photos: Illustrations by Heidi Nagtegaal.

In my defense

Violence in Vancouver is real. Here's what I learned about self-defense.

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I’m staring down the barrel of a rubber gun and I don’t know what to do. It’s a busy Wednesday evening at UBC’s Student Recreation Center, where they’re offering free classes during the first week of the semester.

I’m in a class taught by Louisa Weizmann and James Chartier of Vancouver’s Hit & Run Self Defense. Both are martial arts instructors with more than 20 years of experience and black belts in multiple disciplines. I’ve sought out this class, called Krav Maga, because I’ve heard it’s an efficient and brutal form of hand-to-hand fighting used by the Israeli Defense Forces. We begin with basic moves: we practice punches and how best to kick somebody (driving your shin up and into the groin). Now, we’re learning how to deal with an armed attacker. My partner points the gun at my face and I’m supposed to dodge around it, twist the gun out of her grip, grab it, and run. But I can’t remember which way to move or how to push the gun away. I freeze.

 

While Krav Maga is an aggressive form of hand-to-hand combat,the instructor is welcoming—Weizmann is kind and friendly. She’s scarcely over five feet tall and her co-instructor Chartier is almost a head taller, which makes it all the more impressive when she heaves him over her shoulder and thumps him onto the dojo mats. There’s a collective groan of admiration and sympathy. A young woman in a blue T-shirt turns to me, laughing. “I think this is a useful class!” she says. I laugh back and agree. Then I wonder why either of us is laughing.

 

It’s gratifying to see Weizmann dispatch a would-be assailant so swiftly. But the fact of its usefulness isn’t funny at all. Six sexual assaults occurred on UBC’s campus in 2013, sending staff and students like myself into high alert. The assaults prompted a huge increase in UBC’s student-run Safewalk pedestrian escort service, the installation of more outdoor lighting across campus, and warnings not to walk alone.

 

In late March of this year, a woman in Strathcona survived a nightmare: on a sunny Thursday afternoon, a man entered her house and violently forced himself on her. Alerted by her screams, neighbours came to her aid and fought with the attacker, who was wrestled to the ground while the victim was rushed to hospital.

 

According to a 2013 report released by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, 11,529 Vancouver women reported violence ranging from homicide to physical and sexual assault to harassment in 2011. Many have spoken out against these incidents, and actionshave been taken—arrests, police investigations, increased security.

 

But for a 120-pound, 26-year-old woman who walks home alone at night, I’m still concerned for my safety. I wonder if I need to take matters into my own hands.

 

“Unfortunately, as it stands now, a great many women will have to face some type of abusive situation, assault, verbal and physical threats in their lifetime,” Weizmann tells me in the Krav Maga class. “And they will always be the first responder.”

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Blinding attackers with a stiff-fingered jab

I found that physical training is the most common method of self-defense. It’s been proven that women who resist by screaming, running, or using force have far higher chances of avoiding assault. Jocelyn Hollander’s 2014 research paper “Does Self-Defense Training Prevent Sexual Violence Against Women?” shows that women who took empowerment self-defense classes were 2.5 times less likely to be assaulted in the first place. Though my Krav Maga class is about 60 per cent women, Weizmann tells me that the class gender ratio is usually 50-50. Iask if the classes are usually full. “Packed,” she says.

 

We’re put into pairs to practice blinding attackers with a stiff-fingered jab. It’s simple: spread your fingers wide and tuck your thumb into your palm. Make your fingers nice and rigid—if you have nails, even better. Don’t just aim straight at the eyes; put the nose between the forefinger and the middle finger and slide your fingers upwards.

 

My partner is a freshman who says that she just wants to try out the class to get active. She signs up afterwards. A young woman with red hair tells me that she does kickboxing, and that it’s difficult against guys who are bigger than her. “But,” she says, “this is very different.”

 

My conversations with fellow participants in the Krav Maga class—people tell me the class is useful, that they need it—seem to underscore a common perspective people bring to self-defense: that it’s not a skill you should have to learn or use, but it’s a practical one to have. The Hit & Run website compares it to learning first-aid, or learning how to swim.

 

I quickly find, however, that there’s a conflicted discourse around women’s self-defense. Many agree with its practicality, that people have to be responsible for their own safety. Others argue that “responsibility” can be tantamount to victim blaming when it’s society, rape culture, and the perpetrators themselves who are at fault.

 

I cannot deny the practicality, but I don’t believe that women should ever be made to feel that they need to learn self-defense, or that it’s solely up to them to prevent or take action on assaults and violence. Besides, 80 per cent of perpetrators are known to the victim and the majority of assaults take place in a home. The feared “stranger in a dark alley”—so present in the public imagination—is far less common.

 

“I teach you how to kill him”

 

Weizmann stresses that mastering the Krav Maga moves comes with repetition and practice, and that if you remember just one, then the class is a success. It’s true that while I’ve forgotten most of the moves by the time I get home, the finger jab to the eyes stays with me.

 

I’m still thinking, though, about how I froze when faced with even a fake gun. People often freeze in a frightening situation, whether or not they’ve had self-defense training. More practice would certainly help me, but I couldn’t forget about how my brain went entirely blank.

 

So I find myself most interested in Tactical Self Defense (TSD). Norm Bettencourt created the method 10 years ago. He’s a former bouncer, black belt, and father of two, and holds classes in the basement of his home in Kitsilano.

 

TSD is “made for the small man by a small man,” according to the TSD website. Andit’s true: Bettencourt is 5’6” with his boots on. “What I lack in size I make up for in confidence,” he says. Bald, muscular, and compact, he holds himself with an air of controlled strength. Bettencourt teaches men and women, and says that while many men train as a precaution, women tend to take classes after experiencing an assault. Attacks making headlines in local news plays a big factor in signups for his classes, he adds, especially over the past four years.

 

The most notable feature of TSDis that Bettencourt doesn’t focus on teaching a lot of moves, like punches or holds. He says it’s not realistic. “In an adrenalized state, when there’s a guy holding a knife, if someone asked you your name, you wouldn’t remember,” he points out. Instead, he teaches you how to improvise—how to fight in a phone booth. “When you get attacked,” he says, “it’s not in a nice shiny dojo.” The garbage on the floor of his studio, then, is intentional—even trash can be useful in the chaos of assault. Bettencourt picks up an empty plastic bottle. “I can show you how to use this as a weapon.”

 

Bettencourt says that he can teach you all you need to know in one hour, with just one move. I ask him what that move is, and he tells me I’ll have to pay for a lesson to find out ($80 for an hour). He’ll run through some basics first, but then trains you by, well, attacking you. “I just come at you,” he says, “with a knife or a gun, whatever, and you have to react. You have to learn to control your fear.” Bettencourt tells me that he’s one of only four people in the world who train like he does; he teaches deadly force. “I teach you how to kill him. I teach you how to deal with bleeding,” he says. And an important part of the training is the legal aspect, “like what to say to the police.”

 

If an intruder breaks into your house and you end up killing him, there’s a big difference between fearing for your life and doing what you felt was necessary, and using excessive force when you could have disengaged; the former is justifiable but the latter would land you in jail. None of Bettencourt’s clients have ever had to go to court, however. “Thank God,” he adds.

 

Like the other instructors I’ve spoken with, Bettencourt repeatedly emphasizes the importance of your mind. “You have to get out of the victim mentality.” I ask him about the conflict between practicality and the more philosophical issue of women’s safety. He brooks no argument, just says, “Political correctness has no place here.”

 

When I leave I find myself hyper-aware, watching people on the street. As I walk, I find myself straightening my fingers, practicing my eye-jab.

 

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Secret weapons

Weizmann and Bettencourt both tell me that they don’t often train people to use weapons because it can be more dangerous if the user isn’t practiced with them. But I’m intrigued by Michael Roop’s booth at the Eastside Flea Market, which boasts a sizeable collection of knives, swords and a couple of crossbows. Roop owns Eastside Import & Wholesale, and has been at the Flea for the past 11 years. He shows me the knives that are legal to carry—four-inch blades that require both hands to open. Roop says that over the past two years, he has seen more women purchasing pepper spray and pocket knives.

 

“I talk to the girls,” he says, “and they’re fed up, society has gotten so bad and the cops are not doing anything...they’re defenseless. They’re getting hurt day and night, getting harassed day and night. They have to prove it to police, prove it to everyone, and in the meanwhile it goes on.”

 

To Roop, the safety of women isn’t a “red alert” for local police. “The girls have to take matters into their own hands, for peace of mind. They need to know whether they can get home safe.”

 

Roop hands over a large black key ring in the shape of a tiger’s open mouth. It has two holes that you can put your fingers through, and pointed ears that you can stab with. I heft it in my hand, slide my fingers through, and jab the air. It feels dangerous. I feel dangerous. When I hand it back to Roop, I actually feel a pang of regret.

 

Rather than comforting me, I find that the more I learn about and experience self-defense, the more heightened my awareness is. I feel alert and edgy. Perhaps this is a good thing, a way of looking out for danger. But I don’t feel more relaxed at all.

 

Beyond hand-to-hand fighting

 

Eager to explore solutions that don’t meet violence with more violence, I meet Stacey Forrestor, who’s just off a shift from work—she’s a nurse in the Downtown Eastside. She’s one of the founding members of the Vancouver chapter of Hollaback!, an organization working to eliminate street harassment, the definition of which includes verbal harassment, groping, flashing, and assault.


The Vancouver chapter is young and officially launched last summer. “It’s super tricky—you want to believe that you can change things, that men, that people in power aren’t inherently violent. That’s why we do activism, because we believe we can change people,” Forrestor says. “Otherwise we’d all have to take self-defense classes because we can’t change anything...and it’s not like a guy is going to think, ‘There’s some tough girls out there, better not try anything.’” One of Hollaback!’s aims is to develop strategies to create safer public spaces. On Hollaback!’s website, users are encouraged to speak up when they see or experience harassment by recording it in a short post and sharing it to a publicly viewable map.


Pink pins indicate where harassment has taken place, with green ones showing safe places, where somebody experienced support or help in the instance of harassment. I download it and look at the map of Vancouver. There are over 20 pink pins documenting instances of harassment. I can only find one green pin denoting a safe space.


Hollaback! Vancouver and Translink’s Transit Police launched a new partnership in April. It’s aimed at raising awareness of harassment and providing travelers with the resources to address it, including a discreet, non-emergency phone number for texting instances of harassment on public transit to Transit Police. Beyond groups like Hollaback! and its Transit Police partnership, the provincial government released the Action on Violence Against Women in B.C strategy in February.


Part of the wider Violence Free B.C initiative, it outlines plans aimed at challenging beliefs and behaviors through education, ensuring innovative response services (including developing a provincial sex assault policy), and working with communities and organizations.The report looks optimistic. The government is committed to developing these strategies over the next decade to make B.C. a safer place for women. But the reality calls for everyday practicality, taking action “in the meantime.” And of course, band-aids can’t heal a wound. Half the population is at a higher risk of violence—to me, that means it’s an issue of public safety that shouldn’t fall on the shoulders of individuals alone. It’s disheartening to have to learn how to swim when you shouldn’t be drowning in the first place.

So do I feel safer? No, not really. I may take self-defense classes in the future (with Norm Bettencourt, actually) and feel the better for it, but the rates of crime won’t drop because I learn how to fight somebody with a bottle cap. The 2013 report from the Canadian Centre for Justice shows that there has been no change in the rates of violence against women over the past 10 years.


Will I—will women—actually be safer in 2025, as the Violence Free B.C. initiative hopes? Ten years seems both too faraway and too soon to expect significant changes on a societal scale, but I hope we’re moving in the right direction.


In the meantime, I have ways to connect with resources aimed at addressing violence. I have information, and I have a finger jab.

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