Nineteen eighty-nine was an eventful year, giving rise to many 30th anniversary markings. It was a political turning point in human history. It gave rise to a series of Eastern Bloc democracy movements—Hungary, Bulgaria, Poland, Czechoslovakia, Latvia, Lithuania, Estonia and Romania—and, eventually, the dissolution of the Soviet Union and, symbolic of its oppressive reach, the fall of the Berlin Wall. A lone man in front of a tank in Tiananmen Square rivetted the attention of the world. In El Salvador the US-trained Atlacatl Battalion brutally murdered six Jesuit priests and their two housekeepers as part of the government response to the largest insurgent uprising in 15 years of civil war. The election of FW de Klerk marked the beginning of the end of apartheid South Africa.
And on 6 December, Marc Lépine walked into l’École Polytechnique, l’Université de Montréal’s School of Engineering, armed with a semi-automatic rifle. Within 20 minutes 14 women lay dead; another 14, mostly women, seriously injured. In the suicide note pinned inside a jacket pocket, Marc Lépine clarified his motivation: He was hunting feminists, revenge for the ‘women who had ruined [his] life’. ‘Feminist attitudes have always made me rage.’ You don’t get to have men’s privileges and still expect to be ‘coddled’. Though he expected that the press would label him a ‘crazed gunman, I consider myself a rationale erudite’.
That suicide note was never released by the police; no real investigation took place, no public enquiry mounted. On the eve of the first anniversary of the massacre, feminist writer and journalist, Francine Pelletier, one of 18 names on a list found on Lépine’s body, received the note in the mail, unknown sender. The next day, it was on the front page of La Presse.
I was a young mother of two daughters, Emily and Gillian, 13 and 10 years old respectively. I had just returned from three weeks in El Salvador and was ragged with its trauma. I experienced the École Polytechnique massacre as whiplash. With a term and a half to go to graduation, I left seminary to take up the causes ignited within me by three weeks in El Salvador. It was in seminary that I had first taken for myself the descriptor of ‘feminist’. It was an exhilarating moment. I was in the hallway during a class break when I realised that I needed to challenge the silly statement that the prof had made a few minutes earlier. And that’s when it came to me. I am.
In my mid-thirties, I was a latecomer to all of this. I had spent the previous thirteen years at home with my daughters—my women-kids I called them, and still do. Enrolling in seminary was not meant to be a challenge to the life of the chatelaine suzy-homemaker. I had stepped out of my place, as my neighbours had told me. Assuming pants that were not mine to wear. The sixth of December landed like a blow, multiple blows—to my mind, body and heart. I remember connecting those dots: stepping out of my place, Marc Lépine: there’s a price to be paid for such chutzpah. The family dog died and I fell into a deep depression.
On CBC this morning, Francine Pelletier talked about our various responses to the carnage. At the time, the media seemed bent on denying that the singling out for slaughter of women for being women had anything to do with gender. Une tragédie, c’est tout. She wondered out loud: if the note had been released, making Marc Lépine’s reasons crystal clear, would we have responded differently, looked it in the face? It had issued in a broadly-shared sense of vulnerability, feelings calling out for validation. I had been raped by my gynaecologist at the age of 26, put up with the unwanted attention of male colleagues, teachers and professors, the violence of an intimate partner. See? many of us would say, repeatedly. This is what it’s like to be a woman.
To suggest that what happened in Montréal had meaning for our lives, as women, was to evoke male acrimony and resentment. After what Ms Pelletier calls a fifteen-year slump in the women’s movement, she said it took a long time, especially in Québec, to come to terms with the fact that this was a crime against women. She’s not sure that we’ve actually learned ‘true lesson’ of the Polytechnique massacre. She may be right.