Last week was an encouraging one in Kingston in terms of the fight against domestic and gender-based violence.
At the Tuesday, Oct. 17, 2023, meeting of Kingston City Council, councillors unanimously approved a motion from Councillor Wendy Stephen requesting that the City declare intimate partner violence an epidemic.
The cause for the declaration, explained to Council by Stephen and two local service providers who attended the meeting to give a delegation in support of the motion, stemmed from two investigations: a Renfrew County Coroner’s Inquest following the murder of three women in that county by the same man — a past intimate partner of all three victims — and the joint public inquiry known as the Mass Casualty Commission, which looked into the violent rampage in Nova Scotia in 2020 by a man who killed 22 people. Both of these investigations resulted in numerous public recommendations, including that Ontario declare intimate partner violence an epidemic (which the provincial government opted instead not to do) and that governments “urgently prioritize preventing and ending gender-based violence (GBV), intimate partner violence (IPV), and family violence.”
The following day, different news broke, news that would lend even more support to efforts to acknowledge and address the chronic issue of domestic and genre-based violence: Kingston resident Aruna Antonella Handa of Aruna & the Sirens was nominated for a Canadian Folk Music Award.
What does that have to do with the groundswell of support for acknowledging, condemning, and addressing domestic and gender-based violence? Well, Handa and her fellow musicians have been nominated for Best Single of the Year: Have You Seen My Sister, a track originally recorded in February of this year by Aruna & the Sirens with special guests.
The song was drawn from a song cycle composed in 2017 (we’ll hear more about that later) to “draw attention to gender-based violence,” the artist details on her website.
“Early in the COVID pandemic, the UN reported a global surge in domestic violence and gender-based violence [.] Aruna contacted producer David Seitz (New York City) and the pair decided to release a single. Aruna’s band recorded guide tracks at Toronto’s Canterbury Studio with engineer Jeremy Darby, and then invited musicians in Canada and the US to add tracks, recorded remotely in isolation due to lockdown,” a press release announcing the project’s Canadian Folk Music Award nomination reads.
And for Handa herself, this worlds-colliding coincidence — her nomination happening concurrently with Council’s decision — was more of a surprise than one might think.
Handa said she first read about Council’s declaration in Kingstonist’s article and “was astonished, to be honest.”
“I just added this news to the growing list of things that I love about this city,” said the new Kingstonian, who moved to Kingston from Bath, Ont., just a month ago.
“I have written to the mayor and am writing as well to Councillor Stephen to thank them for this proposing this motion. I hope that we can leverage this to actually reduce gender-based violence.”
As for her nomination?
“I didn’t even notice that I had been nominated at first, because I often receive junk emails calling me a ‘winner’ or offering me ‘congratulations,’” Handa said candidly. “It’s only when I was reviewing my emails that I noticed that this email was a genuine one and worth reading.”
The artist said she is “grateful and cautiously optimistic” about City Council’s decision on the declaration. The fact the decision and her nomination occurred almost simultaneously is a bit of momentum she hopes can be harnessed to change the dire situation around intimate partner and gender-based violence.
“I think that acknowledgment can galvanize an artist to do more, to do better, to have the confidence to propose more work, and to request funds to do the same,” said Handa.
“I am grateful that so many people were involved in this recording. Artists from across the country and even musicians from the US recorded tracks in their home or local studios and sent them in. It was an engineering feat worthy of its own reward to edit and mix the tracks,” she said of Have You Seen My Sister?
“And then there were over 80 artists involved in the debut, including Governor General’s Award winners like playwright Judith Thompson, and emerging artists. The age range of women involved is also impressive, as we have had artists as young as 12 and as old as 81 participate… Sadly girls, women, and gender-diverse people, regardless of age, are attacked in gender-based violence.”
As mentioned, the track comes from a song cycle which Handa wrote for a juried independent project for Toronto’s Nuit Blanche in 2017. It was inspired by “sheer frustration and astonishment.”
“I had read the appendix of the PhD thesis of Maryanne Pearce, a Law grad student at the University of Ottawa, and I was blown away by how long this problem has existed and how little we have accomplished towards remedying it,” she explained.
“The appendix listed women, girls, and gender-diverse people who had been murdered in gender-based violence. Originally I had wanted to incorporate the names of all the victims in my 12-hour piece for the festival, but the list was simply too long, and I had to include only the Ontario names.”
The UN announcement regarding the surge in domestic violence during the COVID-19 pandemic — the “shadow pandemic” of violence against women during the initial stay-at-home and lockdown orders around the globe, and the UN campaign that resulted — inspired Handa and her producer to release a single drawn from songs from the song cycle in 2017. While domestic violence is certainly an issue she is passionate about, Handa said it is part of her life as an artist to create works that captivate and educate on the issues that matter.
“I think it’s fair to say that throughout my career as an artist, I have been motivated by what Noam Chomsky has called [George] Orwell’s problem: how, when we know so much, do we do so little. I feel my work as an artist is to look deeply at the hard stuff, even when it makes me feel sick, and then respond with art, or music, or theatre in a way that can invite audiences to engage with the issues. I’ve written plays and/or songs about global food issues, race relations, peace and conflict, social justice,” she shared.
The one-time Torontonian, who “came east initially because, as an artist, I could no longer afford Toronto,” said that it was not until she left ‘The Big Smoke’ that she realized “that city was really draining me.”
“Kingston, by contrast, seems like a dream. I know it has its problems, but the beauty of the city and the friendliness of the people have seduced me. I’m here to stay,” said Handa.
And while she has yet to perform locally, Handa said she is excited at the prospect of doing so and hopes to have news on that front in the very near future. Until then, those wanting to get to know the artist more can check out her website, aruna.ca, as well as Have You Seen My Sister, which is available on most all music platforms, “from Bandcamp to Spotify, and from Apple Music to Amazon.”
“Aruna & the Sirens will be releasing another single, City Hotel, in January, and then our first full length album the following month,” she shared.
“I am very excited about this album and can’t wait for it to be released.”
The Canadian Folk Music Awards will take place in St. John’s, Newfoundland in early March 2024.
Aruna & the Sirens is an Ontario-based band that has been performing in the Greater Toronto Area (GTA) since 2018. In addition to Aruna Antonella Handa, who sings lead and wrote the piece, band members include Chris Adriaanse, Alejandra Ballon, Caitlin Holland, Lindsay McDonald, and Raphael Roter. Guest musicians on the track include Doug Tielli (Owen Sound), Dave Eggar (Bristol, Tennesse), and Antje Duvekot (Boston). The artwork for the track was created by Victor Klassen (Valle de Bravo, Mexico). A full list of all the contributors and funders is available on the project webpages here.