December 6, 1989 — letter from a Canadian woman abroad

Today, December 6, Canadians mark the National Day of Remembrance and Action On Violence Against Women.

The date has its origins in the so-called “Montréal Massacre.” On December 6, 1989, a man armed with a Mini-14 rifle and a hunting knife walked into a classroom at Montréal’s l’École Polytechnique, ordered the male students to leave, and then turned his gun on the women. Before he began shooting, the assailant shouted, “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!” After shooting the women in the classroom, he headed to the corridors, where he continued to shoot women. By the time he turned the gun on himself, he had killed fourteen women and injured ten more. The event galvanized Canadians and became a powerful force in the Canadian gun control movement, ultimately eventuating in the national long-gun registry (since dismantled by the current Conservative government).

I have quite intentionally omitted from the foregoing account the names of both the shooter and his victims. Regarding the former, one criticism that is often raised of accounts of December 6, 1989 is that in these accounts the shooter’s name rings over and over, giving him a fame he does not deserve. I have omitted his victim’s names because over the years many of their families have expressed a wish that their daughters be remembered for their lives, not for their deaths.

Nonetheless, one of the things that will be happening today at campuses across Canada will be solemn vigils at which candles are lit as, one after another, the victim’s names are read. I’m not opposed to this. I attend such an event every year, and, as each name is read, try to imagine the women alive – smart, curious, quirky, stubborn, weak, strong, tawny, freckled. I think to myself, as my friend Michele last year on Facebook reminded us all to do, about what wonderful things they would have done.

Every campus marks this day differently. Most, but not all, campuses have the candlelight vigil I’ve just described. Some campuses have talks and events intended to educate participants about gender-based violence, broadly conceived, and to advocate for change. At other campuses, Engineering programs offer workshops and lectures intended to support women in Engineering.

The day is meaningful not only for universities but for individual Canadians, especially (but not only) Canadian university women. As the day goes on, if previous years are any indication, one by one of my Facebook friends will log on to list the names of the victims, or to change their profile pictures to that of a single candle or a single red rose. We all have different reasons for finding the day meaningful. For me, one reason (but certainly not the only one) is my generation.

I was in the first semester of my undergrad, just finished lectures for the year and in the midst of exams, when the massacre occurred. I cannot think of my first year of university without thinking about this systematic murder of young women for being women. (The shooter called them feminists, but not all of them were. Indeed, one of his victims protested that she wasn’t a feminist. No feminist scholar who has taught at the undergraduate level would be optimistic enough to assume that all of the women in a class were feminists. The killer may have thought that his victims were feminist, but ultimately what put them in his rifle sight wasn’t their feminism but the fact that, feminist or not, they were women.) Imagine what it is like to be a woman unable to recall your undergraduate years without recalling that woman students like you were murdered solely because they were women. This experience — this cloud always casting its shadow — is, alas, one that Canadian university women of my generation have in common.

I am overseas on sabbatical this year, and hence, for the first time in years, will not be able to take part in a December 6 memorial. To those of you on a Canadian campus today, I say, put aside your grading for half an hour and join your colleagues and students as they stand together against gender-based violence. Others, in Canada and elsewhere, may wish to learn more about this year’s UN-sponsored 16 Days of Action Against Gender Violence. This website is a great place to start.