Thirty years after the École Polytechnique tragedy, Montreal is finally acknowledging that the attack was not random, but a calculated massacre of women who dared to believe in gender equality and in equality of opportunity.
The City of Montreal recently changed the memorial sign installed at the Place du 6-Décembre-1989. The original sign mentioned “tragic events” but said little else. The new one recognizes the anti-feminist nature of the massacre:
This place was named in memory of the 14 women murdered during an anti-feminist attack at École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989. It serves to recall the fundamental values of respect and equality and condemns all forms of violence against women.
It’s been a long time coming.
Misogyny and rage
On Dec. 6, 1989, 25-year-old Mark Lépine walked into a classroom at Montreal’s École Polytechnique armed with a legally obtained rifle and yelled, “You’re a bunch of feminists and I hate feminists.” He separated the male students from the female students and started shooting the latter.
Before turning the gun on himself, Lépine had killed 14 women and injured another 10. When police searched his body, they found a “kill list,” which included, among other women, well-known Quebec newspaper columnist and feminist Francine Pelletier.
Lépine, who had been denied admission to the École Polytechnique, felt he was denied the power and privileges that were his birthright as a man. That resentment, fuelled by a troubled upbringing, misogyny and rage, led to the murder of 14 young women.
Police initially refused to reveal the killer’s suicide note and the media downplayed Lépine’s motives.
“In order to change things, we must first accept them as they are,” says Montreal mayor Valérie Plante, the first woman to be elected in that role in the city’s 377-year history.
“Thirty years ago, 14 women were murdered in an anti-feminist attack. We, as a society, need to say it loudly and never forget it. It is important to face our past in order to take, individually and as a society, our responsibility in the fight against injustices and violence against women and girls.”
Engineering student Nathalie Provost was among the survivors. She tried to confront and reason with Lépine, but was shot four times, on the forehead, both legs, and her foot. For a long time, she was apprehensive about being vocal about the massacre. Ten years ago, that changed.
“I decided to be more public so I could advocate for more gun control,” she says. “Each year, as the anniversary of the massacre comes around, I never know how I’ll feel … whether it will be anger or sadness, or what will trigger what emotion in me. It’s never the same, it’s a constant evolution as the years go by and I gain new perspective on it. But I always make a point of saying yes to media demands now.”
Breaking the silence
The misogynistic violence that tragic December night affected more than just its immediate victims. The hate ricocheted off the walls of the university, reverberated across the country, and was felt by women everywhere.
“I remember very clearly the impact that act had on a generation of women,” says Sue Montgomery, Cote-des-Neiges-NDG borough mayor, where the newly updated memorial park sign is installed. A former justice reporter, a vocal feminist, and co-creator of the viral #BeenRapedNeverReported hashtag that brought together survivors of sexual abuse after the Jian Ghomeshi trial, Montgomery says the murders terrified many women into silence.
“They no longer wanted to say they were feminists,” she says. “For 25 years, following the attacks, women ‘behaved’ themselves, they said they believed in equality but weren’t feminists, didn’t make waves. Then the Ghomeshi trial happened in 2014 and we realized that behaving ourselves wasn’t getting us anywhere, and a dam broke. We all started speaking up louder than ever. And I hope we never stop.”
Over the years, countless accusations have been made against feminists that they “hijacked” and “manipulated” the tragic events of Dec. 6 for their own agenda. Police and politicians were apprehensive about labelling the murders as anti-feminist, and many individuals still claim that the violence was not motivated by any purposeful hate of women and that the victims were randomly selected. Many feminist groups had, for years, said that the memorial sign should be changed to reflect the true nature of the killer’s motives.
Calling a spade, a spade
A Quebec women's studies coalition called the Regroupement québécois en études féministes had proposed the change to the sign, and suddenly the university’s director-general and the city administration were on board. The timing was finally right. More and more people were acknowledging the full-scale horror of the event.
“We have to name things as they are,” says Montgomery. “As a society, we have to admit that those 14 women died because the shooter hated women and especially feminists.”
Despite continued violence against women worldwide, Montgomery says she is hopeful.
“I see that hope in my 23-year-old daughter and other women who are taking their rightful place in the world without apologizing,” she says. “And I see it in my son, who would call himself a feminist, as would a lot of young (and not so young) men. I am pleased with where we are, compared to post-1989. But there’s still work to do.”
A sign for the future
Will this new sign change make a difference in changing perceptions?
“It has always been clear to me that it was a crime against women,” says Provost. “He told us as much. It’s always been obvious to me.”
Provost, a woman who stared death in the eye and survived, is now an engineer working as a senior manager for the Quebec government and a mother of three children. She admits to not thinking too much about how the lives of those who didn’t survive could have turned out.
“Their dreams and hopes for their futures were lost with them,” she says. “Death is hardest for those who live with it and I think this is my way of protecting myself.”
How does she feel about the new memorial sign?
“I don’t need more symbols,” she defiantly replies. “They are for other people. I know what happened.”
But she’s happy that the updated sign will be there for the next generations.
“So they can clearly see what it was.”