Remembering Montreal 1989

Armed with an illegally-obtained Ruger Mini-14 rifle, twenty-five-year-old Marc Lépine entered the École Polytechnique, an engineering school affiliated with the Université de Montréal. In twenty-four minutes, Lépine swept through classrooms and corridors, shooting and killing fourteen women, all engineering pupils studying in a male-dominated field, and injuring ten other women and four men. Having completed his crusade of “fighting feminism,” Lépine then shot himself.

The École Polytechnique Massacre, or the Montreal Massacre, took place on December 6th, 1989, a day that has since been dedicated to the remembrance of victims of the massacre and women everywhere who have ever fallen prey to any level of sexual harassment or other forms of victimization based on their gender. Brandon University’s Women’s Collective organized a vigil on Thursday, December 6th in the Mingling Area to pay tribute to the fourteen victims of the shootings, as well as the countless unnamed victims of abuse around the world.

Several important aspects of women’s rights, and human rights in general, were touched upon throughout the ceremony. With a largely female-dominated presence at the podium, the somber vigil began with an introduction by Dr. Allison McCulloch, assistant professor of political science at the university. Sherry Sawatsky-Dyck, a counsellor at Brandon University, identified the importance of remembering the struggles of events like the massacre not as “feminist” problems, but as issues of equality. The general concept of gender inequality is a social justice issue within society, and each individual is responsible for changing their perspective in order to create change for the sake of their mothers, aunts, grandmothers and daughters. Sawatsky-Dyck explained, “We need to stop raising our daughters to be princesses who need a prince to rescue them, and sons to be knights who either rescue or conquer.”

The issues of personal safety, for example, faced by women trying to complete the simple task of walking to their vehicles at night is something unprecedented and foreign to men, said Dr. David Winter, history professor at Brandon University. The seriousness of his ideas posed in a classroom was never questioned and the concept of such a thought was baffling when he initially began pondering the notion of the inequality of the sexes, he confided. Addressing the men, he stated it is “utterly and completely incumbent” that they acknowledge the influence they hold in the role of gender equality and strive to prevent anything remotely as heinous as December 6th, 1989 from reoccurring. Louise Henderson, a representative from the Women’s Resource Centre, shared her vision of a society where gender-based abuse, assault and murder were as intolerable as drunk driving. She mentioned members of the Winnipeg Blue Bombers who have taken a stand in a new ad campaign against domestic violence, applauding them for taking a leap in the right direction in terms of beginning to acknowledge the issue without society and work towards a solution. Other presenters included addictions counsellor Deborah Tacan from the Addictions Foundation of Manitoba and Mayor Shari Decter Hirst, who enforced the importance of not remaining silent as a victim. There was also a brief musical performance by native Brandon rock band Misty Street who performed the hit ‘Beautiful’ by girl-power pop artist Christina Aguilera.

Much has changed in the western world in twenty-three years, yet the deep-seated social injustice of gender inequality remains. As brought to light by previous events held by The Women’s Collective, like Take Back the Night, sexism is still largely prevalent in society, and everyone can impact whether or not the hate festers or dies. The take-home message from the vigil summed up a simple solution: “First mourn, then work for change.”

Republished from The Quill print edition, Volume 103, Issue 15, December 11, 2012.