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École Polytechnique Massacre: 25 Years Later

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It was cold that Wednesday when a 25 year-old man walked into the École Polytechnique de Montréal armed with a 223-calibre Sturm-Ruger rifle. It was December 6, 1989.

He entered an engineering classroom, and speaking in French, ordered the women to move to the back of the room and the men to leave. A group of confused students sat at their desks, and it was only after he fired shots into the ceiling that the male students left the room.

Before pointing his rifle at the women in the class that day, the gunman said, "You're all a bunch of feminists, I hate feminists." He killed six women instantly.

As students heard the horrified screams coming from the classroom and other students began calling for help, the man continued his rampage, walking through classrooms, hallways and the cafeteria, targeting only women. Before fatally shooting himself, he killed six other female engineering students, an office clerk and a nursing student, also women, and injured 14 other people, including four men caught in the crossfire.

polytechnique montréal

From left to right: Anne-Marie Edward, Annie St-Arneault, Anne-Marie Lemay

At the end, 14 women were dead: Geneviève Bergeron, 21; Hélène Colgan, 23; Nathalie Croteau, 23; Barbara Daigneault, 22; Anne-Marie Edward, 21; Maud Haviernick, 29; Barbara Klueznick, 31; Maryse Laganière, 25; Maryse Leclair, 23; Anne-Marie Lemay, 22; Sonia Pelletier, 23; Michèle Richard, 21; Anne St-Arneault, 23; and Annie Turcotte, 21.

In the gunman's suicide note, he blamed feminists for ruining his life, saying he believed women had no place in engineering because they would take jobs from men.

“We’re not feminists.”

Nathalie Provost told the shooter she wasn't a feminist because at the time, she says, she didn't believe she deserved the title. "My point of view was never negative, but I felt like I wasn't fighting to be where I was in 1989."

As the gunman told her she was a feminist, Provost looked him in the eye and tried to reason with him. He shot her anyway. Provost survived, but at a great cost. She was shot four times that day in that engineering classroom.

"The day after and the years after I still felt sad and angry at what had happened," she says. "I was overwhelmed I was alive."

It was her graduating year at Polytechnique, just like many of the women murdered on Dec. 6. As she was recovering from her wounds in her forehead, legs and foot, she decided to go back to school the next month. She spent the next few months leading up to graduation in May 1990, encouraging women to stay in the engineering program, to not be afraid.

Looking back, she has realized she had always been a feminist, even though her comments at the time sparked debate.

"Ten years later as a mother, I realized I cannot say I am not a feminist because of my values, the way I live and raise my children and the ambition I have for them."

polytechnique montréal

From left to right: Maud Haviernick, Michèle Richard, Geneviève Bergeron

2014 marks 25 years since the shooting. Every Dec. 6, Canadians remember the 14 victims, and recognize the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Because there is still a need -- roughly one in two women in this country over the age of 16 has experienced physical or sexual violence, according to the Canadian Women's Foundation. And almost 70 per cent of Canadians say they know at least one woman who has experienced this type of abuse.

Despite the enduring statistics, feminism continues to be a word with a vexed meaning, according to Dr. Donna Decker, an English professor Franklin Pierce University in New Hampshire. "Even if it signifies social justice and equality for all humans to me, it's still a word that is fraught to some."

But the issues that feminism fights for -- an end to gender-based violence, social and systemic gender equality, ownership of one's own body for women and woman-identified individuals -- have arguably never been more front-of-mind for Canadians than they are today.

"It's not so much the word has changed, but some of the things women were fighting for have become mainstream," says Dr. Christabelle Sethna, an associate professor at the Institute of Feminist and Gender Studies and the University of Ottawa. "It's common to talk about equality on the job and equal pay, but have all the problems been solved? No."

école polytechnique

From left to right: Barbara Daigneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

Violence against women has become so normalized that societies aren't shocked by it anymore, Sethna says. Women around the world are killed, assaulted, abused and harassed in alarming numbers, pandemic numbers, according to the United Nations. Thirty per cent of women globally experienced some form of physical or sexual violence by their partner, and 38 per cent of murders of women are committed by someone with whom they were intimate, according to the World Health Organization,

In Canada, crimes of gender-based violence continue from coast to coast. There are an estimated almost 1,200 murdered and missing Aboriginal women, the rape, bullying and eventual suicide of Rehtaeh Parsons reached international audiences this year, and most recently, several sexual assault allegations against former CBC Q host Jian Ghomeshi resulted in his dismissal and an upheaval at the CBC, where a former employee says Ghomeshi sexually harassed her at work and the broadcaster mishandled her complaint.

Violence against women is front-page news, and the École Polytechnique massacre continues to hold relevance. While researching for her upcoming novel based on the events of the Montreal Massacre, Decker came across several blogs that called the gunman a "saint," and she points to another recent headline, where Canadian feminist and media critic Anita Sarkeesian had to cancel her public speaking engagement because men threatened her with a "Montreal Massacre style attack," because she was a feminist.

"Misogyny hasn't gone out of style. Why do we need a massacre to sit up and realize that violence against women is a serious global issue?" Sethna asks.

école polytechnique

From left to right: Hélène Colgan, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair

But for the men and women who survived that day, each anniversary signifies hope.

Alain Perreault was president of the Student Association at Polytechnique in 1989, and on the day of the shooting, he hid in a small office near a stairwell.

"Women weren't any different from any other colleagues," he says. "We were working in mixed groups and we were all just a bunch of people struggling to get through our studies."

Following the attack, Perreault and fellow survivor Heidi Rathjen launched a gun control petition, which continues to be debated today.

Michèle Thibodeau-DeGuire, president of the board, Polytechnique Montreal, and the first woman to graduate from the school's civil engineering program in 1963, says one way to move forward after an event like this is to continue encouraging girls and women to stay in fields like engineering.

école polytechnique massacre

From left to right: Sonia Pelletier, Nathalie Croteau

Currently there are about 2,000 female engineering students enrolled at the school, approximately a quarter of the total number of engineering students. This year Polytechnique has announced two campaigns in honour of Dec. 6, including a $30,000 Order of the White Rose scholarship awarded to one Canadian engineering student, and the Week of the White Rose campaign, which is selling virtual roses to raise money for girls from impoverished neighbourhoods in Montreal to attend Folie Technique -- the school's science camp.

The numbers for female students are similar at schools across the country, but increased access to education in areas with low-female representation is just one of the answers to the problem of gender inequality.

The solutions, especially to gender-based violence, exist: the UN advocates for establishing the acceptance of universal human rights and societal equality across genders, but also important is the education required to emphasize that violence against women and women-identified individuals is wrong. "Early intervention is crucial to prevent and stop the escalation of abuse," according to a 2014 action plan created by the UK government to end violence against girls and women.

And men must be on board with these solutions. "From educating friends and peers about the impact of normalizing sexual violence via "locker room talk," to learning about consent culture, there are a myriad of really valuable ways for males to strengthen the movement," writes Megan Stacey in a piece on solutions to violence in

But while the solutions are well-broadcast and well-documented, current implementations have not proven effective enough for some.

"We need to double and triple our efforts at raising the issue of global violence against women and put in place solid mechanisms to combat these issues," Sethna says. "If we want 1989 to teach us anything, let it be that misogyny doesn't take a day off."

dec 6

With files from CP
Images courtesy of Polytechnique Montréal