Sunday 8 June 2014

Great Geek Girls: Meet Hollaback! Ottawa

By Marie Victoria Roberston
If you were at Ottawa Comic Con this past May, hopefully you had time to attend Hollaback! Ottawa’s excellent panel, “Cosplay =/= Consent.” The panel opened up a discussion on the grim reality of harassment at conventions and how con-goers can help put a stop to it. 
Hollaback! Ottawa’s work is not limited to conventions. Hollaback! Ottawa is the local chapter of an international movement dedicated to ending street harassment. They define street harassment as gender-based violence in public space. Julie Lalonde, the founder of Hollaback! Ottawa, was already dedicated to doing anti-sexual violence work in Ottawa when she decided Ottawa needed a Hollaback! chapter of its own. As the only organization in Ottawa dedicated solely to ending gender-based harassment, Hollaback! has been able to address issues that otherwise go unchallenged. Hollaback! was able to call out Ottawa Police's victim blaming statements in the fall regarding the 'serial rapist' and was able to have really productive conversations about cosplay and consent at Ottawa Comic Con.
In the geek world, it’s hard to think of your favourite fandoms and conventions as having problems with harassment. We get understandably defensive. In the same vein, it’s hard to think of your home city as having problems with street harassment. Because we here in Ottawa pride ourselves on being ‘quiet’ and ‘boring’, says Julie, we have a hard time believing harassment happens here—at least until it happens to us. Nearly all of my friends have had slurs or crude sexual comments directed at them at least once. I’ve personally been hollered at from passing cars too many times to count. 
Julie tells of an unfortunate experience that happened to her in summer of 2011: while riding on the bus toward downtown, she was physically and sexually assaulted by another passenger. As if it weren’t bad enough that a stranger felt entitled to violate a woman on the bus, not a single passenger was willing or able to help out. No one alerted the driver, no one stood up to say “Come on, stop” or “I’m calling the police”. This kind of inaction is problematic and can even be deadly. 
The good news is that taking action does make a difference! In the 3 years Hollaback! Ottawa has been active, some positive changes have been made: the Ottawa Police responded positively to concerns about victim-blaming in fall of 2013 and have since changed the way they communicate about assaults in the city. And of course, a success for the local geek community was getting Ottawa Comic Con to begin a dialogue and address harassment at conventions. 
Another one of Hollaback! Ottawa’s major successes happened with OC Transpo. Last February, Hollaback! approached OC Transpo to discuss the issue of harassment on public transit and was met with hostility. Harassment, OC Transpo claimed, was not a problem on transit and at the time, they refused to even talk about it. Hollaback! persisted and, a little over a year later, got OC Transpo to begin advertising their safety measures and promote safety messaging.  
In addition to their appearance at Ottawa Comic Con, Hollaback! Ottawa hosted a Chalk Walk on Sunday, June 8th at 3pm with a meet-up at Confederation Park. They will also be working to organize a series of events in the lead-up to Ottawa’s municipal election in October 2014. Anyone looking to attend events or get involved is encouraged to join Hollaback! Ottawa’s mailing list (via, follow them on social media (on Twitter @HollabackOttawa and on Facebook), and above all, let everyone know about the organization and how they can help stop gender-based harassment!
The greatest allies we have in ending harassment are each other. Whether at Comic Con or on Rideau street, we have a duty to speak up and keep each other safe. As Julie says, “Be an effective bystander. If you see someone in trouble or looking really uncomfortable: Direct, delegate or distract. We have a plethora of great resources on how to be a great bystander that are free for folks to check out. Whether it's on the #95, waiting for a cab on a Saturday night or at a house party, bystanders are crucial to ending all forms of gender based violence.” 

Marie Victoria Robertson is a published speculative fiction writer and playwright, as well as the board president of Jer’s Vision: Canada’s Youth Diversity Initiative ( When all the other girls wanted to marry Johnny Depp, she wanted to run away with Worf on the Enterprise. She enjoys giant robots, time-travel paradoxes, and forcing her son to watch Futurama.

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