Marie-Sophie L’Heureux domestic violence

Cycling across Quebec to raise $60,000 to fight domestic violence

“The Montrealer will conclude her trip at the eastern tip of the Gaspé Peninsula, Land’s End. Her trajectory is meant to convey how out-of-reach leaving an abusive relationship can feel.”

On July 26, Marie-Sophie L’Heureux, a former journalist and current communications expert, will embark on a solitary 12-day cycling trip from Montreal to Forillon National Park in Gaspé, a 1,200-kilometre journey with the sole goal of raising $60,000 in support of domestic violence survivors. The Montrealer will conclude her trip at the eastern tip of the Gaspé Peninsula, Land’s End, known in French as Bout du Monde. It’s an apt destination since the symbolism of her trajectory is meant to convey how out-of-reach and impossibly far leaving an abusive relationship can feel for someone before they take that first tentative step.

Since the beginning of 2021, at least 14 women have lost their lives at the hands of their partners or ex partners in Quebec.

During an average year, the Quebec domestic violence help line SOS violence conjugale receives about 25,000 calls. It received just over 40,000 calls in the past year alone. The organization estimates it could exceed the 60,000-mark by March of 2022 if the current pace of calls remains the same.

Those numbers represent a lot of people — the vast majority women, but not always — who are in pain. People (and those who love them) who fear for their physical safety and their mental state. People who feel stuck and at their wit’s end, paralyzed by indecision, uncertainty, worry and shame.

The many faces of violence

Statistics indicate that it takes on average of seven tries before someone suffering abuse leaves their partner for good. It’s a long and complicated process, further muddled by emotions of love, guilt, fear and codependency. Marie-Sophie understands better than anyone how difficult it can be to walk away from a toxic and abusive relationship because she once was in one. In her case, it took five tries before she left.

“People need to understand how difficult it is to walk away from these toxic situations and not return,” she says.

Her former partner exhibited frequent toxic behaviour and abused her psychologically and emotionally, making her doubt every aspect of and decision in her life. “It’s not because you’re not beaten up, killed, or sexually abused that you’re not in danger or not abused, because you are,” she says.

“Psychological violence isn’t always accompanied by physical violence, but it’s a constant, and can also be very damaging. It takes years to recover from it. Some abusers focus on manipulation and gaslighting, and that can equally take a toll on a person’s state of mind and emotional well-being. Violence has many faces and I hope women who are experiencing this type of violence don’t hear of stories with extreme physical abuse and try to minimize their own situations as less severe and less deserving of help.”

Even today, despite having seen a therapist and being told that she lived through domestic abuse, Marie-Sophie says that there’s a big part of her that will be eternally in denial of it. “The shame is strong.”

Motion against violence against women

NDG/CDN borough mayor Sue Montgomery wholeheartedly agrees. “I worked with a woman for years who was with a violent man, and no one knew,” she says. “There is so much shame in being abused.”

Moved by the recent rise in femicides across the province, Montgomery — who’s also the co-creator of the #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag, and a fervent women’s advocate — recently submitted a borough motion calling for action against violence against women.

“As an incest survivor and a survivor of sexual assault, I have fought against violence against women in society my entire adult life,” she said while introducing her motion last month.

“After the hashtag went viral in 2014, hundreds of women around the world contacted me with their stories of rape, violence or incest. I continue to this day to meet women who tell me it was my story and the hashtag that helped them shed their shame and face their own abuse.” 

Montgomery says it’s discouraging to see that so little has changed. “Women experience violence in their workplace, in their homes, in public spaces, on public transit. It is past time for men to take responsibility. We’re so tired of doing the heavy lifting.” 

The motion that Montgomery presented, which was unanimously adopted by council, underlined the urgency “to take concrete actions to fight against violence against women and develop community-based solutions towards a more inclusive and safer environment for women in the borough and beyond.” 

She’s not alone in making this request. Amid this alarming uptick in deadly intimate partner violence, (over 90% of which targets women) women’s advocates in Quebec are calling for better support, resources and more awareness. Femicide is usually the final step that follows years of abuse and coercive control. The pandemic has only made things worse.

Moving towards hope

Quebec domestic violence
Marie-Sophie L’Heureux, cycling across Quebec to fight domestic violence

Marie-Sophie is calling her quest Grand Départ (the Great Departure), wanting to inspire as many people as she can who are currently living in a state of limbo to take that leap of faith and jump, believing that a new, better life is possible. She understands the psychological and emotional grip abusers can have on their victims and the toll it can take on their self-esteem.

“I want to tell all victims of domestic abuse, especially women, but not only women, that there’s a life after this, and it can be great, and it can be nice, and it can be full of people who like you and value you,” Marie-Sophie says.

She also wants people to understand the dynamics of abusive relationships, and why it’s so hard for victims to just “walk away,” as many are quick to suggest.

“People who are violent are not monsters,” she says. “They’re people with issues, defending themselves in inappropriate ways, and they’ve unfortunately developed bad mechanisms for interacting with others; they’re possessive and scared. But they can be very loveable, too, which is what keeps you hanging on. When a woman goes back to her abuser it’s because she’s returning to the part of that person she loves. If they were complete monsters, it would be easy to leave.”

Marie-Sophie is well on her way to raising the $60,000 she set as her goal for the non-profit, whose mission is to help ensure the safety of victims of intimate partner violence and that of their children throughout Quebec, by offering free, bilingual, anonymous and confidential referral services and shelter 24 hours a day, seven days a week. From the total collected, $15,000 will go towards shooting a short film aiming to inspire those who need an additional push. Thanks to word of mouth and some very generous corporate donations, she’s already raised over $36,000. She’s excited about what this money can mean for people who need it, but also appreciating the sense of accomplishment she feels.

“I was 30 when I made a choice to leave that person before it became too dangerous for my physical and emotional integrity,” she says. “And now I’m 39 and I’m going to turn 40 in January, and I really want to wrap it up. It’s a full-circle moment.”

Toxic masculinity helps no one

It’s important to remember that no one is above finding themselves in an abusive situation. Statistics clearly show that intimate partner violence transcends class, educational and income brackets.

“When people say an abusive relationship can happen to anyone, no matter what professional or social success you may have, it truly can,” she says. “I want us to move beyond clichés surrounding domestic violence. I grew up in a decent family, went to good schools, have a good education and a good career, I have a strong, outgoing personality. It’s not a predisposition to fall in love with a violent person. It can happen to anyone. There’s nothing wrong with you; you just picked the wrong lottery number.”

She deplores the fact that toxic masculinity and societal expectations of men make it difficult for male victims of violence to often come forward and men exhibiting violent behaviour to ask for help. 

“The 14 men who killed those 14 women did not seek help, none of them,” she says. “That’s a problem. In the same way, male victims of abuse won’t reach out either, which is also problematic, because there’s such a stigma attached.”

NDG/CDN city councillor Christian Arseneault made similar remarks during Montgomery’s motion last month. After reciting the names of all 13 Quebec women who were recently murdered (the number increased from 13 to 14 while this piece was being written) he urged his fellow men to take accountability.

“I bet all the money in my pockets that the 13 [now 14] recent murderers were not raised to be consciously misogynistic but then the subtle toxicity of toxic masculinity is such that without constant vigilance and the deliberate unlearning of bad behaviours we risk perpetuating, in ways big and small, the cycle of violence.”

Marie-Sophie urges those questioning their relationship dynamics to trust their instincts. “Trust the feelings you feel. Don’t overanalyze it. If you feel confused, sad, desperate and lost on a perpetual basis, well… that’s part of the violence, too. It’s the result of it.”

Completing the circle

With only days to go before her departure, Marie-Sophie is excited to head out. 

“I think this trip will be a catharsis,” she says. “I’m thinking I might even be overly dramatic and bring along my engagement ring and throw it in the ocean,” she trails off laughing. 

Marie-Sophie will be cycling alone but will periodically be joined by other cyclists along her route. She’s relying on a network of friends to coordinate care packages and accommodations along the way.

“They’ll be like the wind on my back, helping me along the way,” she says. “If I get a flat tire, if I’m too exhausted to continue, I won’t hesitate to ask for help. This, too, feels symbolic to me, because I want those in a violent situation to know that they won’t be alone if they make that difficult decision to leave. There will be resources and allies and people willing to help them — as long as they reach out for them.”

Before ending our conversation, almost as an afterthought, I ask her how best she would describe her life now.

“Peaceful,” she says without hesitation.

We both agree it sounds good. ■

To donate to Grand Départ, please click here. The Quebec domestic violence help line SOS violence conjugale can be reached here, or by calling 1-800-363-9010.

Read more editorials by Toula Drimonis here.