Watching people defy social norms is "empowering"

By Kelly Louiseize

Yvette Brend least expected to learn lessons of truth and justice from addicted drug users, prostitutes and society’s throwaways.

But she has. As a journalist working with the Canadian Broadcasting Corp. radio news, she followed a number of cases through the Bronx of Canadian cities hoping to get that lead, that truth that was bursting to come out.

Yvette Brend

Brend was a guest speaker at the Women’s Legal Education and Action Fund (LEAF) breakfast fundraising event on Oct. 22 in the Great Hall at Laurentian University in Sudbury.

Brend told the audience how years ago she trailed a woman who had a drug addiction. The police knew her. The woman had stolen a police cruiser years ago and through discussions, sources told Brend this woman had something important to say. Screaming at the top of her lungs, the woman refused to be interviewed. It was only when Brend immersed herself in the same ratty hotel and seedy neighbourhood that she met her in a "urine-soaked alley," and the two of them talked.

The women lifted her shirt, and there Brend saw scars that were imbedded into her body so deep it looked like her stomach had been taken out.

"She gave me all the information needed to tell my story and put a voice to angry scars," Brend said.

She had the truth about what was happening to street women and prostitutes in Vancouver, who were mostly comprised of First Nation heritage. Her stories told the truth about the missing women.

Brend’s next step was to pitch the story to a boss at CBC who remained unreceptive to the idea of portraying the realities of these women. She was told, "Aren’t all the people (that have gone missing) prostitutes anyway. Tell me why (people) will care about this story?"

Brend’s retort was simple. Last time she looked, women accounted for approximately half of the world’s population. An estimated 75 missing women in Vancouver is an issue.

"I fought and I lost," she said.

It was not long after, Robert Pickton was charged and an investigation at his homestead revealed remnants of body parts belonging to missing women from the city’s Lower East Side were found buried in the soil. All of this was news to police, media and families of the missing, but not to Brend.

Because of the night in the urine-soaked alley with a nameless woman who gave information, Brend knew the truth and was able to enlighten others.

Cases such as these are real, she said. There are missing women in Mexico and other countries, but because the sources are marginally credible by society’s standards, their voices are silenced.

"It is important we keep listening and listening for truth," she said.

In another case, Brend followed Bonnie Henderson. He was a 21-year police veteran who had a reputation of helping the force and community.

Henderson had changed from a man to women.

When the transition was done, the heads of department were more worried about which bathroom she will use, than dealing with the sexual favours that were asked from officers on the force. Put into the back room, Henderson was harassed and tormented until she decided to leave. Officers on the force were not taking her instruction seriously anymore. She was now a woman. The final blow came when Henderson was to be honoured for years of service. At the ceremony, Henderson came in and expected to sit with her fellow colleagues.

"People said to her ‘no room,’" Brend said.

Henderson tried other tables, but no one wanted her to sit down. She accepted her award that night and immediately dashed out the door.

"Nobody would stand up for her after giving so much of herself to the force."

Henderson took the police force to court. It did not have to end this way, Henderson had said to Brend during an interview. If the force was more accepting of her change, she could have been used as a liaison to the gay community.

"She lost her family, her dignity and her job," Brend said.

It is cases like these that fuel Brend. At times is asked whether or not burnout is around the corner, but her response is always, "When you watch

people defy social norms... it is empowering."

LEAF, a not-for-profit organization, exists to advance the equality of Canadian women and girls through litigation, law reform and public education.

Landmark legal victories have been won in areas like violence against women, pregnancy discrimination, sexual harassment, sex discrimination in

employment and social assistance, unfair pensions and reproductive freedoms.

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Updated: August 21, 2016