While the mainstream media has been quick to situate the deadly recent events that unfolded in Nova Scotia within the context of Canadian mass murders, no one seems to be drawing attention to the most prominent link connecting Canadian mass killings: all of the accused perpetrators have been men, and most of them have been white.
White men were responsible for or currently face charges for the mass murders at the École Polytechnique in 1989, Mayerthorpe in 2005, Moncton in 2014, Calgary in 2014, Québec City in 2017, Toronto in 2018 (a van attack) and Fredericton in 2019. Those in Vernon, B.C., in 1996, Edmonton in 2014, and Toronto in 2018 (the shooting in the city’s Greektown neighbourhood) were perpetrated by racialized men.
Given this explicitly gendered pattern of perpetration, why don’t we talk about these mass murders as male terrorism?
When speaking about the mass murder during his regular COVID-19 update on April 19, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau referred to the violence in Nova Scotia as “senseless” and proclaimed that “violence of any kind has no place in Canada.”
As a survivor of multiple forms of violence with more than 20 years of researching and responding to gender-based violence in my academic and professional career, I beg to differ. Male-perpetrated violence underpins Canadian society and is by no means “senseless” — instead, it serves to reinforce patriarchy and male social domination. The mass shooting in Nova Scotia reportedly began with domestic abuse incident against a woman.
As long as we are unwilling to name, acknowledge and address male violence, the lives and well-being of people in Canada, especially women and children, are at risk.
The normalization of male violence
Regardless of specific motive, the fact that Canadian mass murders have been exclusively committed by men makes this violence explicitly gendered. This is male violence and, as such, must be linked to other forms of male violence and understood as gender-based violence.
While the term gender-based violence primarily implies violence on the basis of gender identity, gender presentation or perceived gender, it also encompasses patriarchy and violence perpetrated by men. In other words, regardless of specific motive, we need to consider these mass murders in relation to patriarchy and male social domination in Canada.
Patriarchy establishes what we refer to as “hegemonic masculinity” — the dominant social definition of what it means to be male, and violence is an essential part of this. In fact, violence plays a fundamental role in securing male social dominance: because patriarchal domination is predicated on unfounded claims to male supremacy, violence serves to reinforce this illegitimate claim to social supremacy by force.
To be a dominant socially acceptable man, then, involves the use of violence and aggression and, from birth, males are socialized into this violent hegemonic masculinity. For example, in addition to action figures of superheroes who regularly use violence to “save” the world, my six-year-old son received two toy guns for Christmas last year.
Patriarchy normalizes this violence by ignoring, exonerating and enshrining the right of men to commit violence. Think of all the times you’ve heard someone dismiss male violence with the phrase “boys will be boys.” This phrase is a tacit acceptance of male violence and the right of men to be violent.
The phrasing is frequently echoed in court cases of young men who have committed sexual assault or murder or both. The perpetrators are portrayed as good boys who simply took things too far. Courts, for their part, are notoriously lenient on male perpetrators of violence, reinforcing the right of men to do violence.
Mass murder is white male terrorism
In addition to being an explicitly gendered crime, mass murder in Canada is also explicitly racialized. The perpetrators are overwhelming white males and we must consider how race, and particularly whiteness and white privilege, operate here.
While hegemonic masculinity and the right to use violence is open to all males, race and racism shape that tendency. To establish white male social supremacy, racist discourses portray all racialized males as inherently violent and a perceived threat, justifying white male violence.
This principle is exemplified in policing and the greater likelihood of BIPOC males to be killed by police. While violence is used to pathologize racialized males and justify social domination and violence perpetrated against them, the violence of white males is justified, excused and erased.
So why are white men more likely to commit mass murder? American masculinities scholar Michael Kimmel suggests that social justice efforts aimed at dismantling the social hierarchies that white men sit atop are creating “angry white men” with “aggrieved entitlement.”
As hegemonic masculinity makes crystal clear, if your existence is being threatened you have the right — indeed, in the minds of some mass killers, the responsibility — to use violence and set things right.
Addressing mass murder means taking a hard look at white masculinity and the normalization of violence. It requires that we refuse to dismiss mass murderers as mentally defective or a few “bad apples.” Instead, we must understand that the entire system of white masculinity is rotten. Because until we do, aggrieved white men will continue to commit mass murder and we will all continue to pay the price.