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Feminism met gunfire at École Polytechnique. It’s taken 30 years to call it what it was

Global News with Kharoll-Ann Souffrant 6 December 2019

 

From her hospital gurney, Nathalie Provost grinned at the mass of reporters.

“First of all, I’d like to say hello,” she told them. “I’m doing well.”

Provost had a black eye and she was horizontal in a white hospital gown, flanked by doctors. But she was breathing. She’d survived.

Two days earlier, on Dec. 6, 1989, a gunman opened fire in the engineering school at École Polytechnique in Montreal. He told the men to leave and then he killed 14 women before killing himself.

In his final letter, he laid bare his intentions: “I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker.”

Provost — a woman and engineering student — watched her friends be shot and killed. Two days later, there she was, surrounded by a throng of reporters with boom mics overhead, nervously smiling.

“I consider myself pretty lucky to be here,” she said.

In 1989, the École Polytechnique massacre propelled the issue of violence against women to the fore of the Canadian conscious, putting women’s rights and feminism under the microscope. Yet, 30 years later, to be a woman in Canada still means living with risk — to live knowing that, on average, a woman is killed every other day, that once a week a woman is murdered by her partner and that one in three women will experience some form of sexual violence over the course of their lives.

The broader Canadian public has only recently begun speaking openly about what happened at École Polytechnique as the anti-feminist attack it was, and Canadians still struggle to grapple with the implications of an attack rooted in misogyny and a desire to inflict violence on feminist women.

The massacre remains Canada’s worst mass shooting. But in the early days after the attack, when people were still in shock at the violence, not everyone was able to face misogyny or women’s struggle for equality.

“What I’ve been through in my classroom is really intimate,” Provost says now.

She survived, but she didn’t think she would. Tack, tack, tack, tack, tack. She imitates the sound of the gun. “You see, I saw the eyes of a colleague die and then you know, you know that you will die, you’re the next one.”

Feminism? Misogyny?

“When you’re inside the tornado, you don’t understand that.”

On Dec. 6, Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault and Annie Turcotte were killed.

At 24 years old, reporter Shelley Page was about the same age as many of the women gunned down.

The Toronto Star had flown her to Montreal in the aftermath (her French, unlike some of her colleagues’, was passable). She spent the day gathering heartbreaking details, like the moment Montreal police Lt. Pierre Leclair spoke to reporters outside the school and then went inside and found his daughter Maryse dead. That night, Page flipped on the CBC in her hotel room and watched respected journalist Barbara Frum speak.

Frum pushed back at the idea that this violent massacre was borne out of a society that tolerates violence against women.

“Why do we diminish it by suggesting that it was an act against just one group?” Frum said. “Isn’t violence the monstrosity here?”

It was a moment that stuck with Page, although it took her more than two decades to write her award-winning reflection about how she “sanitized the feminist outrage over the Montreal massacre.”

At the time, Page ignored the angry women. She wrote pieces from the vigils that she felt were “more palatable” — about daughters and sisters killed “as opposed to these incredibly capable brilliant women who, despite societal norms, were in engineering school and were going to become engineers.”

In 1989, conveying the tragedy to Canadians coast to coast did not include examining the ongoing consequences of misogyny.

“There was no reflection on would we cover the violence against women angle because that seemed beside the point,” Page says.

“I honestly think that angry women make people uncomfortable. And I, myself, as a reporter, knew that … to survive in certain types of newsrooms or other places you can’t walk around with your anger on your sleeve.”

Thirty years later, much has changed, but that has not.

“We’re always grappling with this,” says Jessalynn Keller, a professor at the University of Calgary who writes frequently about feminism.

In other words, while feminism seems more popular, that popularity comes with pushback: Gamergate, the rise of the alt-right, Donald Trump’s election and the incel movement (typically associated with misogyny) linked to the Toronto van attack in 2018 that killed 10 people.

Part of the problem is media coverage of these issues is still “depoliticized,” says Kharoll-Ann Souffrant, a PhD student in social work at the University of Ottawa who’s worked with survivors of domestic violence and sexual assault. She says the mainstream media (a category that includes Global News) tends to reduce what is a massive, systemic issue into the story of one lone gunman, one angry man with a weapon.

“We need to stop talking about this as being the act of a person who is mentally ill because it creates a distance between what happens,” Souffrant says. “We still have trouble recognizing that there’s a hate for women in our society.”

What we need is to change the narrative, Keller says. You don’t want to erase the lives or experiences of the people who are killed in these attacks, she says, but you should step back and think structurally.

Catherine Bergeron was teaching gymnastics to little kids when she heard something was happening at École Polytechnique. Bergeron was worried. Her big sister Geneviève, 21, was a second-year civil engineering student at the school. She tried to ignore the feeling.

Bergeron took a taxi home — faster than the bus — and called Geneviève’s apartment repeatedly. As night fell and nobody could reach Geneviève, Bergeron says her family gathered at her mom’s house. The TV was on, providing constant updates. When they confirmed 14 women had been killed, Bergeron just knew.

“I don’t know how to explain,” Bergeron says now. “It was a very hard night.”

Geneviève had turned 21 two weeks before she was killed.

She was, as Page wished she’d written in 1989, a brilliant and capable woman defying gender norms as a second-year civil engineering student. Geneviève had been accepted on scholarship, sang in the choir at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra and spent what free time she had left swimming, playing basketball or babysitting Montreal Mayor Jean Doré’s youngest child.

Bergeron remembers her smile the most: how happy she was, how much she laughed. Together the sisters would tease and joke with one another while playing clarinet until they were laughing too hard to keep the tune.

“I actually don’t remember what was so funny,” Bergeron says, but “that’s one of the best memories I have of her.”

Like Provost, Bergeron says life after the massacre was traumatic, deeply personal, and all-consuming. In Geneviève’s family’s pain and shock, there wasn’t space to talk about feminism and misogyny — but “Geneviève died because she was a woman. There was never a question.”

Bergeron thinks maybe society’s collective shock over the massacre played a role in how long it took to explicitly acknowledge the shooting was an attack on feminists. Indeed, it was only earlier this year that the memorial in Montreal was updated to include the words “anti-feminist.” A new plaque was unveiled the day before the 30th anniversary.

It does not, contrary to Barbara Frum’s comments on CBC, reduce the impact and importance of an act of violence to say that it was against women, says Elise Chenier, a history professor at Simon Fraser University.

“It was an act of gender violence, it was very specific and the targets weren’t random, so it’s not a diminishment (to say it was against feminists),” she says.

That there was such discomfort at labelling it an anti-feminist attack in 1989 is indicative of “a profound discomfort with naming the elephant in the room,” Chenier says.

The answer is complicated, Chenier says. For men who benefit from a society that is still gendered — women make less money, their successes are diminished compared to men’s and two in 10 are sexually harassed while doing their jobs — it means acknowledging that they have an advantage in life. For those negatively impacted, like the women killed at École Polytechnique, it means facing the reality that “conducting themselves well” will not protect them from violence.

“To face this truth that we’re all swimming in it means we have to face the fact that everything isn’t OK,” Chenier says.

“It might mean coming to terms with violence we’ve already experienced but we’ve pushed down and found a way to live with without dealing with it.”

After the massacre, Nathalie Provost said she was not a feminist. Now, she is.

At the time, Provost says she eschewed the label because she thought it meant official involvement in a cause or a group.

“I realized many years after that, that being a feminist … is living a certain way,” she says, “raising my children in a certain way.”

Provost wasn’t part of the group that appealed for the memorial to explicitly say “anti-feminist.” And while she applauds the change, she wasn’t even aware that it “wasn’t named correctly.” To her, the nature of the École Polytechnique has always been obvious — like a colour.

“You don’t realize when something is blue. For you, it’s blue. You don’t realize that some people don’t see it blue,” she says.

“For me, it has always been a crime against women. It’s obvious, like blue is blue. … And it’s important that our kids, that the kids of our kids, remember it for what it was.”

Kharoll-Ann Souffrant is a PhD student in social work at the University of Ottawa.