Put simply, Julie Lalonde is one of the most inspirational and effective feminists we’ve ever met. If you live in Ontario, chances are she’s affected your life (whether you know it or not). The feminist activist runs workshops on sexual violence and consent, started Ottawa’s chapter of Hollaback, designed the province-wide Draw the Line campaign, and won a Governor General’s award for her work.
On top of working with Hollaback and Draw the Line, Julie co-founded the Coalition for a Carleton Sexual Assault Support Centre and was the Ottawa chair of the Miss G project, which aimed to get a women’s studies class into Ontario’s high school curriculum. Well last year, Carleton University opened a sexual assault support centre, and for the first time, an elective in women’s and gender studies is being offered to grade 11 students across the province. In a world where feminists are dogged by trolls on Twitter, threatened with physical harm and cyber attack, and constantly dismissed as unimportant, Julie’s work is refreshing. Her track record proves what activism can accomplish for women.
Perhaps now that she’s seen these victories, staying positive will be easy. But Julie’s colleagues say she’s always had a refreshing way of talking about sexual violence.
“She has a lot of hope and that is so crucial to the work that we do,” said Kim Allen, who used to be the president of the Ontario Coalition of Rape Crisis Centres and hired Julie to direct Draw the Line, a campaign to get the public talking about sexual violence. “Sometimes it doesn’t feel very hopeful,” Kim said.
The world of activism can be full of “doom and gloom,” added Jane Doe, a writer and activist who successfully sued the Toronto police for negligence and gender discrimination after she was attacked and raped by a man they failed to warn the public about. But the joy that Lalonde brings to her work makes it seem like so much more than that, Jane said. “I really admire Julie’s frankness and use of language,” she said, “whether it’s foul, dirty, academic, insightful, creative, or analytical.”
“She brings a sassiness that is really awesome,” said Kim. Her quick wit and clever responses make people listen, she added.
Julie’s optimism may be surprising, considering she gets threats of law suits and death threats, “all the time.” It’s hard to imagine how she deals with that, when most people would break down even checking her Twitter mentions.
“The President [of Carleton University Roseann Runte] wanted to sue me,” she said, shrugging her shoulders. “It doesn’t bug me.”
This may be one of the reasons Jane described her as fearless. “She’s not afraid,” Jane said. “She’s not afraid and that gives her an incredible power.”
We talked to Julie about why she does what she does, and how she stays positive.
Why are you so passionate about ending sexual violence?
I guess it’s one of those things where I feel like if you hear about it, it sort of wakes you up to how bad it is. Once I knew what to look for and heard some statistics and heard different people’s experiences, I just couldn’t ignore it. Since then, in the ten or so years that I’ve been doing this work I’ve been fueled by the stories I hear and the people who need you to advocate on their behalf because they can’t advocate for themselves. Starting off, I heard it was a bigger problem than I ever thought it was, and since then people disclosing things, coming to me for support, people being pissed off and saying, “Someone needs to do something.” I’m just in a position to do something and choosing to do so.
What are your goals with activism?
I’m a very practically-focused person, so yeah sure, let’s end rape culture, awesome. That’s a great goal. But let’s also be realistic. At Carleton it was: let’s get a sexual assault support centre, let’s have a discussion about sexual assault on campus. And we’ve done that. With the sexual assault centre of Ottawa it was to reduce our waitlists—the waitlists in Ottawa are atrocious—it’s sometimes eight months to get support services in Ottawa, which is awful. So let’s focus on reducing the wait times. Let’s not privilege women’s studies. So let’s try and get women’s studies into the Ontario high school curriculum, which we succeeded in doing. Now kids in Ontario high schools can take women’s studies. So to me it’s like okay, we have this huge, monolith problem which is that violence against women happens, access to abortion is not feasible, all these things, but how do you eat an elephant? One bite at a time. It’s really about just finding what’s practical within that so at least you’re doing a tiny part of a bigger thing. I think it’s important and we need the space to have more theoretical discussions of all those issues, but to me, you’ve gotta get beyond that and actually focus on the practical reality. Because just talking about the fact that it happens isn’t changing anything. You have to take that and move it toward action, otherwise it’s just a great chat to have or a cool blog post or whatever [Witches’ note: lol oops].
Vegan snacks and giving no fucks: How Julie keeps going.
Can you tell me about the Miss G project to get women’s studies into the Ontario high school curriculum?
It was started by former undergrad students in southern Ontario. These four undergrad students took women’s studies and it totally blew their mind. They realized this was stuff they shouldn’t have had to pay $5,000 to learn about. So they started thinking about how they could make it more accessible. It took years and years and years and years and years. We did everything from lobbying school boards, to lobbying the provincial government to lobbying every minister of education. It was quite telling to me how there are gatekeepers with this sort of issue. So, the minister of education we got the most headway with was Kathleen Wynne, and the actual thing got implemented when she became Premier. So that was one of the biggest lessons I learned in doing Miss G work, that there are gatekeepers, and if you find a sympathetic person or an ally, take that as far as you can. Individual people really do have the power to make things happen. The ministers who came before Kathleen Wynne were just completely dismissive, and she actually said, “You guys are a huge pain in the ass. You email me all the time. I get post cards all the time. Every Valentine’s Day I get flooded with calls, so I have to give in. You’ve pressured me for so long.”
It’s not perfect, like most things. We had to settle for it to be an elective instead of a mandatory course for graduation . . . but it is an elective now, which is huge. It was a major victory. Kathleen Wynne actually called the Miss G project one of the most successful lobby groups in the history of Ontario, because we were so steadfast and we used such creative tactics. So every Valentine’s Day we would send her postcards, that say “Oh we miss you Kathleen, it’s been a long time since we heard from you, call us back.” And we would get people to call her and leave her these lengthy emails like, “Oh I thought our first date went really well, why won’t you call me back Kathleen?” We just tried to use humour, which was annoying, yes, but it’s really hard to respond to that without looking like you don’t have a sense of humour. When we framed it in that way, she had no choice but to respond in a way that was positive.
So that was the really high level stuff and then the practical was getting school boards to recognize that this would help with reducing levels of bullying, and all these other social issues they were worried about like racism in schools and high levels of homophobia. We had to make that link like, if you want to address these issues, you have to address it at a systemic level. It’s about empowering youth to understand the difference between gender and sex, to deconstruct gender roles so they can start to understand the roots of homophobia. And then the next step was to get teacher’s colleges to understand they have a huge role to play in this. So it was a multi-layered thing.
You mentioned how using humour helped with the Miss G project. Why is that a tactic you like to use?
First of all it’s effective, straight up. Also I started this group called the Radical Handmaids, which are these satirical pro-choice people that dress up like Margaret Atwood’s Handmaid’s Tale and we make fun of the anti-choice movement. And it works. People get defensive when you come at them angry. People get scared and are very intimidated. But when you use humour, you’re automatically breaking the ice with people and saying like, “This is chill. I’m not attacking you, we’re just having a conversation.” And it gets people excited to participate in what you’re doing. There’s a lot of fatigue in social justice movements, so people are like, “If I go to one more march and see the same hundred people that I see everywhere… we’re not making a difference… this isn’t working.” But if you do it differently it’s like a party, we dress up, we sing songs. We did this Old Girls Club where we like played crochet on Queen’s Park and did a sit-in with people reading feminist literature.
Now, I am a rage-fuelled individual. I have a lot of rage. So I get that anger is a motivator, I really identify with that . . . but there’s a time and place. I think with Miss G and the Radical Handmaids… it’s the idea that you have to have a diversity of tactics, and when it comes to engaging the public, you’ve gotta make it fun and accessible so people aren’t like, “Whoa, oh my god I don’t want to be associated with you.”
How do you remain hopeful when this work can be so grim and discouraging?
Honestly, I think it’s because I’ve seen wins. Right, I’ve seen that yeah it takes seven years, and yeah it’s exhausting, but you can get a sexual assault centre on campus. Yeah it takes forever but you can get Ontario to give a damn about women’s studies in high schools. You can defeat an anti-choice bill with a couple people in a costume. It’s easier to be motivated when you’re actually seeing results.
I made a commitment when I started doing this work that if I ever get to be one of those people that’s jaded and cranky and cynical, that someone needs to be like, “Dude sit this one out.” So I’m lucky to be surrounded by people who don’t do activism, so I’m not immersed in it 24/7 where I feel like it’s my only identity. My partner cares about the issue and comes to events but he’s not an activist. He lives in the *airquotes* real world. So to me that’s also been really important to stay grounded and recognize that not everyone thinks this way. Reading everything that happened to Rehteah Parsons I was like, “I’m gonna set the world on fire.” I was just so angry. But then here’s my partner, this really chill dude who like went to school for business, doesn’t have a degree in women’s studies, and still understands fundamentally that women deserve equality. And his dudebro friends who on the outside just look like stereotypical guys are like, “What the hell happened with that Rehteah Parsons girl, that was so awful.” So I think it’s a combination of seeing it works so you don’t get discouraged and then surrounding yourself with people who are gonna call you on your shit and make sure that you recognize that the average person is good people. The average person just doesn’t know how bad it is. That’s helped a lot.
One in three Ontario women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime – 97% of Ottawa women experienced street harassment last year – In some parts of Canada women have to pay for their own abortions, go to the U.S. to access abortion services, or can’t access abortion services at all.