It’s December 6 and the 29th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre finds me in the same place it does every year: hunched over my laptop, poring over pictures and biographical details of the 14 women who died in the brutal 1989 shooting at the École Polytechnique. As always, I’m trying desperately to remember them as bright, lively young women instead of statistics. As always, I’m trying desperately not to cry.
Anne-Marie Edward, 21, chemical engineering student. Edward loved skiing so much that she was buried in her École Polytechnique ski team jacket. After her death, her teammates wore patches with her initials on their uniforms.
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, 31, nursing student. She and her husband had just fled Poland for Montreal in 1987; they were together in the École Polytechnique’s cafeteria when she was killed. Her husband later said they had come to Canada because they believed that it was the safest place in the world.
Maryse Leclair, 23, materials engineering student. She was one of the top students in the school, and her father was the director of public relations for the Montreal police. Unaware that his daughter was among the victims, he stood outside the school and promised the media that he would go in and then report back what he saw. He was the one who found his daughter’s body. She was wearing the sweater that she’d had on during their family’s last Sunday dinner.
Every December 6 ceremony I’ve attended has included a portion where the names of the massacre’s victims have been read out loud. I’ve heard people solemnly intone Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz like a metreless poem at dozens of different memorials over the years. But none of these ceremonies has ever mentioned that Geneviève Bergeron sang in a professional choir, or that Sonia Pelletier was the youngest of eight children, or that Annie Turcotte loved tinkering with cars and baking with her mother. Maybe these details are irrelevant, but they feel increasingly important the older I get and the further the shooting fades into history.
As #MeToo unfolds across social media, it’s crucial to remember the Montreal Massacre’s victims as being more than just names.
Men will be the first to tell you that they love women—they love their mothers, their wives, their sisters, their daughters. They’ll say this as if it solves the problem of gender-based violence, as if “love” hasn’t been used as an excuse for inflicting harm throughout human history. The truth is that women don’t need men’s affection. We need for men to see us as fully human and just as deserving of rights and autonomy as they are.
Some people will find it ridiculous that I’m trying to draw a straight line from the Montreal Massacre to #MeToo and the outings of sexually predatory men. After all, Marc Lépine didn’t harass or assault any women as far as we know, and Harvey Weinstein certainly has never committed a mass shooting. Sure, both are instances of violence against women, but is there a uniting factor beyond that?
The answer is that every act that exists on the spectrum of violence against women—from street harassment all the way up to rape and murder—happens because we live in a culture that still views women as being less human than men.
Women were objects to Lépine, things that had unfairly taken his rightful place at the École Polytechnique. In his view, women had stood in the way of the life he’d wanted. He wrote in his suicide note: “I have decided to send the feminists who have always ruined my life to their Maker.”
In many ways, Weinstein and his ilk have viewed women through a similar lens: as objects, to be used or not used according their desire.
Weinstein’s actions showed a different type of violence from Lépine’s, but a violence still rooted in the misogynist belief system.
There is a moment in this video from the CBC archives that both chills my blood and makes me nod hard in recognition.
It happens around the 1:12 mark, when École Polytechnique survivor Nathalie Provost is asked what the shooting made her realize. Provost sighs deeply and replies, “That I am a woman,” then laughs a little. She knows it might sound a bit silly; she also knows that it is true. Before the shooting she had felt that she was equal to men. It wasn’t until after 14 women were killed that she had realized some men might disagree with her and their disagreement might be deadly.
Provost is probably best known for speaking up against Lépine in an attempt to save her fellow students. When he yelled that he was trying to “fight feminism,” she told him that the women who were there were not feminists, or at least not the kind who thought they were better than men. She was the same woman who, days after the shooting, spoke from her hospital bed urging young women not to be afraid to study engineering. In a 2009 interview with the Toronto Star she said, “At the time, I thought to be a feminist meant you had to be militant… I realized many years later that in my life and actions, of course I was a feminist.” She is one of my heroes.
Heidi Rathjen, another survivor of the shooting, said in the same Toronto Star story, “[The École Polytechnique] was a wonderful place for women. It was easy for people to think feminism was passé.” Her words gut me nearly as much as Provost’s do, at least in part because I still see that attitude reflected today.
If this year has proved anything it’s that we still have a long, long way to go before we can even imagine equality.
I know it’s tempting to believe that feminism has achieved all of its goals and we now live in a world where people of all genders have the same access to opportunity, autonomy and safety. The reality of violence against women is horrible to consider, and no one wants to think about horrible things, let alone recognize that they might happen to them or someone they love. Like Provost, I’m sure many people hope that women can somehow outrun their gender. But like Provost, none of us can.
Misogyny will not be conquered by downplaying or ignoring how gender and violence intersect. The sooner we accept that, the better.
Originally published December 2017; Updated November 2019.