer, personal recollections of past events "are given shape by the personal and social significance of specific memories but also draw from meta-memory—implicit models of memory that influence what can be recalled and cited as veridical. Narratives of trauma [and, for the present discussion, this is vital] may be understood as cultural constructions of personal and historical memory" (175). Both kinds of trauma that Kirmayer discusses—the trauma experienced by the Holocaust survivor and the trauma experienced by the victim of childhood sexual abuse—have a place in a cultural narrative because both experiences have a function "beyond" themselves: the Holocaust survivor’s story because that story constitutes a moment in history, and the abuse survivor’s story because it constitutes a cultural trend of greater numbers of people who are finally remembering these stories and who are willing to tell them after an initial period of memory repression. The community has evolved a shared interpretive frame through which discursively to recognize both traumatic events. The survivor’s trauma becomes individually unimportant, even anonymous, because the community supplies a method of comprehending her or his stories already. Grouped with so many similar memories, the traumatic memory is made part of the cultural metanarrative but becomes an individually erasable unit because there are other stories that could compensate for its absence. It has a fixed significance, both for the traumatized subject and for her or his social milieu.
Kirmayer’s examination of different notions of trauma also identifies three underemphasized facets of the phenomenon. Firstly, it is the nature of trauma to be specific as well as to be immensely generative about its possible meanings. Western culture’s management of trauma avoids both this specificity (about what the traumatic event was) and this generative potential. Secondly, the cultural framing of traumatic experience devalues the component of individual responses that seems to coexist with collective responses; in reference to the Montreal Massacre we might think of the yearly gatherings, vigils, and services organized to remember the murders. These ceremonies blend spontaneous personal expressions of sorrow with a ceremony. Thirdly, this "cultural framing" destroys the constant duality that resides in trauma’s specific meanings and proliferating meaning-possibilities—the simultaneity of certain and uncertain, shareable and unshareable, collective and private memory that is traumatic memory.9
Language after the Massacre
In keeping with the idea that trauma has a distinct discursive identity that moves between the private and the collective, I want to preface my discussion of the Monument with a review of the words surrounding the Montreal Massacre, particularly those used in London’s local press, to emphasize that the experience of the Massacre was a shared as well as a profoundly private, emotional one and that it was an event the significance of which was immediately controversial.10 Analysing media representations and discussions of the Massacre in "Female Lives, Feminist Deaths: the Relationship of the Montreal Massacre to Dissociation, Incest, and Violence Against Women" (1996), Julie Brickman suggests that during the two weeks immediately following the murders, a state of "heightened awareness" existed in the culture, when Canadians’ consciousness "of the fear and lack of personal safety that are part of the daily context of women's lives" increased (17-18). She also observes, however, that "within two weeks or less this heightened awareness had disappeared both from the media and from daily social discourse" (18). She identifies, then, a brief period when societal awareness of violence against women was more acute because of the fourteen murders. Brickman is the only one to use the phrase "heightened awareness" to describe the collective, often emotional, response to the event, but she is far from the only one to employ the term "trauma" to describe the Massacre as an experience in Canadians’ lives that manifests itself discursively. Since this is an event that generated language in a way that few events in the last decade have, it is appropriate to look at the verbal responses inspired by it, especially as they developed in London.
Common to many articles, editorials, and commentaries on the Montreal Massacre was the naming of the murdered women so as to reassign them their individuality after a slaughter that had anonymized them, in the killer’s words, as a "bunch of feminists."11 The January 1990 Canadian Association of University Teachers Bulletin voiced the two most common early responses to the murders: the posing of questions and the presentation of further testimonials about women’s experiences of hostility resulting from their gender. C.A.U.T. president Pamela Smith easily found the link between the murders and the many arenas in which those murders demand definition and recognition, a link made by the feelings that the killing provoked: "The connection that women find between [Lepine’s] behaviour and beliefs and their own experiences at Canadian universities and other institutions responsible for setting social standards is not to be minimized…. [H]e struck a blow at the heart of the mission of Canadian universities"(3). Others located an affective response more perceptibly within their own writing. In the middle of her cogent summary, in The Globe and Mail, of the forms of backlash against women’s responses to the Massacre, Melanie Randall simply begins to pose questions, locating the trauma first in the deaths and then in the societal ricochet of the murders: "[w]hat are we to make of this? How can we possibly account for this chilling display of threatening and hateful behaviour unless we grapple with some men’s need to assert their own power through invoking panic and terror in women?" (A7). This question is sometimes accompanied by a moment of lucidity in which the writer anticipates the imminently widespread movement to erase the gender specificity of the Massacre. This lucidity produces a fierce insistence on the gender of the victims, for example in Elaine Audet’s letter of December 9, 1989:
How much longer will we try to cover up
the selective nature of this crime, calling it violence in general, citing
the availability of firearms, speaking primarily of individuals, people,
students, victims, youth, cadavers, the dead, in order to keep our
language from reflecting society’s sexism? How much longer must we
disguise the unbearable truth: this was the murder of fourteen innocent
women and we must all assume responsibility by virtue of our silence, our
complacency, our inertia.
In addition to prompting an insistence on naming the event, on naming the women killed, and on naming the crime as a crime against women that makes them fear for themselves as women, the murders, as Joan Baril observed in "At the Centre of the Backlash" (1990), had the effect of "trigger[ing] off powerful emotions of fear, rage, and pain" (14). Baril, who worked at the Northern Women’s Centre in Thunder Bay, notes that the first vigils, on the day and night after the Massacre, resulted from "the need for some sort of activity to acknowledge the anguish" (14), a need first articulated by the distressed women calling the Centre. In Thunder Bay three vigils were held, one of which was for women only. These vigils commemorated the murders by registering emotional responses to them that the women who attended wished to share with each other, while at the same time these women acknowledged that not all the feelings generated by the event could, or should, be shared (17). The London Free Press may have come closest of the articles in newspapers to this same openness of meaning around the event when on December 12, 1989, it continually repeated the word "loss" in its byline to the lead story "Canada Says Goodbye:" "[t]hose who knew them as friends or family spoke of the tragic loss. Others who did not know them personally also felt the loss, a great loss. A personal loss for them, too" (A1). Repetition here communicates an inexpressible weight of feeling because it keeps returning to the already-said as if it has not been fully registered by the writer. Joan Barfoot of the Free Press wrote on December 9, 1989 that "there have…been women across the country, in classrooms and offices who felt the blow of hatred behind this event" (1: F4). The links that Barfoot makes most immediately are instinctual, and at the same time articulate: "[i]f women's response to the Montreal deaths has been a visceral sense of having been personally menaced and hurt, men’s response to the demands of women in the past three decades has been visceral, too." Such links are repeated in University of Western Ontario Chaplain Louise Peters’ letter to the Western News on December 14, 1989: "[a]s a woman I grieve my sisters and am afraid. Deeply afraid…The horror of what occurred in the Engineering class at the University of Montreal shouts to us loud and clear that sexism kills" (4; my emphases). Just as Melanie Randall’s sudden interjection of questions into her essay emphasizes the plenum of meanings around the Massacre even as those questions are also infused with the voiced recognition that this was a crime against women, what emerges from these early expressions of emotion in response to the murders is a collapsed distance between personal feeling around an event that is not yet defined, and an unwavering conviction that the killings have an intrinsically political dimension.
These earliest discussions and descriptions of the Massacre suggest a threefold characterization of the language used to articulate the event: it is a language that (1) insists on the specific details of the event (names of the victims, date, time of day, place); (2) that intuits (and militates against) the future elision of these specific details in discussions of the shootings; and (3) that supports emotion as a legitimate (and verbally expressible) response to the event. In other words, the language in which the event was earliest placed was one in which words did not simply try to define the event but that drew attention to the collective empathy for the victims’ families that the murders stimulated by blurring "collective" and "private" distinctions. Immediately following the murders, this language coexisted with the declaration of the Massacre's gendered implications. The two discourses did not compete with each other for ascendancy, nor does there appear to have been a sense that this openness of meaning around the Massacre undermined the political meaning with which it was contiguous.
The vocabulary through which both these aspects of the Massacre were first remembered developed almost simultaneously with another discourse that attempted to define the event very differently. Almost at once, and in the years that followed the Massacre, this language shunned both the specificity and the spontaneity of those first responses, and defined the event as an instance of violence in a society in which violence is increasing, the suggestion being that there was nothing particularly memorable about the Massacre. Eventually, the loss of its gender-specific meaning became inevitable. In this revisionist language, Canada was depicted as an idyllically balanced society that the Massacre temporarily unbalanced owing to its extreme violence instead of its extreme and gendered violence. The sex of the victims was absorbed within a larger problem of cultural violence that disrupts Canada's "typical" equilibrium. A resistance to correlating the Montreal murders with particular local instances of violence also became evident with this disavowal. Violence was stressed as a general cultural problem epitomized in this Massacre and consequently (if paradoxically) only describable in the broadest of terms.12 When the Massacre was contrasted with a "usual" societal balance, the particular details of the murders were lost once again.13
By December of the year after the tragedy, the Massacre had become a flashpoint for dialogue about who should control community memory.14 An angry exchange between Barfoot and Don Murray (both of whom claimed some community support for their positions) in the London Free Press of December 1, 1990 demarcated the poles of public sentiment. Murray argued that the "radical feminists" into whose hands control of the event's memorialization had fallen were a small interest group not representative of the community and he suggested that feminism itself is a marginal concern unable to express genuine collective opinion either nationally or locally. He also argued that the distinction between the sexes (and by inference the inequalities that this distinction has engendered) was itself outdated. Where Barfoot argued that local instances of violence against women are part of the same cultural hostility against and fear of women as Lepine’s selection of female engineering students for execution, Murray suggested that hate like Lepine’s was a universal cultural problem; by implication, the Massacre had no particular political significance for the local community. Murray’s argument points to the emergence in London of some unwillingness to view the Massacre as a meaningful event because of the gender of the victims, and an unwillingness to recognize and consequently also the pervasiveness of cultural violence to members of that gender. One possibility effectively closed off by Murray and others15 is the possibility that Londoners will be able to remember how they felt the moment that it happened—that the openness of thought during the time immediately following the murders, the grief, and the political relevance of the crime can and will be limited.
To summarize, the language around the Massacre was first characterized by an openness to the event’s significance. This language was extremely elastic. Subsequently, this language altered in favour of confining the event to a more general narrative of mass murders in Canadian history. This change subordinated the traumatic dimension of the event—the fact that the murder victims were carefully selected on the basis of their sex—in favour of a managed memory that de-politicized the murders by swallowing them in a large, un-gendered chronology of violence in general. The discursive space in which the Victoria Park Women’s Monument was constituted was a space filled with contesting languages before the Monument was constructed, some that explicitly (and aggressively) promoted the forgetting of the Massacre, and others that continued to insist that it was important to preserve the feelings around the initial shock of the tragedy.
The evolution of verbal responses to the Montreal Massacre carries forward Kirmayer’s exploration of how collective consciousness treats traumatic memory. Kirmayer posits that culturally dominant models of memory forbid flexible readings of past experience, or readings that would permit subjects to take different approaches to the past. Consequently, the "intensely personal" nature that he describes in traumatic memory cannot exist as a collective memory unless it loses its flexibility, and it certainly cannot coexist with collective memory. Kirmayer adds that "[t]he dominant cultural prototype of memory is declarative: we are able to describe what we know (semantic memory) and what we have experienced (episodic memory)" (176). The dominant cultural prototype, then, is "show and tell"; a declarative statement is a statement that makes some idea "clear, manifest, or evident," a "formal assertion" (OED). This "prototype" indicates a certain inflexibility; memory declared is also memory defined. This kind of memory could preclude the possibility that the past is the site of conflicting meanings, or even a site where the memory of the emotions that surround the memorialized event play a significant role.
Articulating Debated Memory
Gayle Greene describes the necessity for feminist memory projects in "Feminist Fiction and the Uses of Memory" (1991) when she writes that "[w]omen especially need to remember because forgetting is a major obstacle to change…. Anyone who teaches feminism today is struck by how quickly the struggle for women’s rights has been forgotten…[they] are taken for granted as God-given rights, with no sense of how recently they have been won, how much they cost" (298). The political character of the Massacre is undeniable: fourteen women were killed, fourteen women who died because they were smart, because they were being educated in a profession the ranks of which are swollen with men, but most of all because they were women. Controversy over remembering this fact underlies much of the discord between the languages through which the Massacre is remembered. As Greene also suggests, feminist memory has also always evolved not in isolation from the discourses that would deny women’s pasts but in conflict with them. Women have constituted their identities against a story of the past that would deny them their history.
It was perhaps the same anxiety that the political specificity of the Massacre as a murder of women would be erased that motivated the movement to raise the Women’s Monument in the first place. Plans for the Monument were announced by the Women’s Education and Research Foundation of Ontario, a London-based group of women chaired by Lorraine Greaves, director of the Centre for Research on Violence to Women and Children, and London lawyer Margaret Buist, on December 6, 1993. A written request for "a location in Victoria Park" for the Monument had been made by the Foundation on November 30, 1993 in a letter to Manager of Parks and Recreation John Lohuis.16 One year later, on November 15, 1994, a memorandum was sent to City Council by the Community and Protective Services Committee recommending approval of the "request to locate the proposed Victoria Park Women’s Monument in a public park" and also "[t]hat the Parks and Recreation Department be directed to assist in the placement of the monument in a public park by December 6, 1994." The memorandum "support[ed] the placement of this monument in Victoria Park," and lists the following reasons why:
1) Violence against women is a nationwide, if not world wide issue, that affects all people including Londoners, regardless of gender. As such, a monument that promotes awareness and education of the citizens of London should be afforded the highest profile possible in the community. Victoria Park as a key civic and public space is such a place.
2) Placement of this monument as public art in Victoria Park will serve as an acknowledgment of the City of London’s civic commitment to bringing issues of violence against women to the fore front of the public eye.
3) The monument can be thoughtfully and tastefully placed in Victoria Park while preserving the integrity of the park for other civic uses.
These reasons establish the Massacre as a national event to be memorialized, and hint that a monument will prove that London is civically up-to-date, aware of and committed to important national issues.
The wording of the memo makes no clear statement about the relevance of the Monument to London’s own history, and thus foreshadows the problem of language that haunts the Monument. The three reasons that the memo gives in support of installing the Women’s Monument nationalize memory of the Massacre, but stay away from identifying any violence against women in London, instead affirming that City Council ought to be interested in the Massacre because, by constructing this Monument, London will include itself among larger national, cosmopolitan, and global communities. According to the letter that Council saw, then, the Monument would not transfer the Massacre into a local space as a space that reflects local realities or concerns, but would create a local space that makes London an extension of the "national" community without explicitly acknowledging the reality of local violence against women. Violence is a problem that "affects all people…regardless of gender." The negotiations to raise the Monument and to place it in Victoria Park serve preliminarily to identify the problem of translating the Massacre as a meaningful event for the local region.
The debate over placing the Monument in Victoria Park often echoes the print debate over the language in which the Massacre should be remembered; that is, there is frequently disagreement over whether the Massacre is a disruption to Canadian history that demands new terms of articulation, or whether it fits into an already-determined collective means of remembering violence. To those who insist upon the gendered essence of the crime, the Montreal Massacre illuminates the pervasiveness of violence against women, and that such violence is not random but daily; consequently, the commemorative value of the Massacre resides in its ability to make local instances of violence cross-referential with violent acts against women that happen elsewhere, by affirming that such acts are undeniable parts of local history. There is already a certain (if unintended) revision of the memory of the Massacre implicit in this memorandized summary of the reasons why such a monument should be built in London, a revision that obscures the Massacre’s position as a channel for attention to local violence against women. Given the elision of local violence against women as an issue to which the Monument would address itself, the negotiation informing the Monument is also that of London’s position as a local community in a national narrative in which it wants a part, but not a part available to continuing reinterpretation.
Although the opposition to the construction of the Monument was sometimes vitriolically directed against the existence of a memorial to the Massacre, it is just as often the Monument’s proposed location in Victoria Park that supplies the motive for protest.17 Much opposition to the Monument stemmed from the Park’s being an uneasy historical space already. The Victoria Park Inventory and Condition Report (1994) identifies the two historically-developed functions of the park for Londoners. It is both a civic space on which the community places monuments to events that have helped to shape it (or that represent its shared past), and it was originally created as a green space that is itself part of London’s history. In the early 1990s there was a debate over whether the green space was as important to the community as the monumental space of Victoria Park, and whether the connection of the Park with some downtown neighbourhoods as a recreational park meant more than its established identity as a civic area for all of London. The two identities conflict with one another, and in the community debate about the creation and placement of a monument to the Montreal Massacre and to violence, it became increasingly clear that only one of these parks—the ecological or the civic—could be preserved intact. In this sense, the park was already a conflicted site of communal memory.
The Monument was placed in Victoria Park while the Victoria Park Inventory and Condition Report was still being conducted. It was raised against a directive that had been issued in July of 1994 by the Parks and Recreation Department, on the advice of the Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee, that nothing new was to be added to the park while the impact study was in preparation. On November 21, 1994, the Community and Protective Services Committee decided not to hold public hearings on the Monument. They were not required to do so; until 1996 the city had no policy regarding the installation of monuments in public places.18 Nancy Tausky’s letter on behalf of the Local Architectural Conservation Advisory Committee, however, makes the case that even if consultations would bring out opponents with questionable objections, not having consultations undermines the Monument as a translation of the Montreal Massacre into a local setting that melds the tragedy actively with local history. Tausky also underlines the absence of a public policy to "regulat[e] public art," but she adds that the question of which Victoria Park gets preserved—the recreational park established in 1874 or the site of civic identity into which the Park has grown—has partly been answered by the City, and the City's decision was "to investigate a conservation strategy for Victoria Park to ensure that the Parks’ historic design integrity is preserved" (1). The placement of the Women’s Monument in Victoria Park six months after the City resolved to formulate a "conservation strategy" before permitting any new structures to be placed in the park contravenes the city’s recommendation further to explore the extent of the environmental damage to the site (1). People do care, said Tausky, about participating in any changes made to the park: "citizens insisted on a participatory role in creating and approving a design for the new bandshell; they were vocal in arguing that the park was not the right setting for the peace garden; and they objected to having pseudo-Victorian elements introduced into the Park when the Parks department suggested a redevelopment concept during the 1980s" (2). Raising the question of which park to preserve really repeats another question posed by different London communities over who had access to the ideological terrain of the park.19
An example of the unsettling effect that the push for the Women’s Monument had on the community presents itself in the Women’s Education and Research Foundation’s exposure, through its proposal of the Monument, of the lines along which the communities in London draw boundaries among themselves. The Woodfield Community Association wrote a letter opposing the installation of the Monument; the park is within the Woodfield boundaries, and the Association seems to have felt left out of the community that participated in the placement of the Monument. There were also those who thought a monument would be acceptable, but not in central London: "Perhaps it would be appropriate to place this monument at the Engineering building at Western" (McQuillen); that the murders happened on a campus made violence against women a campus issue, and Western's semi-autonomous identity was invoked by this letter-writer to make it a separate community from that of the city. The Community and Protective Services Committee proponents of the Monument promoted it on the grounds that London would be one of many larger Canadian centres that memorialize this event; opponents made absolutely clear that, in their view, the Montreal Massacre had no local resonances.
Yet response to the successful movement to place the Monument in Victoria Park reiterates most insistently that the Monument to the Montreal Massacre, and, by local extension, violence against women, had pivotally to do with how this event is remembered in language, and the ideas sanctioned by the words chosen through which to speak of the Massacre. Several supporters (who wrote letters to Council in the days before the Monument was approved for Victoria Park) described the Monument as an intervention that will alter the meaning of the other monuments in the park and that is also a completion of the park’s monumental theme for violence against women is a war against women. As Alison Wylie wrote in a letter of November 24, 1994, the Monument would "[extend] to our own community the powerful message of the existing monuments to wars waged abroad; if we are ever to end violence on a global scale we must start at home." In a letter also dated November 24, 1994, Jeffrey Schlemmer addressed himself to the suggestion that there are other civic sites in London for the Women's Monument: "[i]f the monument is placed in the Peace Park it would be seen by many fewer people. We would be symbolically hiding the memorial just as the problem of violence against women has been down-played and ‘hidden’ in the past." In a letter of November 28, 1994, Mary McKim argued that "[w]omen are the unrecognized victims of every war, their deaths and sacrifices unrecorded. They continue in peacetime to be victims of displaced rage." Clearly, these letter-writers believe that a monument in Victoria Park could be an effective communication of the gendered nature of the shootings as well as an expansion on the park’s apparent theme of London’s military history that would link the Monument to the civic history of Victoria Park. Thus the language of Remembrance Day is used in two other letters of support (dated November 25 and 24 respectively), both of which adapt the Park’s memorialization of the male war dead to a new purpose: "[i]t is important that we NEVER FORGET the women who lost their lives in the Montreal Massacre…The London community needs to consider that WOMEN DIE EVERY DAY, in a very real and different ‘WAR,’ the war of violence against women" (Knight 1), and "It is important that we erect a memorial in Victoria Park for women who have been killed in this country as it is to have the Cenotaph to honour the men AND women who died protecting our country" (Thomas 1).20
The first suggested text for the Monument’s inscription was presented by the Community and Protective Services Committee to London City Council in a letter dated November 25, 1994: "The Victoria Park Women’s Monument was dedicated on December 6, 1994, the 5th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. It honours all who experience violence against women, and all women and men who work to end it." By this account, the Monument is dedicated both to the Montreal Massacre and to women who are victims and survivors of violence. This inscription presents the Massacre as an instance of such violence. Because it renders the Massacre an historical event that underlines a far larger violence that extends directly into the community, this is the inscription that, among those proposed, comes closest to achieving the effect that the Monument’s intervention into civic history has to achieve. It points to three experiences as connected ones, rather than experiences exclusive of one another: (1) the moment in Montreal when violence against women
is telescoped into one horrific instant; (2) the historically continuous fact of violence against women; (3) violence against women in the community that has set up a monument to it.
In spite of this text’s fluid arbitration of these three functions, this is not the inscription ultimately placed on the Monument. City Council chose from three suggestions recommended by the Victoria Park Women’s Monument Committee:
The Victoria Park Women’s Monument was dedicated on December 6, 1994,
the 5th Anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. It is a place to remember
and reflect upon violence against women, and to honour all women and men
who work to end it.
The choice that Council made—the third option—is the one that the Women’s Monument Project Committee considered least desirable. According to the November 25, 1994 memorandum from the Project Committee to the Parks and Recreation Department, the Committee offered this option so as to "accommodate the concerns raised" by Councillor Paul Yorke, who—against the Project Committee’s inclination—wished "to generalize the message about who experiences violence" first, and only afterwards specifically to refer to violence against women..21 It is a small change from "violence against women" to "violence—pause—particularly." Yet if order implies priority, this change alters the memory that accompanies the memorial to the Massacre from one that closely connects the Montreal murders with instances of local violence against women to one in which the Massacre represents a more general problem of social violence. This syntactical decision dilutes the Monument’s intervention in London’s civic self-definition. In fact, it does exactly what Councillor Yorke wished it to do: it "generalize[s] the message about who experiences violence," and in doing so turns the memory of the murders away from possible local resonances with the event and back to the language that would erase both its politics and its traumatic dimension. Arguably, this inscription even permits the thorough occlusion of any link at all between the Massacre and violence against women in London. Most importantly, it cannot reflect the very real memory of the Massacre—and violence against women—as a memory constituted across a field of contesting languages. Not only is there no possibility of trauma in the Monument’s inscription in the sense of an uncertain piece of the past that requires constant revisitation, but it also erases this uncertainty from the history of the Massacre.
In the Monument’s inscription we see the threat of denial under which declarative statements always exist; once they are asserted, they can be denied. In the matter of the Massacre, the memory of which is subject to so much debate, we see also the way that changes to the wording of the statement also limits the memory that the words convey. Touching an event constituted already so much by the words employed to remember it, the Monument’s inscription places itself within neither of the discursive fields discussed earlier: understood from a knowledge of the process behind the Monument’s construction and from a discursive history that overlaps the local and the national (where the Montreal Massacre cannot be abstracted from the specific spatial extension of its memory in a London context), it neither thoroughly places the event within a cultural narrative of violence, nor within a narrative of pervasive violence against women that would intervene in a local history that avoids acknowledging such violence. This inscription offers itself as a statement of fact. Just as the first traumatized language around the Massacre and the subsequent attempt discursively to preserve its specificity began by naming the event and its significance in a world where power is gendered, so too does the language of the Victoria Park Women’s Monument begin. Yet London City Council's apparent desire for the inscription that will offend the fewest people minimizes the gendered overtones of the event—and the relevance of those overtones to this specific community—that energized the movement to raise the Monument in the first place. The idea that the reality which the Monument commemorates has been modified represents a retraction of sorts, a retraction that I would suggest was made inevitable when a declarative statement was chosen for the inscription, and that happened when the wording of the inscription changed. There is no transformative potential in the Monument’s language; it simply succeeds or it makes itself available to erasure by those who oppose the placement of, and gendered memory behind, the Monument. As a memorial to the murders, the history of the Monument’s creation places the memory of the event in jeopardy.
The very contentiousness around the necessity of remembering the Massacre makes a declaration about the event a problematic reduction of the complexity to which it points. This was already visible in Londoners’ response to the proposed Monument whether because they subscribed to the degendered version of the murders, or because they believed themselves to have been excluded from what should have been the community’s siting of the Monument in the civic history-space of Victoria Park. The Monument’s language may not be able adequately to intervene in London’s civic self-conceptualization because it restricts the Monument to one meaning, and is unable to register either the local discursive history of the Massacre or the debates that the murders generated about violence against women. In a history freighted with tensions between the memories that different communities within London choose to have of the Massacre, and the various relationships that these communities claim to Victoria Park as a civic space, the Monument sinks under the weight of conflicts that the rigidity of the inscription’s wording does not allow it to mediate.
The Women’s Monument uncannily fits Kirmayer’s definition of trauma in collective memory, because he is concerned with the limitations that culturally-approved narrative models impose on the ability to remember moments of experience that has multiple meanings, some of which are not yet clear. Kirmayer’s point is that it would be better to think of traumatic memory as it really seems to individuals who experience it, which is as a metaphorical landscape: "Traumatic experience is not a story but a cascade of experiences, eruptions, crevasses, a sliding of tectonic plates that undergird the self" (181). There should be different vantage points available on the experience. However, in making this case Kirmayer also emphasizes cultural models of what constitutes a memorable event, and that once such models are established they are not easily interrupted. The Monument’s inscription restricts the event that it memorializes partly because it identifies only the terms (as interleaved as they are) of the ideological debate that has characterized the event, without encouraging or stimulating a return to the trauma that generated such a wealth of mnemonic energy in the first place. Kirmayer’s ideal model of trauma in a collective context would encourage a personal evocation of the feeling around the initial traumatic moment.
The Women’s Monument was the last monument to be placed in a public park in London before the formation of a policy for public art and monuments in community spaces, adopted by City Council in May of 1996. The implementation of the new policy only involved one committee outside the London Urban Design Association: the London Veteran’s and Memorials Committee, whose connection to the civic identity presented in Victoria Park is validated by Council’s permitting the Committee’s participation in the writing of the new policy. Possibly, the new policy’s implementation indicates Council’s discomfort with the last monumental decision made in London. These things point to the dispute within which this Monument exists. For a number of groups and individuals who did not support the placement of the Monument in Victoria Park, and who do not wish to engage with this rewriting of London’s history, it is easy enough to deny the statement that the Monument makes—that is, to deny the implicit parallel between the Massacre and the wars memorialized in the park, and to deny the connection made between the Massacre and violence against women everywhere, especially in London. As Kirmayer indicates, declarative sentences are no guarantee of remembrance; in the case of the Women’s Monument, such sentences make refusal of the memory declared easier for those who already deny the event’s historical significance.
The Power of Poetry
The question of how to give monumental form to the massacre, and the question of trauma as it informs a collective memory, are important in their own right. I have considered both in relation to the apparently concretized memory of a monument—a memorial inscribed with the language through which spectators are invited to remember the murders. If the Monument‘s inscription is inadequate to the political controversy that the Massacre generated in London, what inscription could resist the impulse to deny the tragedy’s local relevance that some Londoners have expressed? Is it realistic to expect that a desire to forget the murders of these women can be countered by the Monument? Perhaps not. Yet in the notion that a trauma is recognizable in the extra-verbal dimension of language—in the pauses and repetitions of a Melanie Randall or a Joan Barfoot—the inability of the declarative sentence to express all the ideas attendant on the matter memorialized alludes to the existence of other expressions for difficult memory. This appears to be part of the rationale behind the Vancouver Women’s Monument organizer’s decision to place the victims’ names on that city’s monument; Enright describes this decision as "the most neutral and also the most important thing to do." Since it is impossible to deny that these women died by violence, their names stimulate memory of the Massacre simultaneously as they restrict opportunities to forget the violence behind it.
Enright’s claim for the importance of neutral language rests on the effective evocation by that language of myriad associations. I would argue that poetry is equally evocative. The emotional component of poetry comforts, but just as crucial as comfort to poetry’s expressive power is its subversive potential; poetry demands considerate reading that cannot—at least not immediately—allow readers to deny the memory that it names. As Tom Wayman argues, "[t]he reader’s passage through the words [of a poem] must be slowed down enough that the reader becomes aware of the way language is working" (173), is forced to think about the resonances that the words present one obvious sense to readers, but the uncertainty of its meaning is also its potential for multiple significance. It is this uncertain potential that means too, I think, that "[i]ssues of marginality and the mainstream, of the role of cultural gatekeepers, of speech and silence are inherent in any study of poetry" (Wayman 174). Descriptions of trauma as a politics and descriptions of poetry as a political medium resemble one another. Adrienne Rich believes that political activism is "something both prepared for and spontaneous—like making poetry" (1158). The spontaneity of poetry in its creation and its reception alters political systems because it never stops "seeking connections with unseen others" (Rich 1159), and (to make a small interpolation on Rich) seeking connections with the unarticulated thoughts of its audience. This resemblance also offers a comparison between the languages of poetry and of trauma. Rich’s comments resemble Dori Laub’s account of the Holocaust survivor whose telling her memory changes both her own and her listener’s ideas around the historical event. Just as Rich argues that poetic language unsettles the individual’s assumptions of the world, this trauma survivor’s language uncloses her experience; her recollection discovers that the power of language does not reside in naming the "factual given" (Felman and Laub 62), which is only part of its function:
[T]he testifying woman did not simply
come to convey knowledge that was already safely, and exhaustively, in her
possession. On the contrary, it was her very talk to me, the very process
of her bearing witness to the trauma she had lived through, that helped
her now to come to know of the event.
Laub does not mention poetry, but she does claim the value of a history that cannot exist through factual statement, no matter how well-intentioned that factual statement is, and no matter how concerned its authors might be not to erase anything. Inasmuch as Kirmayer’s work with the "declarative" shows, through his discussion of trauma, that the collective consciousness creates models through which to conceive of past events that prescriptively define what qualifies as a memory, the declarative statement may close off as much as it opens of memory. Trauma entails the preservation of the uncertain trace; poetry is the language the nondeclaration of which is emotive and associative rather than "factual." If emotion and association involve the unleashing of different meanings, and if poetry is the language that acknowledges the possibility that some of those meanings will be hesitant, then the suggestion of the words through which the Montreal Massacre and its inscription into the community of London came into existence is that poetry is the alternative to the "statement of fact," an alternative unavailable to interpretive reduction.
The Victoria Park Women’s Monument was intended as an argument that the boundary between the Montreal Massacre and local violence against women is permeable, that the national and the local are mutually inflecting because they share a common devaluation of women and of women’s experience in history. This is a necessary re-dress of history about which the Women’s Monument is never "silent" or "complacent" (Audet 45). Those who contributed to the effort to place this Monument in London’s space of civic identity performed an indispensable service. My argument has been confined to an examination of the Monument in terms of trauma as an as-yet-unmapped set of discursive implications for collective memory and for the monuments constructed to speak to that memory. Documenting a harrowing experience without obscuring the politically valuable traces of its trauma, traces that invite a reciprocal relationship between the personal and the collective, is an endeavour the complexity of which is still emerging.
The consequence of inscribing uncertain meaning in a monument such as the Women’s Monument is that this uncertainty would remind those who interact with the Monument (and even those who oppose it) that there is always a portion of the memory that requires re-exploration. Paradoxically, such an inscription could help preserve the memories inscribed in it. The Women’s Monument is a fascinating centre for the discussion of traumatic memory because it has the difficult task of mediating the (in)definition of trauma with the unambiguous political meanings of the Massacre. While on one hand this Monument makes its creators and proponents one of the groups that Matt Matsuda believes seek to insert new stories into the monolith of history, on the other it puts them on the side of the "belief in ‘history’ in the western tradition" as Matsuda describes it (15)—the belief that by representing a past event in a factual manner, the representation will situate itself firmly within London’s history. Trauma draws attention to less comfortable practices of memory, practices that disable immediate denial of the event put forward for memorialization. It also hints at the cultural pervasiveness of the assumption that the most effective language for the insertion of an event into collective memory is the language that contains a transparent and unequivocal meaning. But perhaps it is true of all monuments in an historical moment experiencing the advent of cultural trauma that language will have to operate differently so as to preserve anything at all. The Massacre that energized the raising of the Monument was a collective, political, personal and affective experience expressed earliest through a dual language that simultaneously acknowledged the Massacre’s meaning as a murder of women and its existence as a trauma for which re-interrogation is always necessary. In its present state, this Monument may re-confirm viewers in the opinions of the Massacre, of violence against women in London, and of the appropriateness of the Monument itself, that they already have rather than challenging them.
I would like to thank David Bentley for his attentive readings of this essay in its early stages, and for his editorial help in the preparation of the manuscript. I would also like to thank the Centre for Women’s Studies and Feminist Research at the University of Western Ontario and the City Clerk’s Office of the City of London, both of which provided resources vital to the completion of this project. I gratefully acknowledge the Ontario Graduate Scholarship Program, which supported me during the preparation of this essasy.