The Montreal massacre: 20 years later

On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lepine walked into an engineering class at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, separated the men from the women and shot at the nine female students, killing six of them. Afterwards, he wandered the halls shooting at other women. In the end, 14 women were killed

(12 engineering students, one nursing student and an office clerk) and another 14 were people were wounded, including four men. It was later revealed that Lepine’s specific target was “feminists.” The tragedy sparked national debates on gun control and violence against women.

On the occasion of the anniversary, two Carleton professors weigh in on what has changed.


By Monique Frize P. Eng., O.C.
Professor, Systems and Computer Engineering

Twenty years ago, on Dec. 11, I attended the funeral of 11 of the 14 women slain at École Polytechnique in Montreal. This tragic event occurred on my first day as the NSERC/Northern Telecom Chair for women in engineering. I was overwhelmed. From that moment on, I vowed to add 1,000 women engineers for each student who died. A decade later, Canada had 15,000 women engineers.

A fundamental question needs to be asked at this time of reflection: Is the workplace safer and more equitable than it was? Although some things have improved, it is imperative that we see more progress. A recent setback has been the the vote in the House of Commons to cancel the long-gun registry program for which Suzanne Laplante-Edward (mother of victim Anne-Marie Edward) and many others worked long and hard to have enacted.

The enrolment of women in undergraduate programs in engineering had reached 22 per cent in 2002. In the 1990s, the enrolment had almost doubled, from 12 per cent to 20.6 per cent by the year 2001. However, there has been a recent decline of women entering first-year engineering. In some universities, the proportion of women entering these studies fell as low as seven per cent. In engineering, the curriculum, traditional style of teaching and the culture are still part of the problem. Today, more women attend university than men, so where are the women going?

The decline in enrolments of women in engineering is remarkably mirrored by an increase of women in health-related programs. Not a bad choice, considering our aging population and the increasing need for physiotherapists, pharmacists, optometrists and others. So I say to those who wish to hear: “The profession of engineering needs women more than women need engineering.” What benefits, they might ask, are there in having women in this profession? Because a critical mass of women will bring complementary perspectives to designs and to technological solutions and I want to live in a world designed by balanced teams of women and men.

The stereotyping of women’s abilities is still a problem. To be seen as an engineer, one must look, talk and act like an engineer. In most workplaces, this means looking, talking and acting male. Thus for women, there is a delicate balancing act between retaining their femininity and yet presenting the characteristics of an engineer defined in male terms. Women whose performance is outstanding will succeed without facing too many obstacles. My concerns are for women whose performance is average; will they succeed to the same extent as average men? Equity is not just an equal number of women and men; it means equal chances of success and career development; it means equality in the respect obtained from peers and employers; it means having a voice at meetings and conferences. It also means a world where harassment and violence have disappeared from women’s lives. Occupations in non-traditional fields pay well. If more women feel comfortable in making these choices, they will achieve economic independence, which in turn, will give them more control over their lives.

As others have said before me, violence in society must be addressed. War and the acts of global terrorism are one aspect of this continuum of violence. The behind doors violence against women and children in their homes has to be exposed. In Montreal, on Dec. 6, 1989, the killer picked only successful women who were going to have satisfying careers and control over their lives. For the first time in my life, Dec. 6 made me unafraid to call myself a feminist, to feel comfortable with the term and what it means to me — a world where women have equal access to education, position and decision-making roles. After more than 40 years as an electrical biomedical engineer, the work still fascinates me on a daily basis. I wish that it had been a more comfortable journey and a more level playing field. However, I hope it will be easier and better for the next generation of women. To achieve this goal we must continue, women and men together, to work on the remaining issues.

I suggest that we women face challenges fearlessly, discover our talents and skills, and believe in ourselves.

On this very important memorial day, let us remember the 14 bold and brave young women who wanted to make our world a better place. We must, each of us, be agents of change, each in our own way. For the sake of these 14 women, never give up so that we can push the envelope of progress for all women.

Brian J.Given, PhD
Department of Sociology and Anthropology

As a result of my past research relating to guns and society and a project I am currently developing on gun culture in Canada, I was asked to comment on what we might have learned on the 20th anniversary of the Montreal massacre in light of the recent parliamentary vote to cancel the long-gun registry. The registry was implemented, in part, as a Liberal government response to that tragedy.

The École Polytechnique massacre on Dec. 6, 1989 was perpetrated by one young man who shot 28 people, ending the lives of 14 young women. He explicitly targeted “feminists.” They symbolized, for him, that which he feared and hated. It is a tragic irony that most Canadians know the name of the perpetrator but few of us know the names of the women who died at his hand. Their names were:

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
Michele Richard
Annie St. Arneault
Annie Turcotte

Each of these women had an individual family background, life experience, personality and world view. The perpetrator ignored their individuality and took away their futures because, in his deluded mind, they symbolized the source of his inner turmoil.

Faced with a disaster, it is the nature of our species to seek understanding and control. Anyone who offers us a model that can explain such tragedy is likely to have a ready audience, especially if that explanation offers us the possibility of controlling and preventing horrors such as the Montreal massacre.

In the aftermath of this tragedy, various social entrepreneurs sought to create their own symbolic constructions in ways that also treated these women as an aggregate symbol rather than individual persons. Within hours of their deaths, media spokespeople were faulting culturally entrenched male violence against women. Other explanations emphasized the perpetrator’s cultural background or abusive misogynistic family. Others talked about violence in the media as a contributing factor, while some emphasized variables such as the problematic integration of certain immigrant communities. Because the perpetrator used a long gun (a rifle), some argued the availability of long guns was responsible. It seemed that there were many agendas that might be served by enlisting our revulsion at the act and our need to be reassured that the precursors to another such event could be understood and acted upon.

We look to our political leaders for comfort and reassurance, and their popularity depends on their ability to address our concerns. Of course, politicians have very limited capacities to offer such comfort. What parliament does is pass or repeal legislation. Even if the perpetrator was a madman, and even if this horror could not likely have been predicted, there was still tremendous pressure on our parliamentarians to explain and to act, even though some of those actions were more political ritual than effective policy.

The perpetrator legally owned the long gun and registration would have made no difference.

The symbolic meaning of the long-gun registry has now changed. Instead of symbolizing the protection of Canadians, it has come to be seen as a symbol of government excess — a waste of taxpayer dollars to criminalize law-abiding citizens. Millions of Canadian gun owners were alienated by what they perceived, with some cause, as an agenda of attrition and confiscation.

The question is not whether we need gun control but rather which sorts of gun control are most effective in reducing criminal use. The long-gun registry could not have effectively addressed the criminal use of long guns. Further, it cost $2 billion to target people who don’t pose a threat. If the real goal is to reduce gun violence, then we need different approaches. MP Candice Hoeppner suggests that a “much more effective approach to gun crime would be to closely monitor people who are prohibited from owning guns.” We might also strictly enforce penalties for the criminal use of firearms. (In the past there was a tendency to plea bargain away weapons charges associated with some offences).

Lessons to be learned? We have more stringent gun licence requirements than we did in 1989 and it is arguable that since we already licence the owners, we can accomplish more, with less expense, by monitoring people who are prohibited from owning firearms and by refusing licenses to those who are likely to commit violent crime, than we can by registering long guns.

With regard to the political process that created the long-gun registry, we should recognize that our politicians know that their interests are well-served by offering us symbolic action instead of effective legislation and policies. Imagine what we could have achieved if, starting in 1995, an additional $2 billion in start-up funds plus millions of dollars per year had been invested in programs designed to divert young people from youth gangs and other paths to violence. Of course, such work is not politically glamorous and does not have the cache of dramatic action, so the government implemented the long gun registry instead. Now we are about to cut our losses and the program.

There have been effective changes in police tactics that may have prevented the 2006 Dawson College attack from becoming a massacre on the scale of the École Polytechnique. We now have more stringent gun licensing laws that could prevent a disturbed individual from legally obtaining a gun and weapons charges are less likely to be dropped as part of plea bargains.

Let’s hope our politicians now see fit to shift their focus to effectively address the threat of drugs, gangs and illegal guns by addressing the root causes of youth alienation and violence.

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