December 6: “I don’t want these women to be forgotten”
Almost 30 years after the 1989 shooting at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, three women reflect on how it shaped their lives
BY SARAH LAING
It was the deadliest mass shooting in Canada’s history. On December 6, 1989, 25-year-old Marc Lépine walked into a classroom full of engineering students at Montreal’s École Polytechnique. Armed with an assault rifle, he sent male students and professors to one side of the room and female students to the other. Then, he opened fire on the group of women, killing all nine of them. From there, he moved through the building, deliberately aiming his gun at the women in his path. By the time the massacre ended and Lépine took his own life, 14 young women were dead.
As he was carrying out his unthinkable plan, Lépine was heard telling his victims, “You’re women, you’re going to be engineers. You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.” His suicide note included a hit list of 19 other Quebec women he wanted dead—because they, too, were feminists. This act of gender-based violence rocked Canada, particularly affecting women who were young adults at the time. Nearly 30 years later, we spoke to three such women. They may not have been in that engineering classroom on December 6, but they have still been indelibly marked by the Montreal Massacre.
At the exact same time that female engineering students were being massacred in Montreal, Julia Parker was sitting in a classroom in Kingston, Ont., another young woman trying to break into a field that wasn’t exactly female-friendly at the time. Now a civil engineer, she still gets emotional when she thinks of what happened on December 6, 1989.
“Before the shooting, I certainly had this feeling of, ‘Oh, I don’t quite belong in this engineering classroom.’ I had all male professors, for example, who would use ‘he’ for the engineer in all the examples. On the ethics exam, however, all the secretaries were ‘she.’
“After the shooting, I was much more aware of the… hostility isn’t the right word. What I felt was more like left out, or underappreciated, not valued as much as a person. I remember hearing about the gunman’s reason [for targeting the women]. People said he was crazy, but at the time, there were a lot of other people who thought women shouldn’t be doing engineering. The incident at the Polytechnique cast a shadow over engineering as a whole for me. I loved my field of science, I love doing my job, but to have people dying because they wanted to study it? It does change it.
“For women working in engineering today who were students in 1989, the topic of the Montreal Massacre doesn’t come up that much. It’s just part of a whole package of things that we face when we try to be women in engineering. For me, it’s more about how to we empower the people around us, the young female engineers especially. Women are making a difference just by being present, by showing up, to increase the numbers in the room. As society gets better, the engineering profession is going to get better. In my company now, lots of men would like to see more women in the top positions, and they’re doing what they can do—but they have to be reminded. The role that I play is to make sure I’m included.”
Anuradha Dugal is the director of violence prevention programs at the Canadian Women’s Foundation. She was studying in England at the time of the Polytechnique massacre, and says that for her, the deep connection she feels to this anniversary only came after she immigrated to Montreal. Now, she attends the December 6 vigil every year with her partner and family.
“It’s an important anniversary because it points to that undercurrent that is always there, that surfaces in these moments of extreme violence, and that is always connected to misogyny. Compared to the earlier vigils I went to, there is now more inclusion of Indigenous women, and many more women of colour among the speakers. There are, of course, always family of the victims of the massacre, so there’s a poignant feeling of personal loss, and the horror of what that means to a family. Often there’s a reference to all the women in the previous year who were murdered because of their gender. That’s an important connection to the ongoing work, so it’s not simply historic.
“In the years since the shooting, there’s been a greater understanding of the impact of violence on women’s lives. There are a lot more services and education on how to prevent gender-based violence. More recently, there’s a much greater analysis about the ways that it can affect women’s lives in different ways depending on their intersectionalities. All of those things are improvements that have gone a long way for people to recognize that this is all society’s problem. More and more, I hear people saying that this isn’t a women’s issue.
“But when I think about going to the vigil, I can’t say it’s the most hopeful year for me. I have felt an excessive weight of women who have been killed. In the last few months in Ontario, there have been some extremely high numbers of women killed by intimate partners, much more than usual. A woman is killed in Canada roughly every week, but in Ontario, I think it was a case of 5 or 6 women killed in one week. It feels unrelenting at the moment.”
A journalist with 35 years of experience, Loreen Pindera was one of the first reporters on the scene at the Polytechnique the night of the shooting. She arrived thinking she was there to cover a fire and left, as she describes it, “marked” for life by the events of that night.
“I remember running up to these young men standing outside the Polytechnique and asking what happened, speaking in French. And what they were saying to me was so incomprehensible that I thought there was a problem with my understanding of French. I had to turn to one of my colleagues, and ask, ‘What are they saying?’ It was unimaginable.
“When you talked to women [at the Polytechnique] in the days that followed, they didn’t call themselves feminists. They were just young people following their passion, and in that way I suppose I related to them. At CBC, when I started, all the bosses were men, all the technicians were men. It was a man’s world, a macho culture. It was nothing to walk into a studio and see a Playboy pin-up poster or a copy of Penthouse magazine. I was appalled by that. But a lot of things changed very rapidly. Have we made progress? Yes, because that kind of behaviour would be unthinkable today.
“In the summertime, two or three times a week, my husband and I cycle through the campus of the University of Montreal, and I always stop at the Polytechnique. There’s a very small plaque near the entrance that is dedicated to the women. I recite their names, and I take a moment to honour them. I keep thinking about the fact that those women would have been 51, 52 years old now. They would have grown children themselves. They would have had full careers by now. They had a huge impact on my life, and every time I have the opportunity to think about them, I do that. I don’t want these women to be forgotten.”
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