Breaking the silence

How a former stalking victim is helping take criminal harassment out of the shadows

Women’s advocate Julie Lalonde creates important PSA
Photo: TMimages PDX

For more than a decade, Julie Lalonde was stalked by a former boyfriend. What started off as a consensual and loving relationship between two high school sweethearts became possessive and controlling. After three years, Lalonde couldn’t endure his behaviour any longer and left.

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What followed were 11 years of constant harassment, guilt-inducing messages about how he would kill himself, and relentless stalking at her place of work, university, and every new apartment she moved to and he eventually located. Even though he later married and had children, the stalking and the messages continued.

There were so many messages over the years that Lalonde had 70 pages of documentation saved as proof for the police. His threatening presence became a permanent fixture in her life, her version of “normal.” The only thing that eventually put an end to her ordeal was that her stalker died in an unrelated accident.

More prevalent than people think

While considerable focus has been put on gender-based violence, sexual assault, and domestic abuse — much of it spurred by the #MeToo movement — stalking is one area of related behaviour that doesn’t seem to get as much attention. And yet it’s much more prevalent than people think.

Although anyone can be subjected to stalking, the overwhelming number of victims are women. Like sexual assault and abuse, the motivation isn’t love or a broken heart, but a need for control and power.

According to Victims of Violence, a non-profit organization that provides long-term support and guidance to victims of violent crime and their families, “In 2009, the Statistics Canada Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics conducted a survey on criminal harassment which revealed that over 20,000 cases of stalking were reported across Canada (a 7 per cent increase from 2008) and that three quarters of the victims were female.”

Here are a few interesting findings from the survey:

  • The rates are highest in Eastern Canada and lower in the West.

  • A 2008 study found that stalking and uttering threats make up a significant percentage of crime in Quebec.

  • The most common form of criminal harassment reported to police involves obscene phone calls to female victims.

  • The majority of stalking victims know their stalker.

A Statistics Canada survey conducted in 2011 found that 76 per cent of stalking victims were women and 58 per cent were stalked by a male intimate partner. Approximately 75 per cent of women who are stalked by an estranged spouse are physically or sexually assaulted by the same person.

Control and power

Although anyone can be subjected to stalking, the overwhelming number of victims are women. Like sexual assault and abuse, the motivation isn’t love or a broken heart, but a need for control and power. Statistics also indicate that if the person doing the stalking is a former boyfriend, victims are much more likely to experience physical violence. Because of the unpredictable and often extended nature of stalking, police investigations can be time-consuming and an exercise in frustration. Often, victims feel that they are not taken seriously enough by police officers.

As a former victim of stalking, Lalonde — who has since become a well-known women’s rights advocate and public educator — understood the psychological ramifications, the emotional whirlwind of fear and anxiety that stalking exacts, and the frustration in dealing with law enforcement and resource centres.

A month ago, she launched Outside of the Shadows to better help victims of stalking. The project is essentially a public service announcement with practical advice for victims and their allies. Lalonde partnered with Montreal-based artist Ambivalently Yours to create a five-minute animated short film about her experience and what she learned from her ordeal that could help others. Some of her advice is about social media and the internet, which has enabled cyber-stalking and news ways of monitoring people’s activities.

Using animation that was created by sequencing hundreds of original hand drawings, which were made especially for this project, and voice narration by Lalonde, the PSA (which was only made possible due to the generosity of donors) is a thoughtful, personal, and highly informative survivor-centred resource. It should be required viewing and shown in educational institutions.

Breaking the silence

Explaining the project on Twitter, Lalonde said, “Stalkers keep their victims terrified and isolated by not just targeting them, but their entire social circle. My abuser harassed anyone near me in the hopes that I'd lose all my support networks.”

The video is an attempt to shed light on a problem and help victims who stay silent out of shame or fear.

While only a month old, the reaction to the video has been incredible.

“From Sophie Grégoire-Trudeau posting it on her Facebook page, to the media pickup, to raising all the money I needed in four hours to make a French version, I had no idea it would be so well received,” Lalonde told me. She hopes that the project expands and becomes a clearinghouse of information on criminal harassment in Canada with practical tips and resources.

In a recent interview she said, “I wanted people to feel what [stalking] does to your life, to build that empathy so that they would be invested and continuing the conversation."

January is Stalking Awareness Month. If you’re near the Ottawa area, Lalonde is speaking about the PSA at an event on Feb. 22. Outside of the Shadows was entirely self-funded. If you want to see the creation of more resources and if you want more copies of them out into the world, please consider donating.

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