COVER

A CHILD’S CRUSADE

MORE THAN A MILLION CANADIANS BACK A YOUNG QUEBECER WHO ABHORS TV VIOLENCE

BARRY CAME December 7 1992
COVER

A CHILD’S CRUSADE

MORE THAN A MILLION CANADIANS BACK A YOUNG QUEBECER WHO ABHORS TV VIOLENCE

BARRY CAME December 7 1992

A CHILD’S CRUSADE

MORE THAN A MILLION CANADIANS BACK A YOUNG QUEBECER WHO ABHORS TV VIOLENCE

BARRY CAME

Virginie Larivière says that she still remembers the moment when the idea dawned on her. It happened on a saddening afternoon in March while she was attending the funeral of her 11-year-old sister, who had been robbed of $6, then raped and finally strangled five days before. “I kept asking myself why anyone would want to do that to Marie-Eve,” the Quebec youngster, now 14, recalled. “And it suddenly occurred to me that it might well be the result of all the violence that my sister and I used to watch on television.” Pausing to brush a strand of light brown hair from her eyes, the teenager gave her slim shoulders a deferential shrug and added: “Maybe there’s something wrong with my reactions, but I decided right then and there that I was going to try to do something about it.” Eight months later, in midNovember, Virginie Larivière wheeled the results of her decision into the parliamentary office of federal Communications Minister Perrin Beatty.

COVER

Message: It consisted of a line of trolleys bearing 21 cardboard boxes stuffed with petitions signed by 1,283,453 Canadians, all of them responding to a campaign conceived and organized by the teenager and her family. The petition demanded the enactment of new laws designed to gradually curb and eventually eliminate violence from TV screens across the country. She also carried the message directly to Prime Minister Brian Mulroney. “My mother and my stepfather and I worked 12 hours a day, seven days a week for 223 days to gather those signatures,” said the youngster as she nursed a cold in the family home outside St-Polycarpe, a village in the St. Lawrence Valley 60 km west of Montreal. “It will not bring Marie-Eve back, but it might help to prevent others from suffering a similar fate.”

Larivière’s younger sister was murdered on March 7 while the family was visiting relatives in the StVincent-de-Paul area of Laval, a Montreal suburb. Marie-Eve took $6 and went out to buy bread from a local ■■■ convenience store, around 7 p.m. on a Saturday evening.

The girl never returned. A railway employee on a passing train spotted her body early the next day in a field beside the railway line, about five kilometres from her relatives’

home. The child’s body was fully clothed, but a subsequent autopsy disclosed that she had been sexually assaulted. Bruises around her neck indicated that she died as a result of having been strangled. The money had disappeared. Said Larivière: “It was the beginning of our horrible nightmare.”

Despite a $20,000 reward, posted by the Sun Youth Organization of Montreal, a charitable organization that supports community activities, Marie-Eve’s killer remains at large. The fact obviously disturbs the family deeply. “We don’t like to talk about that very much,” said François Lambert, the girl’s stepfather. A burly 47-year-old woodworking artist, Lambert also readily acknowledged that the family has no proof that televised violence played a role in Marie-Eve’s death. At the same time, Lambert maintains that evidence exists to support a link between many violent crimes and the daily diet of murder and other crimes that appears on TV screens. In any case, Larivière said that she made the connection herself and became determined to act on her belief.

“It’s the way she chose to handle her grief,” said Lambert.

Signatures: From the outset, the members of Larivière’s immediate family have solidly supported her. Both Lambert and the girl’s mother, Nicole Body,

41, have been working almost full time on the campaign to gather signatures ever since Larivière decided that she wanted to circulate petitions against TV violence and send them to Mulroney. “We formed a threemember family committee where all the decisions have been taken,” said Lambert. After a Montreal press conference organized with the help of Sun Youth, Larivière’s petition gained widespread publicity and signatures began flowing in from all parts of Canada. Lambert estimated that the campaign cost more than $20,000, almost all of it raised by individual donations or through contributions of supplies and equipment from various private companies. Still,

Lambert’s woodworking business has suffered, as has Boily’s endeavors in raising and marketing greenhouse snapdragons. The girl has rarely attended school during the past several months, an absence that her parents freely admit has raised concern among her Grade 8 teachers at the village school.

The family home, on an acre of land off a rural lane about five kilometres west of the village, has gradually come to resemble a political election headquarters. Last week, stacks of petitions were still piled high on the kitchen table in the comfortable 150-year-old log house, despite the fact that the campaign officially ended on Nov. 15. Larivière’s room upstairs was crowded with new cartons full of signed petitions that the family plans to send to Ottawa to supplement J g those already delivered. A fax machine, on loan from Bell Canada, hums almost continuously in a comer of the living room. And the telephone was nearly always in use. Among the callers during an interview with Maclean’s last week was a television network in

Milan, Italy, a newspaper in Vancouver and the producers of the CBC television program Front Page Challenge working out the final details for taping a guest appearance later in the week.

If Larivière was flattered by the attention, it did not show. The girl, who speaks only French, is remarkably poised for a 14-year-old. But apparently it was not always so. Her mother said that the girl has undergone a dramatic transformation since the death of her sister and everything that has happened in the wake of the tragedy. “Marie-Eve was the dynamo in the family,” said Nicole Boily, a petite brunette in blue jeans. “Virginie was the quiet one, always deferring to her little sister.” She studied her daughter for a long moment as the girl posed for photographs with the aplomb of a professional, then continued: “It’s almost as if she has decided, now that Marie-Eve has gone, to take on some of her sister’s personality.” Added Lambert: “She really is more like a 16or 17-year-old now than someone who is only 14.”

The girl’s composure served her well in Mulroney’s office on Nov. 18 when she coolly interrupted the Prime Minister in mid-sentence. After Mulroney congratulated her on her efforts, he said that legislators would insist on changes in broadcasting rules if the broadcasters themselves did not act. “It’s not enough to just insist,” she cut in—to the surprise of Mulroney and the delight of some members of the assembled media. “You’ll have to pass a law.” Asked about her boldness, Larivière airily dismissed the celebrated incident. “It was nothing special,” she said with a giggle. “I was just lucky enough to have been able to tell the Prime Minister what I think without having to pay $500 to go to a luncheon to get the same privilege.”

Expanding on her campaign, Larivière declared: “There’s just too much violence on television. Look at movies like Robocop and Terminator and all those Rambo things. How many people are killed in those pictures?” Warming to the subject, a note of mature anger crept into her youthful voice as she said that even children’s cartoon shows constantly serve up “four or five or six hundred acts of violence every Saturday morning.” The girl’s parents clearly share her views. Said Lambert, while Boily nodded in agreement, “I read somewhere that the average child has witnessed something like 13,000 murders by the time he or she reaches the age of 18. Isn’t it time we all said that we’ve had enough?”

Support: The response to Larivière’s petition makes it clear that there are millions of other Canadians who share similar suspicions. The teenager’s campaign clearly struck a responsive nerve, drawing support from individuals and organizations across the country, even from one isolated Inuit community in the Northwest Territories. Keith Spicer, chairman of the Canadian Radio-television and Telecommunications Commission, congratulated her for demonstrating “remarkable moral leadership.” The Canadian Association of Broadcasters said in a statement last week that it shares her “grave concern.”

In recent months, Larivière has addressed a meeting of the Quebec Teachers’ Congress and several other labor unions. Even some inmates in Quebec prisons at Bordeaux and Cowansville asked her to visit and, when she did, they responded by affixing more than 2,000 signatures to her petition.

Virginie Larivière remains refreshingly unfazed by the reaction. “No, I’m not surprised,” she said. “It proves that there are a lot of other people out there just like me. I thought nothing about the violence I used to watch on television until my sister died. But I’m a different person now.” Ultimately, her petition and other expressions of concern could help to change attitudes towards depictions of violence and their frequent presence on the nation’s television screens.

BARRY CAME in St-Polycarpe