Wednesday, December 13, 2017

By Geoffrey Vendeville

Twenty-eight years ago, 14 women were killed at the École Polytechnique in Montreal by a shooter who claimed feminists had ruined his life. 

Kristina Nikolova had just turned one and Ashley Major wasn't yet born, but the tragedy has had a profound effect on them.

This week, Major, who graduated from law school at the University of Toronto in June, and Nikolova, who acquired a PhD in social work this summer, received $1,500 awards for scholarly achievement for research in the area of gender-based violence. The awards, which were established on Dec. 6 of last year on the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre, are reserved for one undergraduate and one graduate student “who have made distinctive contributions in the area of gender-based violence research and prevention.”

'There's definitely hope'

Ashley MajorWorking the overnight shift at a women's shelter, Major (pictured left) learned that if the phone rang after midnight, it usually meant a woman was in danger. 

The inconspicuous house with room for 25 people in downtown Regina was a first-stage shelter, the first stop for women and children fleeing abuse. 

They came in the middle of the night with bruises, black eyes and invisible scars. Once Major saw a girl – three-years-old at most – arrive in a full-body cast.

“The male in her mother’s life had thrown her against wall. She was just broken,” Major remembers. “We would carry this poor child in a cast everywhere.”

Major knew since she was a girl that she wanted to be a lawyer and “fight injustice,” but her experience at the shelter gave her a new focus: to combat gender-based violence and the mistreatment of women.

While in law school, she volunteered with the U of T chapter of Pro Bono Students Canada at the All Saints Church-Community Centre, near Dundas and Sherbourne streets, providing basic legal information to sex workers. Many of the women said they needed a legal will, she says. They had friends in the industry who had died, not always because of violence but through causes related to addiction or homelessness.

“There was also a human element to it,” Major says. “There is a level of dignity and respect involved with leaving your estate to someone, no matter its size.”

She led the expansion of a project that paired low-income people with law students and lawyers who could help them draft a legal will. 

In 2015, she worked for Human Rights Watch, in the women's rights division, at their New York office on the 34th floor of the Empire State Building. She scanned news reports for evidence of rights violations and searched legal articles for definitions of international criminal offences.

She is now articling in the Crown criminal law office of the Ministry of the Attorney General, where she does legal research and drafting.

Almost three decades after the Montreal Massacre, she says she's encouraged by the #MeToo movement and other signs that the world is paying attention to gender-based violence, and calling out predators like Harvey Weinstein.

“There's definitely hope,” she says, “but I think there's also great frustration in a country as liberated and progressive as Canada that this is still such an endemic issue.”

Read the full story on the U of T News website.