Julie S. Lalonde is an internationally-recognized women’s rights advocate and public speaker. She works with various organizations dedicated to ending sexual violence, engaging bystanders and building communities of support. Julie is a frequent media commentator on women’s issues, and her work has appeared on Al Jazeera, CBC’s The National, The Globe and Mail, TVO’s The Agenda, FLARE magazine and more. She is the site director of Hollaback! Ottawa and the manager of Draw-the-line.ca, a provincial anti-sexual violence campaign funded by the province of Ontario. Julie has won numerous awards for her work, including the Governor General’s Award in Commemoration of the Persons Case.
CFHS: We were really pleased to be bringing the topic of sexual violence into the Canadian Violence Link Conference because, when we talk about and think about the ways that abuse of animals and humans are connected, that’s often a topic we leave out.
JSL: I get really excited about spaces in which we’re bringing the conversation about sexual assault to a new audience, so I’m really looking forward to this conference for that reason. I have spent the last five years traveling across the province giving trainings to everyone from kids in elementary schools to Parliamentarians, and what I’m passionate about is giving people knowledge and skills on how to handle sexual assault disclosures. We need to create a climate where survivors feel safe enough to come forward. They’ll be wondering, “Am I going to be supported by the folks around me?” “Will I have someone by my side through the process?” That’s really what I’m hoping to bring to the conference – to equip people with the skills to elicit a disclosure if they suspect a sexual assault has happened and, when the disclosure comes, how do we respond in a way that is survivor-centric?
CFHS: This is such a difficult topic to confront because so many people don’t want to talk about it. How did you get into this work?
JSL: I’ve been doing work to end sexual assault for about 14 years. I started volunteering with mentorship programs for young women, and what really struck me was these young women, who were really artistic and bright, had a lot of private pain around poverty, racism and violence. I was struck by how trauma is so often invisible in our communities. People are going about their lives, and we don’t actually know how much they’re struggling and how much they’re going through. So it just sort of snowballed. I got more and more involved, and people saw that I was passionate about the issue and also in enough of a position of privilege to speak out loudly without repercussions. Also, I had an experience of intimate partner violence, and then I was stalked for more than 10 years by my ex-partner. Sexual assault is an issue that keeps me up at night because I’ve worked with so many women over the years who have been through it, but I also know what it’s like to be that person who seems to have it all together but is struggling and looking for help.
CFHS: Do you think that’s one of the main things that keeps you going in this work – understanding at a much deeper level than people who might be working from a theoretical understanding of just how urgent the work is?
JSL: Absolutely. I didn’t start doing this work because of my experience, but it’s 100 per cent the reason why I have stayed in the work as long as I have. It’s hard work, and there’s a lot of backlash. A lot of resistance. But the reason I keep going is because I’m motivated every day to be the person that I needed when I was struggling and had no one.
CFHS: So, if we fast forward to your session at the Canadian Violence Link Conference, that’s exactly what you’re going to be helping people to learn. So that, when they’re in the position of hearing a disclosure or even helping someone to open up, they do a good job.
JSL: Exactly. I do plan to talk a bit about my experience because there were things that people said to me with good intentions that didn’t help me. I think people mean well, and we’re not trying to harm people – but we might be harming them if we don’t know how to handle these moments of disclosure. And your impact is much more important than your intentions.
CFHS: Can you give us a sense of what’s most important to keep in mind during a disclosure?
JSL: What we know is that the first person that someone discloses to, how they react dictates whether or not that person ever tells anyone else. So if you’re the first person that they have opened up to, you have a huge responsibility in that moment. When you’re caught off guard, you scramble and things don’t always come out the way you want them to. You could be working in animal services and someone comes in because her dog broke a leg, and it happened because she was running away from an abusive situation. You will not always be prepared to hear a disclosure – whether it’s in a professional or personal setting. Often times, someone will just blurt it out or let it slip or hint about it to test the waters and see whether you’re someone they can trust. That’s why I think it’s so important to have these conversations – you want to have those skills before you need them.
CFHS: I love the example you gave about animal services because when we interviewed one of our other speakers, Dr. Amy Fitzgerald, she was talking about how she got into researching the overlap between abuse of women and animals because she was volunteering at an animal shelter. Her volunteer job was to do intake – she was the one who talked to the people who were surrendering their pets. I’m sure you can imagine how many times she heard things like, “I love my dog, but I can’t keep her anymore because my partner has threatened to kill her” or “I wish that I could keep my cats, but if I don’t give them up, I can’t leave him.” So I think that’s a realistic example about where a person might end up disclosing, given the overlap between interpersonal violence and animal abuse.
JSL: In the 10 years I was being stalked, I had to move several times. At one point, I had to leave my cat – who was my everything – with someone I was casually dating so that I could find a new place to live. I get that predicament of, if I don’t have my cat, I will be completely alone, but I can’t stay in this situation, and I can’t leave her behind. It’s a real issue. Especially in rural areas, where we’re talking about horses or goats or other large animals. If you’re working in human or animal services, you’re going to be hearing these kinds of disclosures.
CFHS: Is there anything else that you want to tell people about how they’re going to benefit from attending your session at the conference?
JSL: I want people to know that it’s going to be very focused on tools. The exact words to say and the exact words not to say, tips on body language and how to create the conditions that make it safe for people to disclose.
CFHS: So they’ll leave with practical tools and information on exactly how to respond to disclosures.
JSL: Yes. I approach this work from the belief that people are good and don’t want to do harm, we just need tools.
CFHS: Very true.
JSL: I’m excited for this conference – I love when people make the links between different forms of violence and there are so many groups coming.
CFHS: Yes, the potential of that is really exciting. We have judges, police officers, social workers, veterinarians, anti-violence advocates, animal enforcement officers, Crown prosecutors, animal welfare groups, policy experts, researchers and government services people. It’s definitely not going to be a homogenous group – there will be a whole range of professionals who have a lot of experience in their area but may be missing some key knowledge about making the link between human and animal abuse. I think we’re going to learn a lot from each other.
JSL: Amazing. I can’t wait.