École Polytechnique

Legacy of a hate crime

Photo: Tor Lillqvist

I was in Ottawa when the news broke that people were dying at the École Polytechnique. When it became clear that those people were all women, I could not believe it.

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My boyfriend at the time was hoping to get into "Poly" as they called it — a highly respected school for Quebec's science and engineering students.

We hunkered down and called each other in angry and frightened voices, trying to figure out what had happened, whether it could also happen on our campus, what it all meant.

I did not know the women who were murdered, or the people who were injured, by Marc Lépine on Dec. 6, 1989.

I did meet and become an admirer of Montrealer Heidi Rathjen, then a young engineering student, who became a gun control advocate as a result of her experience at the Polytechnique that day. Her life, like that of so many people, was unalterably changed by the Montreal massacre.

I also know Thérèse Daviau, one of the first women to be elected to Montreal city council in the early 1970s. Her daughter Geneviève was shot down by Lépine, and it completely transformed her into an advocate against violence and for gun control.

The next year as a reporter in Montreal in the CBC newsroom, the trauma was still fresh. The men in the newsroom were uneasy about how to cover the anniversary. The people who ran the Polytechnique were hostile to discussion of it. There were a lot of comments about men not being like Lépine, about why no man had tried to stop him.

It turned out that one young student at Poly, Sarto Blais, was so traumatized and stricken with guilt at having done nothing when Lépine separated the men and the women that he went home to the Gaspé and committed suicide.

A story I wrote that referred to a war on women led to a very strongly worded criticism from a Toronto editor. To the credit of the CBC, the story ran anyway.

Every year after there was a commemoration of some kind. One year we all wore white ribbons. Another time the bells of all the churches across Montreal island rang in honour of the dead.

Ten years later I did research for the Fifth Estate’s tenth anniversary piece on the murders. I worked with journalist Francine Pelletier, who was a co-host at the Fifth Estate and whose name was on the list of women Lépine wished to kill, a list that was found on his dead body in a hallway at Poly.

We found out that Marc Lépine's real name was Gamil Gharbi and that he was one of two children born to Monique Lépine and Rachid Liass Gharbi. There was a contested divorce and in the court documents the story of the violence Gharbi inflicted on his family is laid out in detail. Those documents are public.

Gamil changed his name to Marc after his parents split up. He was turned down by the Canadian Armed Forces and refused admission to Poly.

His sister, Nadia Gharbi, died of a deliberate drug overdose seven years later in a sordid basement apartment on Visitation, near Ontario street in Montreal. The place seemed haunted to me when I visited it, and the tenants said they found the place weird and wanted to move.

After their parents’ divorce, Marc and Nadia rarely saw their mother, who worked shifts as a nurse. She says their problems were the result of a lack of support for single mothers and families traumatized by violence. But all that came out later. For 17 years after the murders, Monique Lépine refused to speak.

She eventually wrote a book in which she tells how she bundled up her daughter's things in garbage bags and threw them out. That book, entitled Aftermath, also tells the story of Marc's weird behaviour, including killing pigeons and his mother’s cat.

The CBC tried to find Rachid Liass Gharbi and even hired a private investigator to track him down. No one seems to know where he is or what he thinks.

What happened at the Polytechnique was a hate crime directed at women.

What happened at the Polytechnique was a hate crime directed at women.

It leaves me wondering where this anger at women comes from. Dorothy Dinnerstein suggests in her book The Mermaid and the Minotaur that it comes from the fact that early childhood is so completely dominated by women that it creates resentment in all people, especially men.

Why do so many men think women owe them? Owe them sex, owe them deference? Why did Jian Ghomeshi think it was okay to beat and choke his young and impressionable sexual partners? Why are there still so many shelters for women, often with children, fleeing violent partners? Why did Marc Lépine think feminists were responsible for his feelings of inadequacy?

Misogyny combined with mental illness creates a dangerous hallucinogenic that intimidates women and sometimes kills them.

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