Like almost every woman and many men I know, December 6 1989 was a day I will never forget. I heard the news on the radio in my car. I guess I was driving home from work. It was that time of day. At first it was confusing, a gunman shooting at University of Montreal. In Canada? Couldn’t be. But very soon it became clear that it was women he was shooting, women at an Engineering School. I could hardly breathe with the instant knowledge that a man was targeting women in a school where the vast majority were male. Shock first, then grief and then a chilling recognition.
It was one of those profound public moments that impact each and every one of us in our very souls. Stevie Cameron expressed it best for me in the Globe and Mail the next day.
“Now our daughters have been shocked to the core, as we all have, by the violence in Montréal. They hear the women were separated from the men and meticulously
slaughtered by a man who blamed feminists for his troubles. . . . Fourteen of our bright and shining daughters won places in engineering schools, doing things we, their mothers, only dreamed of. That we lost them has broken our hearts; what is worse is that we are not surprised”
We were not surprised. Each of us recognized that rage. Feminists had been talking about it for decades. Violence against women was epidemic but it wasn’t until December 6, 1989 that the veil covering misogyny was lifted through an act of such fury and hatred it could not be explained any other way. That terrible act of violence allowed many of us to remember or to admit to ourselves or speak to others about the violence we had suffered at the hands of men.
We argued at the time that it is was not the act of a madman but an extreme form of the violence women face every day at the hands of men. But it was more than an extreme act of violence against women. “You are feminists,” he said before he commenced the slaughter, “I hate feminists.” Natalie Provost trying to save the lives of her classmates answered “We are not feminists.”
I am writing this from Montreal where I am attending a colloquium to examine the massacre twenty years later. Journalist Francine Pelletier, who was one of the women on the hit list found in his suicide note, told the hundreds of women attending that she now believes this was a political act, an anti-feminist act, different than the every day incidents of violence against women. “If he had wanted to target women, he would have gone to a nursing school,’ she said. “He was targeting women who had the audacity to want to do a man’s job.” Dominique Payette of Laval University agreed calling it a classical act of terrorism designed to strike fear in the hearts of women not so different than the Taliban throwing acid in the faces of little girls who want to go school.
I think it was both an act of terrorism and an extreme form of the violence women face every day. As one participant said in the discussion, male violence in intimate relationships increases when the woman tries to become more independent. It is used to keep women in their place through fear.
Here in Quebec, the reaction to Polytechnique was different. There was fear and a ferocious backlash that gained voice in the days after the massacre, some in the media even accusing the women’ s movement of trying to take advantage of the tragedy for their own benefit. In English Canada we were able to mobilize very quickly against any such interpretation and for a while the arch reactionaries shut up or at least weren't heard. Pelletier has often spoken of how surprised she was that there was such a terrible price to be paid for the advances of feminism. In English Canada, we already had a better idea of that price.
1989 was the height of mobilization of the women’s movement both in Quebec and the rest of Canada, We had won numerous victories through long and hard fought struggles, for legal abortion, a rape shield law, pay equity, employment equity and constitutional equality but in Quebec there hadn’t been a visible backlash to these gains like there had been in English Canada with the formation of the anti-feminist REAL women, the Reform Party, the “family caucus” in the Progressive Conservative Party and the vicious “men’s rights” movement. In Quebec Marc Lepine's terrorist act was the first and most ferocious sign of that backlash.
In every city, on every campus in English Canada women mobilized. Altering a famous working class slogan from the 1930’s we said “First Mourn, Then Organize” and immediately took to the streets to protest this horrific attack on the gains of the women’s movement and the young women who were enjoying its fruits. And we insisted that the government recognize this massacre not as an isolated tragedy by as a visible and political expression of male violence against women.
Up until then it was women speaking out, women setting up rape crisis centres and shelters and men mostly stayed silent. I remember the Ontario Federation of Labour Convention a year later where women trade union activists got up to the mikes for the first time and talked about being raped by a brother, beaten by a husband, abused by a father. Women leaders who dared to show what up until then would have been seen as weakness, vulnerability and now was strength. I survived. I became a fighter. Now it has to stop and men have to help to stop it.
A year later, the White Ribbon Campaign was launched calling on men to take responsibility for ending violence against women. It was contested ground because anti-violence feminists feared with reason that male privilege would mean that they would get the funding and the attention. My view was it was about time. The women’s movement could break the silence and create refuge for women but violence would not stop until men stopped it.
The impact on politicians was also great. An all female Parliamentary sub-committee had the courage to issue a report called “The War on Women.” And after a two year campaign, Parliament accepted an NDP private members bill declaring December 6 a day a commemoration and action against violence against women. And later with the support of many of the parents of the women killed that day, Parliament passed a gun control bill, which is today in the process of being gutted by Harper with help from some Liberals and NDP members.
It was the primary reason that I decided to accept the invitation to run for President of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women. I was known as a radical inside the women’s movement having been a spokesperson for the in the streets pro-choice movement. It was a time for radical action. In English Canada there was a growing backlash against feminism combined with a turn to right-wing economics of the Free Trade Agreement with the United States, that NAC had fought with all its might. Much of what the women’s movement had won was at stake and then at a deeper level we collectively experienced the self-described vengeance against feminists of Marc Lepine at an even deeper level. We needed to fight back with every breath.
And it wasn’t only the feminist movement that felt that way. Women in Engineering and sympathetic men launched a campaign to get more women into engineering so the gunman would not succeed in his efforts. Female enrolment increased in the following decade by 9,000 students from 13% to 19%,. In the next decade growth proceed more slowly and now it is declining again.
Today the women’s movement in English Canada is a shadow of its former self and the women’s movement in Quebec is weaker too. I do not believe this has anything to do with the horror at Polytechnique but rather in part because of our success and the feeling of a younger generation that equality had been achieved and in part because of the impact of neo-liberalism and the individualism and consumerism that it promotes.
But while there is a societal consensus against male violence against women today, that violence goes on unabated particularly against marginalized women like those disappeared on the downtown east side in Vancouver or the hundreds of aboriginal women who are disappeared and murdered without much attention from police, or the virtual slavery of desperate women trafficked into prostitution on a global scale.
The best way to remember these fourteen women is recommit ourselves, women and men, to the fight for women’s liberation and an end to violence against women. On Sunday there will once against be vigils across the country. Remember them and then organize.