30 years after the École Polytechnique de Montréal shooting, there is still a long way to go

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Anne Marie Lemay.

Anne-Marie Edwards.

Annie St. Arneault.

Annie Turcotte.

Maryse Laganiere.

Maryse Leclair

Maud Haviernick.

Barbara Daigneault.

Barbara Klucznik.

Genevieve Bergeron.

Helen Colgan.

Michele Richard.

Nathalie Croteau.

Sonia Pelletier.

Those are the names of the 14 women who were killed 30 years ago today at École Polytechnique in Montreal. It was shortly before 6 p.m. when a gunman walked in, separated the men from the women, turned to the women, shouted “you are all feminists” and began shooting.

Those 14 women were killed. Thirteen more people were wounded. The shooter had a list of what he called “radical feminists” he intended to kill had he not run out of time.

There was some debate at what motivated the shooter, whether he was a one-off.

Thirty years later, violence against women continues. Now, though, society is less afraid to call it by its name.

“The plaque that commemorates the Montreal massacre now identifies it as an anti-feminist act,” said Marie Lovrod, the program chair of women’s and gender studies at the University of Saskatchewan.

“It was explicit in the note that was found on the body of the perpetrator. He made it explicit that’s what the plan was. At the time there was a debate as to whether he was a lone, poorly-adjusted individual or whether he was a produced effect of the kinds of misogyny that were shaping the culture at the time.”

“It took 30 years to put that debate to rest.”

Lovrod says people are more willing to acknowledge what motivated that shooter. The new plaque, identifying the attack as an anti-feminist act, was placed earlier this year. The older sign referred only to a “tragic event.”

“Violence against women hasn’t stopped,” Lovrod continued.

“I think we understand more about different social positions. Think about the inquiry into murdered and missing Indigenous women and girls. On the one hand, here we have something that’s demonstrable. There’s lots of evidence that when binary genders have been used to define fields of expertise, and if a field has been identified as having a male purview and women enter that space, they generally get treated badly.”

The statistics reflect that data.

One in three women will be assaulted in their lifetime, as will one in six men. Eighty-five per cent of victims know their attacker. Over 80 per cent of sex crime victims are women. In Prince Albert, there were 94 sexual violations charges laid in 2018. So far this year, there have been 111. An estimated 91 per cent of sexual assaults are never reported.

Then, there’s intimate partner violence. Saskatchewan has the highest rates across Canada. It’s estimated that 70 per cent of intimate partner violence victims never contact police, and victims, on average, will return to their abusive partners seven times.

Indigenous women are impacted at a far greater rate. A 2018 study found that Indigenous women report experiencing intimate partner violence at a rate of 2.5 times higher than non-Indigenous women.

In the 30 years since the École Polytechnique massacre, though, there has been a change.

“I think we have come far,” Minister Responsible for the Status of Women Tina Beaudry-Mellor said Thursday.

“I think we’ve never had a more important opportunity for women, at least in my lifetime, then there is now.”

Beaudry-Mellor said women are being considered more and more by political parties, by businesses looking to grow their profits and as world leaders. She said the number of women completing graduate and post-graduate degrees is “the majority. I think those opportunities are there in a way they’ve never been there before,” she said.

“With that, sadly, there is a backlash.”

Lovrod said that women in power are subject to “trolling” and “hate.”

What she sees as having changed is the recognition that these aren’t one-off events.

“You have to ask yourself what is driving someone to do these things. There has been this long undercurrent and I think we are starting to acknowledge that it is something that is socially produced. It’s not just random crazy people,” she said.

“We are doing something in the way we organize our societies that is having measurable effects on who is being targeted by what kind of violence.”

Lovrod argued that one of the signs of how much binary gender informs violence is how violence targets transgender women of colour.

“It’s astronomical,” she said.

Fatal violence “disproportionately affects transgender women of colour,” Human Rights Campaign, which advocates for LGBTQ equality, found in their annual look at the issue.

“What is it about our society that’s so terrified of self-affirming women that somehow that’s a big threat?” Lovrod asked.

“It seems really odd. What’s the basic premise of feminism? That women, self-identified women are people. Not a big shock there. But yet, some people find that really threatening. The idea that people should be able to actualize in the direction of their aspirations doesn’t seem that complicated either.”

Patricia Leson a member of the Prince Albert Council of Women and the president of the National Council of Women of Canada.

She said the importance of today is bringing attention to “the fact that we know we still have women and girls affected by violence, and most of it is perpetrated by men,” she said.

According to the World Health Organization, as many of 38 per cent of murders of women around the world are committed by a male intimate partner. A 2013 study from Statistics Canada showed that women were more likely to be victims of intimate partner violence, and that the violence was more often than not committed by men.

Men were found to be responsible for 83 per cent of violence committed against women, including 60 per cent of violence committed by friends or acquaintances, 68 per cent of non-spousal family violence, 74 per cent of stranger violence and 98 per cent of intimate partner violence.

Notably, men were also implicated in 76 per cent of violent incidents aimed at men.

“Many of the women and girls who do experience violence are Indigenous women, homeless young girls, people who are poor and taken advantage of,” Leson said.

“We need to protect them better than we are and provide safe, secure places for them to go to when they’re feeling under pressure from family and friends or bullies on the street. We need to provide counselling and safe places for them to go to.”

According to Beaudry-Mellor, the province is working on improving the lives of victims of violence. She cited two hours of free legal advice for women who have experienced sexual assault or interpersonal violence. She mentioned changes to the residential tenancy act that allow women fleeing violent situations to break their lease if they need to leave a situation, and fixe days of paid leave for women fleeing domestic and interpersonal violence. She continued, talking about new sexual assault training recently announced for justice professionals and a pilot project in Regina where police are working with other agencies to review sexual assault cases that had been marked “unfounded” to learn how to better treat and support victims.

“The list is quite extensive,” she said.

“Including changes to privacy laws on revenge porn often used as a tool of control. A lot of this work has been done, but I think we need to do a lot more work on the prevention end. For as much work as we’re doing on the supporting victims end, we have to do a lot more work in the prevention end and the change of attitudes and behaviours as well.”

How to do that depends on who you ask.

For Leson, it starts with the little things, the conversations you hear as you go about your day.

“There are lots of different ways we can open the conversation about violence against women,” she said. “We need to start that conversation, raise awareness of the problem and just inspire ourselves to action.

“Action like stopping when someone starts to say something we’re uncomfortable with. Instead of laughing or turning the other way stop and say, no, that’s not right. Each of us can do that. That is a big piece of action men and women can take.”

According to Lovrod, violence increases when a society becomes more unjust.

“Increasing levels of violence are often a function of horizontal violence. That’s really about extreme disparity,” she said.

“In the course of my lifetime, the distribution of wealth on the planet has gotten much worse. Fewer and fewer people hold more and more of the resources. Unless people are well-educated, they look at the immediate surroundings and say ‘this group … is interfering with my upward mobility.’ That’s not the case.”

That attitude, Lovrod said, can lead to violence against women, or against any group seen as the “other.”

“People look around and they try to find someone to blame. They’ll blame women, immigrants whoever they focus on. It’s an unfortunate result of the fact that we have to work to do in our institutions and our countries,” she said.

“What we really need to do is sit down and look at all of the ways in which we’re facilitating aggression by the ways our systems work and recognize that that’s not necessary. We do not have to do that in the ways we set up education systems, justice systems and immigration systems. We can make systems that are more generous in their outlook towards the way people are positioned socially.”

To Beaudry-Mellor, it means reviving campaigns, such as the ‘Who Will You Help’ campaign that talks about being bystanders in situations that are unsafe, and how it’s important for everyone to take responsibility for interpersonal abuse, violence and sexual assault.

“That campaign was very effective,” she said.

“We have to revive some of those campaigns and we have to have a different conversation about the perception of women in leadership.”

“We have work to do to reshape institutional arrangements of power and control which are at the root of these issues.”

That, the women said, is the importance of remembering the shooting at École Polytechnique.

“I do think that the reason anybody creates a memorial is they want people to remember and they want people to learn from these painful experiences,” Lovrod said.

“Part of the goal in this particular memorial is to recognize that those were very promising young lives that were cut off. By creating the memorial you extend the possibility of those lives because you extend the conversation about how to create a more just society.”

Leson agreed that the commemoration of the 1989 tragedy is as important today as it was when the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women was established in 1991. That national day is now held every year on Dec. 6 to remember the 14 women killed in Montreal and to work to end violence against women.

“It’s important that we do recognize and we appreciate … that we have a special day,” she said.

“But that special day has to go on all year. We have to remember that violence against women happens continually, not just on Dec. 6. Those 14 women gave their lives because somebody didn’t like women. There are things we can do each and every day. We each have to do something.”

Universities celebrating women thriving in engineering

A new national initiative being led by deans of the colleges of engineering of both the University of Guelph and the University of Saskatchewan is seeking to honour the 14 students who died at École Polytechnique 30 years ago. Twelve of the victims were engineering students.

The new online project celebrates women who have studied engineering three decades ago and have since thrived in the profession.

“Many engineering students who were contemporaries of those who died went on to fulfill their potential despite the grief and trauma they experienced from the appalling event, (University of Guelph dean Mary)Wells said. “They are examples of courage, resilience and strength, she added, and it is important to celebrate their achievements,” the University of Guelph said in a news article.

“The fact that women were targeted by the anti-feminist gunman on Dec. 6, 1989, traumatized women engineering students across the country. For  Wells and (University of Saskatchewan Dean Suzanne) Kresta, both of whom studied engineering in the 1980s, the tragedy instilled not only deep  sorrow but also a profound sense of responsibility.”

The profiles of the 30 engineers includes Nathalie Provost, who was injured in the shooting. The project can be viewed online at www.30yearslater.ca.