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Engineering deans remember Dec. 6, 1989 — and celebrate the survivors

Toronto Star with Suzanne Kresta and Mary Wells 6 December 2019

 

“Have you heard?” “Are you safe?” “But how could that happen?”

It is astonishing how many of my female friends and colleagues remember the moments from Dec. 6, 1989 and our first reactions on hearing that 14 females (almost all engineering students) had been shot at l’École Polytechnique in Montreal.

We remember estimating that three per cent of the female mechanical engineering students died that day. At that moment in history, every female engineering student was a pioneer. Many of them entered engineering in spite of being told they would not get admitted or that they would fail.

Today, many of our students are mystified by our emotion each Dec. 6.

This confounding of violence against women with engineering classes is not part of their reality. For them, camaraderie, fascination with how things work and a shared passion for making the world a better place are all-consuming. We realize this with gratitude and shared delight.

And yet — we remember.

Some things have not changed. The first moment a student realizes she is the only woman in the room and finds herself wondering if she really belongs; our shared grimace when NASA only packs one female sized space suit — so the first all-woman spacewalk is delayed.

But the joy of what we do as engineers is so much bigger than the occasional frustrations we endure.

As deans and leaders in engineering education, we see the passion and the gifts of our students every day. We quietly cheer when a hard-working student passes a difficult midterm or hands in exceptional work and we share their joy at convocation.

Yet every year, we are reminded of a day in 1989 that casts a shadow on our campuses.

Spurred on by a belief that the future can be better than the past, Engineering Deans Canada shares the common goal of attracting an engineering student population that reflects the communities we serve. We want to ensure that the engineering profession is not only inclusive and accessible to everyone but ensure that Canada benefits from a profession that is diverse in thought, in contributions and in practice.

This year, we want to celebrate a group of women who were in engineering schools across Canada in 1989 or who had just graduated. These women lived through the shooting. They stayed the course. They went on to build and do great things and generously mentored the next generation of engineers. They have led the way in a career that asks much — and offers more in return.

Our intention in focusing on these stories is to move forward from what was lost in the form of young lives, and to put a spotlight on the potential realized in the form of other lives that were touched by the event, but spared to continue their life’s work. These stories have been shared on social media over the last month (with the hashtag #30yearslater30engineers, #december6, #30ansplutard30ingenieurs), and are now collected in a permanent web resource at www.30yearslater.ca.

Suzanne Kresta is the Dean of Engineering at the University of Saskatchewan.