A group of high-profile Canadian women, including former Ontario Liberal premier Kathleen Wynne, are calling for Canada to commit $1 million to the Israeli investigations into sexual violence by Hamas in the Oct. 7 attacks.
Flanked by volunteer supporters holding signs that read “Believe All Women,” former Conservative MP Lisa Raitt and former NDP MPP Cheri DiNovo spoke alongside Wynne at a Dec. 11 press conference in Toronto.
The former politicians urged Canadians and the government to listen to the testimony of witnesses and survivors of the Hamas attacks, and to commit resources toward the investigations being handled by Israeli authorities. They also want members of the RCMP sent to support the investigations.
Maureen Leshem, whose cousin Romi Gonen was shot and abducted by Hamas from the Nova music festival, appeared with the trio. Gonen remains a hostage in Gaza.
Leshem, based in Toronto, runs an organization that supports women and families recovering from gender-based violence and human trafficking situations.
Wynne said it’s important to use their voices and position “to be very clear about what is unacceptable,” noting she advocated for the rights of girls and women during her time as premier.
“I believe strongly in the #MeToo and the Believe All Women movements, and in providing care and support for survivors,” Wynne told reporters.
“We’re not talking about hypothetical here. We are talking about facts, we are talking about crimes that have been committed for which there is evidence.
“I’ve read the devastating testimony of victims, and survivors of Oct. 7 who have described the great and the cruel sexual violence perpetrated against Israeli women and men by Hamas. While it is incredibly difficult to read and process this testimony, we cannot turn away. We cannot deny it and we cannot stay silent in the face of it.”
Since the hostage releases began in late November, the number of reports from witnesses and Zaka volunteers about rape and murder have grown.
UN Women, which had been silent for nearly two months, finally commented publicly on the situation during the first week of December to denounce the reported numerous accounts of rape in the Hamas attacks.
Wynne gave credit to Canadian Ambassador to Israel Lisa Stadelbauer and Minister of Foreign Affairs Mélanie Joly “for acknowledging that these crimes occurred.”
“I’m grateful for those acknowledgments, but we know that we can and should do more. We are calling on the federal government to invest one million dollars to support the victims and survivors of Oct. 7 and to send the RCMP to aid in the investigation on the ground.”
Wynne said the funds could go toward specialized sexual violence investigations, and protection and psychological support for victims or witnesses to war crimes. She later added that the group’s request for government funds was being sent in a formal letter to Joly.
“Canada offered the Ukrainian government similar support for investigations into sexual violence by Russian troops,” she said. “The fact of war should not protect perpetrators of these crimes, although that has been the reality for centuries.
“We talk about strategy, we talk about civilians, we talk about atrocities in the abstract. But we allow the rape and sexual assault not to be discussed, and that’s why we’re here today,” said Wynne, adding that women’s organizations at home also have a role to play.
“Today, I’m also calling on Canadian women’s organizations to acknowledge the atrocities that took place on Oct. 7,” she said.
“I fear that if we do not all raise our voices, the next time a prominent man, or any man, is accused of rape or sexual assault, and you say need to believe all women, you will not be believed and future victims of rape, and sexual assault will be re-traumatized as a result, whoever they are and wherever they are in the world. It’s on all of us to shine a light on these crimes against humanity so that they never happen to anyone again.”
Lisa Raitt, the Conservative former federal transport minister, said that “when you understand what has happened,” remaining silent “is simply not an option.”
“Hamas’ sexual violence against Israelis has been corroborated by witness accounts of rape, by first responder accounts of finding victims of rape, by statements of medical examiners reporting injuries, consistent with rape like broken pelvises… (by) photographic and video documentation of scenes consistent with rape.
“This is by the standard of any me-too allegation, overwhelming evidence and we simply cannot ignore it. And Canada should and must be positioned to play a role in investigating this,” said Raitt.
“It does not just send a message to the women of Israel that they are believed. But to women who are victims of rape, all around the world that you are believed. While there are many things that we can disagree on, the one thing that we should stand firm on is that rape is not a weapon of war.”
DiNovo, a United Church minister and former NDP MPP said, “I’m standing here obviously, as a woman of faith, and also a woman who has fought for women’s equality my entire life. And I can tell you one thing for sure: Silence is violence.
“The details are too horrible to recount. Think about that for a minute. That in itself should terrify us,” she said.
“We’re talking about horrendous acts [against women, and men] many of whom worked for peace… and you have them just attending a festival. These were daughters, these were sisters… these are granddaughters, grandmothers … and some men. And we are again saying, we believe women, we believe the survivors too, who are hiding in the bushes.”
Maureen Leshem said she has worked with young offender and adult inmates including “violent rapists and murderers.”
“I thought I’d seen the worst of humanity, until Oct. 7 when I witnessed the obscene depravity perpetrated against Israeli women that went beyond societal norms and ethical boundaries I never knew possible.”
“The reaction and inaction from the international community,” to the “diabolical violence” in Israel, according to Leshem, “has been cowardly and dangerous, risking the future for women and children everywhere, including Canada.”
“This business of not believing Israeli women even with video evidence provided by the perpetrators themselves reverses any progress we’ve made as a society,” she said.
“There should be no moral equivocation when it comes to advocating for women. The safety of Canadian women is intimately linked to the fate of their Israeli counterparts. Violations and advancements in women’s rights in one country have implications for all women in all countries.”
The CJN previously spoke with Maureen Leshem on Nov. 24, following the first hostage releases, and she said then that the sexual violence in the Hamas attacks, and subsequent hostage taking should not be forgotten, especially when an estimated more than 130 hostages remain captive in Gaza, including her cousin.
At the press conference, she said that the former officials calling for funding is a good start.
“I think there’s a little bit more progress, definitely,” said Leshem. “I haven’t felt optimistic actually, since Oct. 7, and definitely today gives me a little bit of optimism, especially having people that are not part of this community advocate for us. It’s what I think is going to be the main difference in all of this.”
“We can’t remain silent and that includes not just the Jewish community. I think that includes everyone. Everyone has to stand up and speak up. “
Still, Leshem, who’s been advocating for her cousin, who is still held hostage, said she’s been waiting for weeks for a government response to the matter.
“I’m disappointed as a Canadian. It’s taken us a really long time to act.”