On September 22, 2015, Julie Lalonde wrapped up a tense panel on workplace sexual assault with her co-panelist, Christine Whitecross, who at the time was leading the strategic-response team of Operation Honour, an initiative to target sexual misconduct in the Canadian military—a contentious issue that Lalonde has also spoken out about. The 31-year-old then hopped in her Volkswagen Golf to make the two-hour drive from Ottawa, where she lives, to Pembroke, Ontario, a rural city of about 16,000 nestled in the Ottawa Valley. She was going there to host Take Back the Night, an internationally recognized march aimed at confronting sexual and domestic violence faced by women. It was a nice day, sunny but not too hot. Lalonde blasted Tiësto in her car, tuning out any news. But as she pulled up to her destination, the town's sexual assault center, she noticed something was off.
"My colleague meets me in the parking lot. She's like, 'Grab your shit and get inside quick.'" There was a gunman on the loose in the nearby community of Wilno. Lalonde and her fellow sexual assault advocates eventually learned the victims were women. "As soon as we heard it was women, we were like, This is [domestic violence] related. And it turns out we were right." By the end of the day, Carol Culleton, Anastasia Kuzyk, and Nathalie Warmerdam were dead. Basil Borutski, a man who had previously dated Kuzyk and Warmerdam, was charged with three counts of first-degree murder.
A week later, Lalonde was back in Pembroke for the march, which had been postponed because of the shootings. She remembers holding her megaphone in the parking lot, looking out into a sea of angry, stunned faces, not knowing how to comfort them. "We're talking about a rural community. Everybody owns a gun," she told me. "And 60-year-old men in camo are openly weeping. It was the most intense experience of collective trauma I've ever seen in my life."
"Even when you're introduced as an expert you will usually get a man questioning your credibility."
When I met Lalonde in early spring at the cafe inside the Gladstone Hotel, she filled me in on her schedule of shuttling between Ottawa, Toronto, and a couple of other cities for the weeks to come. As project manager of Draw the Line, the Ontario government's sexual violence awareness campaign, Lalonde frequently doles out advice to organizations seeking to make policies that will help protect women. "I train everybody from adorable children in the fifth grade to politicians on Parliament Hill," she told me.
Lalonde got her footing in feminist activism while pursuing Canadian studies and women's studies at Carleton University. In the aftermath of a brutal rape on campus, she spent six years following her graduation fighting for the school to create a sexual assault center (which finally happened in 2013). Around the same time, she also founded the Ottawa chapter of Hollaback!, a movement created to end street harassment.
In Canada, an estimated one in three women will experience sexual violence in her lifetime; the crimes frequently go unreported, with only 6 percent making official police reports. A Globe and Mail investigation recently found that one in five sexual assaults reported to police are deemed "unfounded" by the cops, meaning they aren't even being investigated. These are stats Lalonde can rattle off at a second's notice, and she's vocal about them on her unapologetically blunt Twitter feed. But behind her public persona is a very personal connection to abuse. For 11 years, Lalonde's ex-boyfriend stalked and harassed her.
She and Xavier* were friends throughout high school, and in the summer before leaving for university, they had a fling. It was lovely, she told me. There were trips to his cottage, the beach, the movies. At summer's end, she told him she didn't want to do long distance. "He was like, 'No, no, no. I can't be without you,'" she recalled. Within a month of her leaving for school, Xavier told her he had to be in the same city as her. He showed up, moved in with Lalonde and her roommates, and "very quickly, shit went downhill," she told me. The two soon got their own apartment, and he became increasingly obsessive and controlling. He never hit her, but she said that he raped her repeatedly. Eventually it got to a point where she would simply let it happen.
Finally, about two years later, Xavier went away for a long weekend, and she fled. She left a note saying she was with friends and needed space. When he got back to the apartment, he lost it. "He went and knocked on the door of any person who had ever known me," Lalonde said. "Finally, I called him from a pay phone and was like, 'You gotta calm down. You're scaring the shit outta people.'" She got her own place, but Xavier moved into the building behind hers. He would pass by her door, yelling, "I know you're in there!" And he would leave notes on her car—one of them said, "I will always love you. You have no choice." Xavier died in a single-vehicle accident in the summer of 2015. Afterward, Lalonde finally began to speak publicly about him.
A couple weeks after we met for lunch, I watched Lalonde recount this story to a group of tenth graders at Ottawa's John McCrae Secondary School. Most seemed engrossed and disturbed. Then one student shouted, "Why didn't you just tell the police someone was stalking you? I'm sure they would have gotten into it." Lalonde explained that she did tell the police, who determined that he was just heartbroken. "Police officers will tell you that criminal harassment is very difficult to prosecute in Canada," she told the group. The student appeared skeptical, but Lalonde wouldn't have it. "You had your headphones in while I was talking, so I don't even know if you heard me," she said. "When I'm telling you the truth and you're coming back at me with, 'That's why you should tell the police'—that's the reaction that makes people not want to tell their story." With that, she booted him from the assembly. Later, she told me, "Even when you're introduced as an expert and they list your expertise and the reason why you're credible to speak on this issue, 100 percent of the time you will usually get a man questioning your credibility."
The people who disagree with Lalonde aren't subtle about it. She's been doxed, impersonated, threatened, and told she should be "raped to death." Still, Lalonde believes that when it comes to sexual assault, there has been progress. There is a marked difference between when Draw the Line started six years ago and now, she said. For one thing, people admit that rape culture is real. However, alcohol and consent remain a major point of contention. Under Canada's criminal code, a person cannot consent to sexual activity if he or she is incapable. But a recent case out of Halifax in Nova Scotia has ignited furor over the courts' interpretation of the law. It revolves around a cab driver acquitted of sex assault after the police found him parked on the side of the road with an unconscious female passenger in the backseat. The woman's pants had been removed, and her shirt had been pushed up; items from her purse were scattered inside the car. The driver, Bassam Aladin Al-Rawi, exited the car with his pants undone. The woman didn't remember leaving the bar she'd been at earlier in the night. A judge found Al-Rawi not guilty and said, "Clearly, a drunk can consent."
"The relationship between booze and sex is so ingrained for people that's it's sort of this idea that you can't even have one without the other," Lalonde said, noting that while she doesn't tell people they can't have a drink and hook up, she advises men to constantly "check in, check in, check in, check in" with any woman they're pursuing. Yet she knows her work is not done.
A week or so after the 2015 Wilno shootings, one of Lalonde's colleagues said to her, "That could have been you." Xavier had died just six weeks before. These days, she goes to therapy to deal with post-traumatic stress disorder from being stalked. She unwinds by watching mixed martial arts and surrounding herself with people—including her partner—who aren't activists.
While being in the trenches of the fight against sexism, misogyny, and violence may seem bleak, there are seeds of hope. After Lalonde's talk at John McCrae Secondary School, I asked a couple of male students what they thought. Liam Chatterjee, a senior, said he has begun to observe casual sexism. "You start to notice a lot of stuff that before you wouldn't consider to be wrong," he told me. "Whereas one person may take it as being funny and joking, another person may take it as being totally rude and creepy." He told me that he'd start to call out the behavior when he sees it. Afterward, Lalonde said, "That just gives me so much hope."
*Names have been changed or withheld to protect subjects' identities.