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.”
“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.
“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.