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Remembering Bonnie Ruth Agnew 1947 – 1998

October 2, 1998
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Eulogy by Lee Lakeman:

Section One…There will be pie in the sky when you die

I wish I believed in an afterlife.  I wish Bonnie did and I wish I did: a heaven for the good ones.   I could enjoy the thought of her at a place like Gull Lake or Ossoyoos, for instance, with Janis Joplin for a little water skiing and picnicking. 

I like the idea of Bonnie gathering up her mom Ruth for a little bird watching.  In paradise without age or wheelchairs they could climb for puffins over the sea. 

I can just see her running the hurdles to show off for Ananda. And I could see him greeting her at the end of the track open arms and open heart as he always was. 

I know that in any heaven worthy of its name, she would gather up Shorty for Christopher and for me. Bonnie and Shorty would practice cheers together all healthy and young and they would chatter with Emma Goldman about being sophisticated women who chose lovers and friends and family to suit themselves.  They would boast harmlessly about the beautiful and radiant things they had seen and coveted.  My dad would be there to teach Shorty that one rose is a more significant gift from most men than a dozen and that a barefooted girl is so much more beautiful than one hobbled in high heels.   Shorty could teach Bonnie to be a bit more saucy and Bonnie could teach Shorty about self love and self protection.

Bonnie and Caesar Chauvez could eat all the grapes they wanted while discussing consciousness raising techniques with Paulo Friere.  They could talk about how hard it was to live on a stipend and how wonderful to live among comrades. Companeras. Sista’s.

I could ask her to go to Jan Lakeman to explain why feminism is an improvement on my grandpa’s One Big Union.  I don’t think she would gloat too much about the demise of the Party.  She could tell my old friend Julie that I did learn to build collectives.  And Bonnie could turn to Victor Jara to tell her stories and keep her memories in lovely phrases as she, in life, kept mine.

In this heaven I could imagine her tired from a long bike ride over the cobbled and finally peaceful streets of a democratic Ireland, sitting with my Nanna and the other “shawlys” sharing a huge box of chocolate covered candied ginger.

I know she would “tell last” to Ida B Wells and Lucy Parsons. Anna May Aquash and Susan B Anthony and Cady Stanton.    All the times we have revelled in their brilliant strategy their effective work.  All the times we have used their stamina to fortify our own.  All the times we held off despair by measuring their womanly achievements.

Can’t you just imagine Bonnie with Nellie McLung?  Bonnie had lovingly collected all of Nellie’s books over the last few years.  She was proud of the tradition of western Canadian radicalism.  She was charmed by the link that Nellie’s books made back to Bonnie’s  grandparents and to her mother.  What disappointment to read recently that Nellie had tolerated if not supported the eugenics laws of the last century. So Nellie is being educated nudged, encouraged, pressured until she admits the harm done and corrects it.  Either Nellie admits and changes her impact on the world or like many others she will be cut out of Bonnie’s circle. 

If Preston Manning melts on Parliament Hill someday this winter like a post modern `wicked warlock of the west’,   I will believe in paradise.  Or maybe Ralph Klein will be transported  to a life on the Arctic ice flows by a judge claiming to be directed by an Aboriginal sentencing circle.  If these things happen I will know that Nellie and Bonnie found a behaviour change for the present. 

Like many of you I considered afterlife a possibility when Hurricane Bonnie was threatening the coast of Florida in the August days of Bonnie’s death.  Especially when they worried for Texas.  I was almost convinced it was her incarnate when I realised that there had been no human injury but a hell of a threat to property.  Profit making property.

Section two. . . Death has dominion

But the best thing about an after life would be that I could be with her again.  I could tell myself there would be more.  I could save all the millions of conversations in which I will miss her voice.  I could avoid the ache of the particular loneliness I have not felt in twenty years.  I could wait for the pleasure of our joint intelligence, our collective heart.  I could know that sometime again we would multiply each others capacity to withstand the abuses of the world and multiply each other’s capacity to act effectively on the world. 

But it is not so.  In the hours between Friday afternoon the 15th of August when she lost consciousness and Monday evening the 17th of August we lost Bonnie from life.  From our lives.    From the struggle for the lives of others.  She died as she lived. 

She died surrounded by hand written love letters from her political allies in a room swirling with the heavy scent of Asiatic lilies and sweet grasses, spiced with a bouquet of bread and roses.  She died tended by those she loved.  She died loving those with whom she had shared her life. She died listening to the poetry and music of the struggles she honoured with her life.  She died sharing her death with those she chose. 

In her final days she revelled in Vancouver, the beautiful city she had chosen, in Jac the faithful tender lover she had chosen, in the Rape Relief feminist collective she had chosen, in Christopher the man she had chosen to mother from boyhood, in the circles of chosen friends and in the family links she had chosen. 

She died sharing her life with me.  A final intimacy for which I will be forever grateful.

But she is gone.  I drive her car in the countryside and feel an ease and sweetness I know is a gift from her.  But it is a gift she gave before death.  I see her writing everywhere at Rape Relief on files, on tapes in my sound system, in books in my library.  The thoughts however are all from a time gone by.  She is no more.  She thinks no new thoughts.  Gives no new gifts. Cannot be expected to keep the disciplines anymore.  Her blithe spirit moves only in my memory, my imagination, and in the energy between her friends.  I am forced to face that nothing I do now can give her pleasure or comfort or power. 

Section Three. . . The legacy

Many of you have tried to ease me and each other with notions of her continued presence.   There is a truth to her continuity.   In the sense that Victor Jara says “I see the houses that we built and I think of you”   Her past work goes on to give us comfort from the storm, to give us pleasures in the struggle and to give us power.

The Vancouver Rape Relief line and shelter, the BC alliance between feminist houses and the newsletter she generated, the association of sexual assault centres across the county, the already planned moments of alliance with the women in India, Russia, Japan, Indonesia, Nepal are all real and lasting essence of Bonnie. 

She is there too in the well being of so many young men and women carefully encouraged by her.  She offered life’s most precious lessons. She passed on to them what she had learned in a careful pursuit of truth and justice. What she learned when met and studied Paulo Friere and Jonathon Kozol in her search for techniques with which to unite and give voice to the oppressed.   What she learned when she  met and studied Bernadette Devlin McCalissky and Angela Davis and every activist who might have lessons to pass on. 

And she worked to pass the word.  She sometimes seemed to go on forever.  But she was at her best talking about  “taking oneself seriously,” about “mutual aid,” about “the means conditioning the ends.” She taught against sexist violence against pornography and prostitution. She loathed poverty and more importantly she taught others to loath the wealth that necessitated poverty. 

She celebrated difference and individuality and collective cooperation.  She rejected notions of mass education and mass organising and clung to her understanding of feminist collectives.  She hated white supremacy, elitism  racism. 

She railed against self destruction and self delusion and despair.  She instructed us all to consider it a matter of personal responsibility to keep oneself able and willing to struggle for the common good.

Last week I gathered with other Vancouver women to Take Back the Night.  I have done this with her since we institutionalised the event in 1980 and made it national through CASAC in 81.  Bonnie will always exist in Take Back the Night Marches. 

But she won’t be there to say that there must be no marshals, only safety women.  She will not be the one to secret flares in her pockets or to set the porn aflame or to hide the insurrectionaries or the young bare breasted ones in the body of the march. All we have of her is the top hat and our memory of her leadership and our memory of her support for our leadership.

Only we can make her legacy live.  Everything we do multiplies her good effect on the world or will diminish that effect.   This year the march in Vancouver and the march in Toronto were dedicated to her memory but they were organized by those of us in the current collectives. 

Section four. . . Wasn’t she lovely

Bonnie selected where her support and generosity were best put and she followed through.  There were checks written to mothers instead of children at Christmas so that the kids would get but the mothers would also get the pleasure of giving and would not be upstaged by women with more. 

There was heavy competition but about whose joke would win the annual award…and the game was rigged. 

She flattered women by asking their advice when confidence was low.  And she loved to hold court telling stories of past victories.  She loved to appropriate the stories of the women who had left the collective.  So we can all feel just fine telling Bonnie stories as ours from now on.

She laughed at herself easily and often. 

She was often kind and sweet and good humored and always she was hard working thorough and thoughtful.

Section five . . . Don’t canonize her

Sometimes we will even have to organise ourselves to guard her memory.

Her friends and allies all know that Bonnie did have a certain short fuse.  She didn’t suffer fools easily.  She worked hard to convince people of her ideas.  And she worked hard to understand the ideas of the dispossessed.  But like many of us she sometimes closed her mind or her heart against her own best interests.  And sometimes, she wrote people off  unwisely, too soon or for transgressions that were too little.  She thought of it as bad training from her early life.  Even she didn’t think her every idea should be upheld without challenge.   But she certainly didn’t allow her ideas to be dismissed. 

How she would cringe if she heard some of the comments I have heard.  “I have great respect for Bonnie” they say, “even if I did not agree with some of her ideas”.   Of course they don’t say which ideas since they would have to defend their positions and would be open to criticism.

“I always liked Bonnie they say.  She was never pushy or strident”.

“Bonnie was always so warm and accepting” 

They must be too young to remember her setting up a cell in the coffee room at a prison conference at Harrison Hotsprings.  We were with Betsy Wood and Gay Hoon, the women accused of aiding a prison riot.  Bonnie planned to disrupt and disturb and she did. It upset even our collective considerably. 

I guess they didn’t hear her interrupt the Attorney General repeatedly to call the chief of police a liar about services to women.    And I guess they never saw her get between the cops and the Aboriginal women who had occupied the DIA offices and were being hauled to jail through the back alley of the court house. 

I suppose they never saw her heckle a right wing speaker.  And obviously they weren’t present when she gathered a group of us to invade a criminology class at SFU where a prof was promoting nonsense. 

Probably they didn’t see her that Sunday morning  outside his Christian church, yelling at Jimmi Pattison about selling pornography. 

And I guess they are not counting when she marched with Aboriginal women into the driveways of Shaunessey to scream about the stolen children. 

They forgot about occupying the cathedral with the street prostitutes.  And they never noticed when she snatched a young prostitute off the street to escape a violent pimp. 

She had a wicked tongue and she thought sarcasm a fair weapon against the pompous and powerful.

More than anyone I know Bonnie was her ideas.  And she pushed plenty and hard.  Hard enough to suffer plenty of backlash. 

At Rape Relief we have been experiencing a groundswell of support for her and her political positions.    So, of course there are those who attempt to say they agree in a way that keeps them in the crowd but in a way that will not bind them to progressive change. 

In 1981 The Socred government withdrew funding from the five sexual assault centres in BC.  Their bureaucrats claimed to need access to our files for evaluation of our work.  The truth was the political bosses wanted to eliminate feminist control.  Particularly they wanted to eliminate the feminists like Bonnie who did this work as part of a feminist revolution.  Those who were connected to the other struggles for liberty.  Those who grappled with the contradictions.  Those who could not be distracted by salary increases, competition for government approval and contracts.  Bonnie suffered rumour attacks, public denunciation painful humiliation.  She continued her organising and went ten years without a salary. 

The cut off  was in the interest of the Socred government but it was only possible because of the collusion of too many liberals both working for the government and in our movement. 

That struggle cost Bonnie a lot.  It hurt her and shaped her in a way that few people know.  And it made her appropriately sceptical of  some alliances.

She would caution us to be wary.  Easy sympathy is offered.  But our rape crisis centre contract is still withheld.  We are offered a chance to be quoted about Bonnie but only if a “full range of opinions” can be published.  Dedications are offered instead of principled publication and endorsement of her views.  Our transition house still receives less government money than any other lower mainland house.  No one has apologised or led a fight to correct these herstorical wrongs.

She memorised a line from a Vancouver speech of Bernadette Devlin.  She said it to me so many times that I have learned it.   “In the absence of a fence to sit on, the weakly hearted liberals will go about the business of building one”.   Those who had no respect for Bonnie’s ideas should just go ahead and show no respect for Bonnie.  Those of us who loved her will carry her ideas as best we can into action. 

We will be wary too of the trick of shifting the meaning of her actions.  It is so easy to misread the politics of a woman who dares to be open and to reconsider her responsibilities.  She told me two weeks before she died that I was to contradict the recently published book about the homes for unwed mothers of the 1970’s.  She wanted the new thinking about the oppression of the young women left pregnant not to dissolve into disrespect for those who provided services.

We will continue to look for Patrick, her son.  She looked for Patrick over the last ten years since his adulthood.  Patrick child of her early sexuality, born to this unmarried girl.  But those who dare to think she regretted that sex or that adoption are mistaken.  She remained a fervent battler for birth control and abortion and for open adoption.  She was grateful all her life to the Salvation Army.  She could leave her home town and complete that unwanted pregnancy in peace.  She refused to pay with either guilt or parenthood.  She did not regret not having a child. She looked for Patrick for the sake of Patrick.  She knew she had things to give and would have liked to share some of herself and some of us with him.

We make jokes about her makeup and curling irons.  About the amount of energy she  put into being acceptable.  Acceptable to men.  Acceptable to authorities.  But she didn’t admire this in herself or anyone else.  Those who try to use her dress or decorum against the messages from the rowdy tattooed young have missed Bonnie’s point.  She detested the self absorption that allowed privileged people to glamourise ripped clothes and degraded bodies.  But never have I seen her shrink from the content delivered by outrageous and strident.  Nor did she ever withdraw from those who simply rebelled in what they had. 

Bonnie loved the English language.  She took great pleasure in Canadian literature.  She maintained a beautiful script and a straight forward grammar.  She kept dictionaries and a thesaurus and other reference books close to her.  She encouraged several of us to speak and write.  But I do not ever remember being corrected without my having asked for that correction.  And I bet no one else does either.  Her reputation is for giving others confidence in our own voice our own style our own anger our own poignancy.  She understood very well that the rules of any language while potentially helpful to communication can also stifle thought and action.  Those who would say we should speak more like Bonnie or not speak until we are more grammatically correct would betray her message.

She hated nationalism but fought for a strong Canada.  She hated welfare but fought for its continued existence. She wanted the decriminalization of prostitution and hated the practice of prostitution.  She hated violence but spent many months of work defending woman who had been jailed for defending themselves violently.  She hated jail but worked diligently for the criminal convictions of violent men.  Bonnie’s politics were complicated and difficult.  Sophisticated.

Section Six . . . Her personal/her political

Those who speak of liking her but not her politics are lying.  If you removed her political music from her music case there was nothing left.  If you removed her political messages from her writing and speech there was nothing left.  If you removed the political art from her house there was no art left.  If you eliminated those friends that she loved for their political convictions and practices there would be no friends left.  If you eliminated lovers who did not enhance her politics there would have been no lovers.  She loved her bicycle in the countryside and beautiful design and children’s unbridled laughter too but all these things were part of her politics.

Those who will speak of her as proper, as sexually modest, as of course heterosexual, as a nice girl, as moderate, as reasonable, have no knowledge of Bonnie and no right to speak.  We could more correctly refer to her as an unwed mother, a woman who abandoned her child, a woman whose child was taken by the state, an adulteress, a woman who dared to love women, an anarchist, a woman who had no respect for the rule of law, a law breaker, a smuggler of illicit political books, a welfare recipient, a welfare cheat, a conspirator who helped women sneak their babies across borders, a partisan advocate, a lobbyist, a radical, a revolutionary, a feminist. 

***

Salute by Connie Chapman ( The Feminist Alliance of Transition Houses) at Bonnie Agnew’s Memorial 
October 2, 1998

Thank you for asking me to speak tonight. I’ve thought a lot about what I want to say about Bonnie, about her work, about what she added to my life and to every women’s life. Her death and the loss of her vitality, thoughtfulness, and political will feels so big to me that it is difficult to put my thoughts into words. I’ve also thought about what Bonnie would want me to say. I know that she would want me to use this opportunity to talk about and advance the issue, we worked on for the past years, so I am going to do that.

Bonnie was deeply committed to transition house advocacy centres for women- not as social programs, not as therapeutic centres, but as a political base from which women could advance their own equality. She believed, and always acted on the premise that the only way violence would end was when women had full equality in this society, when women were valued, when women were honored. This is the issue we worked on together. In May, 1997 attended the AGM of the Society of Transition Houses primarily to take part in the workshop on “standards”. I had been through the imposition of “standards” on feminist shelters in Toronto in 1976 and knew that the agenda was not accountability, as the policies said, but silence and repression. My hope was that there was going to be an active and critical discussion about standards, and a chance to develop policy and strategy on how we, as transition house workers, would interact with the government on the issue. Instead, I attended a session where government bureaucrats told us why we needed standards, why they were going to be good for us, and the limited choices we had to influence the process. There was no equality in this workshop, no dialogue. We were told that “getting through the agenda” (their agenda) was what was important. We were talked at. We were patronized.

Soon after, I attended a meeting, called by Bonnie and a few other women to discuss the imposition of standards on transition houses. This meeting was attended by women from transition houses from Vancouver & the Lower Mainland, Fraser Valley and Vancouver Island.

Now I want to be clear that standards, in themselves, were not the issue. Transition Houses have always had standards. When a transition house is functioning from a feminist base, the standards are based in the reality of the women we work with-standards, policies and actions which work to create a new reality to women’s lives, a reality based in equality, not hierarchy or bureaucracy or careers. At the first meeting, Bonnie brought copies of standards developed by NAC and suggested that those be the only standards transition houses should adopt and work under. She was very strong in that and clear in her reasoning. She was also patient with those of us who hadn’t thought things through as clearly.

This first meeting turned into a second and a third and more. We discussed how best to confront and change the governments idea’s about standards, and then found out hat we had to do the same thing with our own umbrella organization, the Society of TH’s. I and others discovered that the BCY was not interested in working with us or listening to us. Bonnie already knew this. She had been working for years to influence and change the BCY. She had been ignored, and her ideas rejected ( I heard on more than one occasion that she was ” only from the Lower Mainland” and thereby dismissed); we discovered that they wanted this “exercise” as it was called by the govt, to go smoothly, without serious dissent or discussion. This realization lead to the formation of the Alliance of Feminist Transition houses, an organization dedicated to feminist standards, and to transition houses as advocacy centres for women, not mini-bureaucracies working to advance government agendas.

I want to read from the Feminist Standards that the Alliance presented to the Minister of Women’s Equality on two occasions, the standards that Bonnie brought to that first meeting. They say:

We believe in feminist standards and definitions of excellence and urge all transition houses to adopt the following standards.

  1. Independence from government, social service and law enforcement professionals and institutions;
  2. Internal structures that promote peer relationships;
  3. Organizations staffed and controlled by women of the communities, particularly of race, class, and ability, that they serve.
  4. Absolute control over confidentiality in the hands of the centre.
  5. Distribution of current and relevant information to women.
  6. Accurate and open-minded tabulation of the information given by women about their attackers.
  7. Women-only space in the control of women to mourn, mend, discuss and plan.
  8. Active involvement in the strategies to achieve women’s equality, including the fights for sexual choice, reproductive rights and economic equality.

These are the only conditions which can and should be standardized. Women’s groups will not and should not conform to a set of structural or organizational formulas or the standards and practices of the professions and institutions which have never served women well and still do not.

The standards which all TH’s will be contractually forced to adhere to are not feminist in nature, no matter what the preamble says. They come from contract reform, from a business ans social service model. They align us with the professions and institutions which have never served women well, and yet many houses believe that they can still help women when we are indistinguishable from those structures. I know that if Bonnie were still here, she would be working to help women understand what ” helping” means under these conditions, and assisting them to understand the need for activism.

While Bonnie was a realist, she also was willing to keep finding new ways of making change happen. I know that had she returned from holidays, she would have had thoughts and ideas on how to keep fighting government imposed standards, on how to get the Minister to understand how detrimental those standards will be for women’s equality, on how to support the front line workers concerned about the standards. In her memory, that is one thing I would like to ask women and men assembled here today. Think critically about the govt and social agencies that haven’t and don’t serve women well, and act on your brilliance. Bonnie would have done nothing less.

I was dreadfully sorry to hear about Bonnie Agnew–still in my Rolodex, though I hadn’t spoken with her in years. We were in touch in the early-ish eighties when protective mothers and their seemingly hopeless efforts were still unacknowledged and when there were like five of us in the US fielding these calls, these desperate women. It often felt like we were playing national racquetball with the women –referring then around to one another, our desperation coming to match theirs. Bonnie was helpful, resourceful, brilliant, caring on this issue. I’m only sorry distance kept us from further relationship.

The Alliance was only a small part of the work Bonnie did. Bonnie was a woman who held many strands of the web of feminism, of the weaving of a new world where women and men of all races and ages and abilities and orientations could live to their fullest, where no one would be made less because of an act of birth. She was a centre point, a focus, a lightening rod for change and critical thought. In the days after her death, I was feeling despair that without her to hold those strands, the web would unravel and become small and insignificant. I shared my concerns with a Chippewa woman who was staying at Safe Choice. She shared a story with me and told me I could use it. I want to share it with you.

In her nation, it is held that when a person dies before their purpose is complete, before their life work is done, it is up to the rest of the community to take their purpose and complete it for them. Otherwise, she told me the person will have to come back and complete the work themselves. Taking up their work is done to honor the person who has died.

These are increasingly hard times for women and for feminism. While I know that feminism will not die, that a new generation of women wil carry on and work to make this a better world, I am concerned about all women who will suffer during these times: women whose children are being apprehended solely because their mothers are being abused; women living in poverty; women being arrested and charged fo rprotecting themselves; women spending years in court-and going into debt– fighting for custody of their children; women not able to go to court because of legal aid restrictions; women working the streets to make ends meet. I urge everyone here to pick up the threads that Bonnie left when she died. Pick them up and when you do the work, say to yourself, “I do this to honor Bonnie”.

***

Lee,
I was shocked today to hear of Bonnie’s death.  Most heartfelt condolences.  A tremendous loss for all of us in the movement, your centre, and especially to you personally.  She touched many lives and will be missed.  Wishing I could offer adequate words of comfort… 

Cindy & the SASC Collective (The Sexual Assault Support Centre of Ottawa)

***

Dear Women of the Vancouver Collective: 

We, the Women of the Avalon Sexual Assault Centre extend our deepest sympathy and support to all of you. Althought we have not had the opportinity to meet Bonnie, It is clear that she was held in high regard by the many women that knew her. We have heard of Bonnies strength and committment in fighting for women’s equality and is a great loss to all women. She has been and will continue to be an inspiration for all of us. 

 In Sisterhood, 

Women of the Avalon Sexual Assault, will light a candle for her at Take Back The Night.

***

I am really sorry to hear about Bonnie’s passing. Please send my condolences and those of NAC’s to her partner, Lee and her friends.  I did  not get to know Bonnie well. But at the meetings that I attended with her,  I was always most impressed by her energy, clarity and openness. There is no doubt that her death is a loss to the women’s movement. 

Amy Go (Go Sisters)

***

It is with incredible regret and sadness that I am writing to let those of you who have not yet heard know that Bonnie Agnew died on Monday afternoon, August 17th, after a brief and very painful battle with cancer.  For those of you who know Bonnie, you can imagine how reluctant she was to succumb and she did not leave us without a fight. 

As always, Lee Lakeman, her 20+ year closest friend and long-time ally was by her side throughout, making certain that Bonnie knew how much she was valued and loved and making her passing as peaceful as possible.  Jack, Bonnie’s partner, also provided round-the-clock love and support.  And many others, especially the members of the Rape Relief Collective, ensured that Lee and Jack were well supported throughout.  Thanks to all of you from those of us who were not able to be there. 

A memorial for Bonnie is being planned.  Once the details and dates are available, Lee or someone else of us will post more information. 

In the meantime, Lee has suggested that a most appropriate action in Bonnie’s memory would be an act of insurrection  in conjunction with local Take Back the Night marches.   Bonnie organized many a march as well as many other rallies, political actions, et cetera.  She was an incredible and extremely principled organizer, activist, feminist, ally and friend.  Many of us benefited frequently from her instruction and correction and learned much from her .  She led by example and never turned away from personal or political struggles — nothing seemed insurmountable to Bonnie — I remember her  several times advising that “we can’t give up, we just need to figure out the right strategy here”.  Right, thanks for the reminder Bonnie!  We will miss you.  With much love and profound respect, Kim 

Please feel free to add your favourite memories of Bonnie.  We will miss this sister in the struggle, but know that her spirit will live on in our collective anti-oppression work. 

Thanks and take care, Kim Pate

***

Dear Vancouver Women, 

The women of PEI Rape Crisis are very sad to hear of Bonnie Agnew’s death.  Her strength and commitment to women’s equality was inspirations to those of  us who had the good fortune to meet her. We send our support and sympathy to all of you in Vancouver who were close to her and supported her through her illness.

Staff and volunteers, PEI Rape/Sexual Assault Crisis Centre

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