Featuring fresh takes and real-time analysis from HuffPost's signature lineup of contributors
Kirsty Duncan


To the Families of Women Lost in the 1989 Ecole Polytechnique Shooting

Posted: 12/06/2013 8:25 am

My memory of Dec 6, 1989, is that of my mother's placing a call to me in Scotland, screaming: "Sweetheart, they were your age. ...Their mothers, I can't imagine! I'm sick, just sick. ...Love, he killed them because they were women."

She could not finish. My father picked up the line, his voice cracking: "We all want to hold our daughters a little tighter tonight; you're a long way off. Be safe, just be safe."

Tears rolled down my cheeks, as I explained, helplessly, to my university friends what had happened in Canada: how a young man entered Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique, separated the men from the women, and began shooting.

Twenty-four years later, I still cannot imagine the sorrow of the victims' families, and I am profoundly sorry. I pray that they remain surrounded by those who care about them, and that they feel the loving arms of a nation.

During the days that followed I read what I could about the young victims, so that they would never just be names, lost in a tragedy that shocked and scarred Canada, but that they would be remembered for who they were -- smart, courageous, motivated young women, with bright futures.

I wrote their names in my science textbooks to keep them close, to keep their families close--despite my being thousands of miles across the Atlantic. Each night, my friends and I lit candles in our windows in memory of our fallen sisters.

Then each of us promised to undertake something in their honour, for women and girls. My promise was to volunteer weekly at the hospital.

Today, my friends and I still honour our promise to the victims. And as we shared their stories over the years, promises were made and honoured in many countries.


Loading Slideshow...
  • United States

    The <a href="http://www.reuters.com/article/2011/01/10/us-usa-shooting-guns-fb-idUSTRE7096M620110110" target="_hplink">U.S. Constitution</a>'s Second Amendment affords Americans the right to "bear Arms," but each state has its own regulations. <em>Photo credit: Whitney Curtis/Getty Images</em>

  • United Kingdom

    Only licensed gun owners can <a href="http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/united-kingdom" target="_hplink">buy and possess weapons</a> in the UK. Hunting, target shooting or collecting are considered valid reasons to acquire a license, but <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2008-06-26-2026227487_x.htm" target="_hplink">self-defense is not</a>. Civilians can't possess semi-automatic or automatic firearms, handguns or armor-piercing ammunition. <a href="http://www.independent.co.uk/news/uk/home-news/uks-gun-laws-are-among-the-toughest-in-the-world-1990075.html" target="_hplink">Criminal offenders</a> who have been in prison for more than three years are banned from having a gun. <em>Photo credit: Peter Macdiarmid/Getty Images</em>

  • Australia

    Australians can only possess a firearm with a license, and<a href="http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/australia" target="_hplink"> licenses are only granted</a> for hunting, target shooting, historical collection, pest control, and occasionally for occupational reasons. Civilians can't keep semi-automatic rifles or shotguns, and <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2008-06-26-2026227487_x.htm" target="_hplink">gun ownership for self-defense</a> is not permitted. <em>Photo credit: Ian Hitchcock/Getty Images</em>

  • Mexico

    Mexican law allows civilians to possess handguns and semi-automatic assault weapons, but <a href="http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/mexico" target="_hplink">only with a license</a>. Valid reasons to request a license are hunting, target shooting, rodeo riding, collection, personal protection, or employment. Applicants must pass a background check and renew their licenses every two years. <a href="http://articles.cnn.com/2012-04-26/us/us_mexico-crime-guns_1_mexican-crime-scenes-gun-sales-gun-dealers" target="_hplink">Nearly 70 percent</a> of weapons found at Mexican crime scenes can be traced back to the United States, according to CNN. <em>Photo credit: LUCAS CASTRO/AFP/Getty Images</em>

  • Russia

    Russians <a href="http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/russia" target="_hplink">must prove</a> that firearms will be used for hunting, target shooting, historic collection, personal protection or security in order to get a license. License applicants must be 18 years old and pass a background check. Licenses need to be renewed every five years. <em>Photo credit: DMITRY ASTAKHOV/AFP/Getty Images</em>

  • China

    Chinese citizens are <a href="http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-04/21/content_856308.htm" target="_hplink">not allowed to posses firearms</a>. Exceptionally, the government issues permission to own a firearm for hunting, sports shooting and animal control. <a href="http://www.chinadaily.com.cn/china/2007-04/21/content_856308.htm" target="_hplink">Penalties for illegal selling of weapons</a> ranges from three years in jail to the death penalty. <em>Caption: Police display guns they seized from illegal traders at Chengdu Municipal Public Security Bureau on January 26, 2005 in Chengdu of Sichuan Province, China. (China Photos/Getty Images)</em>

  • Canada

    Canadians can possess handguns, but <a href="http://www.rcmp-grc.gc.ca/cfp-pcaf/information/lic-per-eng.htm" target="_blank">need authorization</a> to carry them. Possession of automatic weapons is prohibited (except when the <a href="http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/canada" target="_hplink">weapon was bought before 1978</a>) and semi-automatic weapons are tolerated in exceptional cases. Applicants for a license must <a href="http://www.guardian.co.uk/world/2011/jan/10/gun-ownership-laws-around-the-world" target="_hplink">pass background test</a>, must follow a safety course and be certified by a firearms officer. Licenses are up for renewal eavery 5 years. <em>Caption: Rifles are lined up as athletes prepare to compete in the women's Biathlon 4x6 km relay at the Whistler Olympic Park during the Vancouver Winter Olympics on February 23, 2010. (FRANCK FIFE/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Brazil

    Brazil has <a href="http://www.foxnews.com/world/2011/04/09/brazil-debates-gun-laws-deadly-school-shooting/" target="_hplink">strict gun laws</a>. Gun holders need to be 25, have no criminal record and attend safety courses. Licences are granted for reasons of hunting, target shooting, personal protection and security and must be renewed every three years. <em>Caption: A policeman holds a seized machine gun at Morro do Alemao shanty town on November 28, 2010 in Rio de Janeiro, Brazil. (JEFFERSON BERNARDES/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Japan

    As the <em>Atlantic</em> notes, <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/07/a-land-without-guns-how-japan-has-virtually-eliminated-shooting-deaths/260189/" target="_hplink">few Japanese own a gun</a>. Civilians in Japan are only allowed to have a firearm <a href="http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/japan" target="_hplink">for hunting and with special permission for target shooting</a>. License applicants need to pass <a href="http://www.theatlantic.com/international/archive/2012/07/a-land-without-guns-how-japan-has-virtually-eliminated-shooting-deaths/260189/" target="_hplink">a shooting range class and a background check</a>. Licences have to be renewed <a href="http://www.gunpolicy.org/firearms/region/japan" target="_hplink">every three years</a>. <em>Caption: A soldier of Ground Self Defense Forces' Central Readiness Force (CRF) walks past rifles prior to the inauguration ceremony of the CRF at Asaka camp in northern Tokyo, 31 March 2007. (TOSHIFUMI KITAMURA/AFP/Getty Images)</em>

  • Germany

    German civilians <a href="http://www.usatoday.com/news/world/2008-06-26-2026227487_x.htm" target="_hplink">need to have a license</a> to buy and hold firearms. Applicants need to be 21, pass a background check that assesses reliability and suitability and applicants under the age of 25 need to pass a psychological exam. Licenses are up for renewal every three years. <em>Caption: A gun lies outside a branch of Postbank bank after an attempted robbery that left one guard dead October 29, 2007 in Berlin, Germany. (Sean Gallup/Getty Images)</em>

When I discussed violence against women and girls with my own students, I struggled to maintain my composure -- remembering the young women who did not have the chance to enjoy what should have been an exciting time in their lives, a time to dream their greatest dreams.

It was the words, "because they were women", that my students could never get past. One student bitterly complained: "Because we are girls, because we are women, because, because, because!"

I was taken aback by this outburst but should not have been. I just hoped that they would not face the hardships I had endured.

Her words sparked a stream of regrets. "Because I was a girl, I was told I would never be as strong as my brother. I am a national athlete; he is not." Another student: "Back home I would never have been allowed to drive because I am a woman; my parents still won't allow it." And another: "My brother can go out with his friends; I need a chaperone because I am a woman."

A male student then jumped in: "Are you kidding me, don't you understand? How can you possibly compare your mere inconveniences to what they suffered?"

A young woman responded: "Perhaps you don't understand. Because we are seen as lesser, we are diminished in our society -- through advertising, media and words. We are paid less, we suffer violence."

He replied: "Do you think we all sit at home in our 'wife beater' shirts, plotting how to put women down, how to suppress women?"

I gasped at the term, but the young woman simply said: "Marc Lepine did." And she was right.

Before he opened fire, he shouted: "You're all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!"

I took a deep breath and addressed my women's health class. "One of you just used the term 'wife beater', and most of you laughed. With such ugly words, you put down women, and you condone violence."

A deafening silence, and then profound understanding. "Instead of perpetuating 'because we are women'", I asked, "shouldn't we take a lesson from the daughters of Dec. 6, who took engineering, a field still male dominated? Should we not live with their courage, should we not honor their memory by being strong women who fight hard for other women and for the issues that still hold women back?"

One young woman responded, "Why don't we each pledge, 'Because we are women', we honour the victims of the Montreal Massacre by... and then we can each honour them in our own way."

The young man, who had earlier used the offensive term, added, "because we honour and respect women."

My students have long since graduated, but each year I still receive letters, "because we are women".

The families should know that their daughters are not forgotten, that they instill courage, that they inspire, and that they remind us all to fight tirelessly to end violence against women. We profoundly thank them for sharing their daughters with us all, and keep them in our prayers.