High-profile incidents of murder, sexual assault, and indecent exposure of women across the city are sparking calls for action from the community.
Earlier in March, 31-year-old Vanessa Ladouceur was killed in a random attack while walking to work in the Beltline.
A week later, a woman was attacked walking along the Bow River from Prince’s Island Park where the attacker grabbed her from behind and held a knife to her throat while dragging her toward the river.
Since then, there have been several instances of sexual assault and indecent acts in Calgary’s central neighbourhoods.
The inner city is becoming particularly concerning
These incidents are prompting some women to change their habits, including Rachel, who has declined to give her last name to protect her safety. She no longer feels safe and is taking extra precautions.
“I try not to go out at night anymore and I just find myself being a little more aware of my surroundings,” she says. “This might sound weird but I even tucked my ponytail into my jacket on a walk the other day so no one could grab me.”
Rachel adds that it’s sad that these recent events are adding on to the “usual issues” many women already face.
Police say the city remains relatively safe despite the recent spate of incidents
Even while some women have been feeling unsafe recently, Calgary Police superintendent Scott Boyd says that the city remains safe.
“Calgary remains a safe city,” he says. “We are, however, a very big city and a big city comes with big-city challenges. We all need to work together to ensure a vibrant downtown in particular.”
Boyd says that while Calgary’s communities remain relatively safe, he recognizes that these women are victims and the perception of safety may be affected.
“These victims haven’t done anything wrong,” he says. “They’re trying to enjoy the community in which they live. So for us to come out and talk about, stay in well-lit areas, or do this or do that, is a negative opportunity to reinforce their victimization, because they haven’t done anything wrong.”
Boyd says there are resources available with key messages for protecting oneself — but the message is clear.
“The messaging from us is that this is unacceptable behaviour on the part of the offender, not for any of the victims,” he says. “We remain committed to the community expectation that everybody should be free from harassment and violence.”
A matter of perception
Adriana Britton, a co-founder of Barre West, a boutique fitness studio, says that it seems like there are more instances of violence against women lately.
“It seems like every week for the last couple of months, there’s been some type of news story where there’s been some sort of assault on a lone female,” she says. “It’s a scary thing.”
Britton says these higher-profile incidents are prompting people to take more measures to improve their safety.
“As far as perception, when you get more visibility on the fact that these things happen, regardless of their frequency, it stokes a fire and a lot of people to do something to help improve their wellness and safety,” she says.
Community steps up
Calgary-based advocacy group to end gender-based violence Pin-Up Girl was handing out pins earlier this month and asking women to keep an eye out for each other.
They’re not the only community members stepping up and speaking out.
These instances of violence against women have encouraged some other groups to step up and raise awareness, including Barre West, who wants to do something to help.
“We have the space and the network in the community to help share skills to either minimize or avoid an incidence of violence,” Britton says.
That’s why Barre West has teamed up with Life Armour YYC and instructor Shane Lutzi to offer self-defence courses. Britton says as a women-led business serving women, they wanted to help somehow.
“What can we do to help empower people that’s more than just sitting and talking about it? What can we do to help improve the problem and support our communities?”
Self-defence classes and programs are important for Britton because whether it is a rise in violence against women, or we’re becoming more aware of it, being able to protect yourself is necessary.
“The mindfulness of being able to protect yourself and having the confidence to move about your day without feeling afraid, especially in the downtown core and Beltline area,” she says.
Arming women with self-defence skills
Alavanca Calgary, a jiu jitsu and Muay Thai facility, also offered its first free self-defence for women class last week. Their next several classes run bi-weekly on Wednesday nights and are already fully booked.
The demand is there and a course like this is needed right now, says spokesperson Kris LaBelle. Their first free course had 15 women ranging in age from 19 to 70.
He points out that the group was already concerned about the safety of women over the last few months but the death of Ladouceur was the final straw.
“And what’s disturbing is we’ve already had multiple incidents since then,” he says, adding the facility wanted to find a way to help.
“I felt the best way to do so is by training women how to defend themselves but also creating awareness that women are going to defend themselves so those perpetrators out there know that women are preparing to defend themselves.”
What are these courses all about
LaBelle says their self-defence classes focus on jiu jitsu because most attacks are women being grabbed “hands-on” and this form of martial arts focuses on that.
“What better way to defend yourself and protect yourself than jiu jitsu?”
Britton says the training at Barre West is applicable for real-world scenarios, meaning the training focuses on thoughtful ways to set your body up physically to get out of dangerous scenarios.
“Whether that be making physical contact with somebody, also being aware of your surroundings,” she says. “It’s best practice for when you are travelling alone, when you are commuting alone, if you’re running alone — things to be mindful of that set you up for success.”
She says the Lutz-led classes focus on some moves and techniques to give people an advantage.
“Throwing elbows, how to position your feet,” Britton says “In the workshop, we pair everybody up, you’re going to have a partner, then partners will be holding up a medicine ball that’s anywhere between eight and 10 pounds.”
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