“I hate feminists”- The 1989 Polytechnique massacre and the Royal Commission on the statues of the women in Canada

Introduction

Maryse Laganiere, Maryse Leclair, Maud Haviernick, Anne Maire Lemay, Anne-Marie Edward, Anne St. Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Daigneault, Barbara Klucznik, Genevieve Bergeron, Helene Colgan, Michele Richard, Nathalie Croteau and Sonia Pelletier are the names of the women who were killed by Marc Lepine on December 6, 1989 in what is now known as the Polytechnique massacre[1]. Equipped with a rifle and a hunting knife, Marc Lepine went to the Ecole Polytechnique with one goal; to kill as many “feminists” as possible. The witnesses’ reports and his targeted killing of women, prompted a massive media coverage of the incident: Why did he hate females so much?

This event happened in the backdrop of the investigations and report of the “Royal Commission on the Statues of women in Canada”. In 1967, on an initiative by Prime Minister Lester B. Pearson, the government formed a commission that would investigate the status of Canadian women and propose recommendations that would ensure more equal opportunities between men and women in the Canadian society[2]. The foundation of the commission took place in a period of increasing public awareness with people seeing it as their right, indeed, their duty of partaking in the public affairs in Canada. However, there was also the belief that the government was an instrument of change and that they would ensure them. While the government took action after the commission had published its report, by constructing Status of Women in 1971 and Canada Advisory Council of the Statues on Women in 1973, one vital issue the commission had reported on was virtually ignored: violence against women.

So, it is with these two issues in mind that we are going to explore The Contesting of the nation theme. Our selection criteria, as to choosing to morph these two events together and write about the Polytechnique massacre in the context of “The Royal Commission on Women’s statues in Canada”, is that the massacre prompted a massive media coverage on the issue of violence against women[3]. The commission itself contributed to the “Canadian charter of rights and freedoms of 82”, for instance, by outlawing discrimination based on sex[4]. Still the misogyny attitude continued to be ever present as not everybody was happy with being “pushed” out by women. Lepine action were attributed, by some psychologists, to be a result of his mere idiosyncratic insanity. However, many felt this brushed away the real issue of violence and negative attitudes toward women that were felt more generally than just by Marc Lepine[5]. As mentioned, the commission’s report on violence against women was ignored until the 1989 Polytechnique massacre caused a long sought after addressing of this issue. Further, we chose our moment because, in addition to contributing to focus on women and feminism, the Polytechnique massacre also prompted the question of gun control which lead to the Bill C-17 in 1991[6]. Hence, we are now going to present you with a moment that touches the spheres of cultural, political and social historiography.

 

Context

As has been suggested, the motives of the perpetrator were probably linked to the fact that he disliked feminism and women, and was denied admission to the Ecole Polythechnique a few years earlier. Given these facts, it is appropriate to give some context as to what the feminist movement in Canada had conducted its campaign for rights, and what advances had been made in.

In the 1960s, reorganization of feminist movements in countries all over the world (mainly the west) took place. This reorganization and the subsequent advances these movements made in the cause of women’s liberation, have been called “second wave feminism.” Simon de Beauvoir was in many ways the architect of this wave of feminism. In it, both spheres of human life, the public and the private, were being challenged. The suggestion was that the roles the woman played were not intrinsic to her nature, but that rather she was “made” play them, through the teachings of society.[7]

“The dream team”- The Bird committee (royal commission) working on The Status of Women [1]

This manifested itself in many ways in Canada, one of which was the Royal Commission on the Status of Women, whose report was tabled in 1970 before congress and “called for legislative changes” regarding women’s rights,” i.e. the commission wanted equality through legislation.[8] The RCSW, among other things, discovered the “deplorable” conditions women experienced in the workplace and the barriers they had to face to live their life as active citizens. The commission set three aims in particular for the government to achieve. The Canadian Feminist Movement reported, in 1988, that two of them, “decriminalization of abortion and the inclusion of discrimination on sexual grounds in the Canadian Charter of Rights and Freedoms,”[9] had been achieved. What was still lacking in 1988 was legislation concerning universal child care.[10]

One aspect of “public” life where women, as a result of the campaign for women’s rights as well as the expansion of universities following the adulthood of the baby boomers, made an entrance in the 70s and 80s, were universities. Women were only one third of the average student body of universities in the 1960s, but by the late 80s, more than half of undergraduates in Canadian universities were female.[11]  Universities had stopped, like many other fields of life, being a male-dominated space.

As James Baldwin said, “it is rare indeed that people give. Most people guard and keep; they suppose that it is they themselves that they are guarding and keeping…” [12] In this case, men had been forced to give up certain privileges, and some of them did probably view it as an attack on themselves. This is not to say that what happened at Ecole Polythechnique in 1989 is in any way a natural reaction, absolutely not. However, it is saying that rights can almost never be won over unless a struggle takes place, and that the privileged group must face that it too must make sacrifices in such a struggle.

 

Moment

“You’re all a bunch of feminists- I hate feminists[13]”. These words spoken by Marc Lépine, preceded his violent attack on the 6th of December 1989 at the Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique in Québec. That afternoon, at five, the twenty-five-year-old man entered the building with a rifle and a hunting knife. The gunman entered a classroom where he separated the male from the female students and proceeded to shoot all the women. He continued his mass shooting through corridors, the cafeteria and into another classroom. Twenty minutes later, he ended his own life after killing fourteen women and injuring thirteen other students and staff members of the university. Among the victims could be counted Montreal Police’s then director of public relations, Pierre Leclair’s daughter[14]. To this day, the Polytechnique massacre is the deadliest mass shooting that has occurred in Canadian history. The gunman attacked young women who were attending a mechanical engineering class that day, but his message was of a more general resonance. Not only did Lépine resent Canada’s largest engineering program for not accepting his candidature, he also despised the growing female enrollment rate and blamed them for taking up the spot he believed he deserved in the faculty. In his suicide note, the perpetrator blamed his actions on political motives and more specifically on the existence of feminists. He also had listed nineteen other Québécoise women whom he viewed as being “radical feminists”. He held this group responsible for his unsuccessful professional and private life. He explicitly stated in his letter that he was angry at feminists for advocating social changes and requesting advantages because of their gender.

This tragedy profoundly shocked Canadians not only because of the gunman’s actions but also by the extent of the hateful nature of his speech. The province’s government as well as the city of Montreal declared that the following three days would be ones of grief, not only for the victims’ families but for every citizen. The funerals were attended by the governor general, Montreal’s then mayor, then prime minister Brian Mulroney as well as then Quebec minister Robert-Bourassa[15]. In search of a rationale behind this profoundly disturbing event, many debates were raised surrounding the nature of this attack and Lépine’s background. Many feminist groups have appropriated this attack as being directly anti-feminist while the public’s general opinion is geared more towards an act of violence directed to all women. This moment changed forever the discourse about violence against women in the Canadian medias who endorsed the story and diffused it worldwide[16]. Today, four women who survived this tragedy have been involved in the public sphere to strongly advocate for the presence of women at the Polytechnique. Jocelyn Dallaire Légaré, who made the funeral arrangements for the victims, Heidi Rathjen, a gun control activist, Nathalie Provost, a senior manager for the Quebec government, and Michèle Thibodeau-DeGuire, the director of public relations at the time of the massacre[17].

 

Significance

The massacre has triggered a lot of debates and controversies, especially because very few information was given by government and criminal justice officials. It has been quickly seen as an example of the violence against women. Feminist scholars attributed Lépine’s actions to a national societal misogyny[18]. Criminologists viewed it as an example of hate or bias crime against women (targets interchangeable with others from the same group). Nevertheless, some saw the slaughter as the isolated act of a madman, given that suicide was Lépine’s primary motivation. Lépine’s actions were also perceived in a broader analysis of societal changes (individual isolation, increased poverty). A Globe Mail columnist even suggested that Lépine felt alienated in Quebec society as an immigrant’s child.

The police immediate response has been heavily criticized, because a prompter intervention and a better coordination would have limited the number of human losses[19]. It has also been considered as a major spur for the Canadian gun control legislation. Survivors and parents of victims organized themselves under the Coalition for Gun Control. Their activity led to the passage of the Bill C-68 (Firearms Act) in 1995, implementing a better screening of firearm applicants and the registration of guns[20].

The memorial plaque of the deceased women of the Polytechnique massacre [2]

On the topic of the violence against women, the Canadian women’s movement recalled that “the death of young women would not be in vain, we promised[21]”. In response to those claims was created the House of Commons Sub-Committee on the Status of Women, which released a report: “The war against women” in 1991, which proposed a “National Action Plan” in order to reduce violence against women through government policy.

Male survivors of the slaughter have been criticized for not intervening to stop Lépine when they have been asked to leave the rooms. The columnist Mark Steyn explained this lack of heroism by a “culture of passivity”, which would define Canadian maleness[22]. In parallel, the feminist movement has also been criticized for its appropriation of the massacre as a symbol of their struggle, using the massacre of women as a way to promote their agenda. Other critics argued that the feminist moralization bestowed guilt on all men (as potential murderers), whereas western culture doesn’t encourage violence against women. A memorial erected in Vancouver sparked controversy because was dedicated to “all women murdered by men”.

The slaughter’s trauma has given place to the construction of memory places and the organization of commemorative events throughout Canada. Since 1991 the anniversary of the massacre has become National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. In 2014, for the 25th anniversary of the massacre, the city of Montreal installed fourteen searchlights on the esplanade of Mount Royal, embodying the fourteen victims[23]. A movie, entitled Polytechnique raised a controversy over the legitimacy of experiencing the tragedy through a commercial film. Finally, in 2014 was established a 30 000$ national scholarship intended for female engineering graduate students.

Conclusion

The 1989 Polytechnique massacre is seen as the largest massacre shooting in Canadian history and it holds a massive significance when it comes to Feminism and their overall movement. The commission against violence of women was a starting point in Canadian history towards a positive feminist movement, that has stirred emotional responses from men along the way. With that being said, a promotion in media coverage and overall awareness of feminist views has been a mainstay in today’s world, which makes anti-feminist actions somewhat farfetched. Marc Lepine’s action will go down in Canadian history as one of the most horrific events and placed a microscope on women’s rights along with an emphasis on societal change. Relieving barriers in the workplace as well as overall equality has been a focus point for the feminist movement which has had a immense amount of support from the government along with support from the citizens of this great country. Lepine looked at his own misfortunes as a product of women taking away power from men. However, equality has always been a Canadian mainstay which should be supported and promoted as a positive movement. The deaths of the Polytechnique massacre should not be in vain, but used as motivation for future change in Canada.

 

Bibliograhy

[1]  Eglin, Peter and Hester, Stephen. The Montreal Massacre- A Story of Membership Categorization Analysis, Waterloo: Wilfried Laurie University Press, 2003. P. 14.

[2] O´Neil, Maureen. ”Why we need more Royal Commission: 30 years later”, Herizon Vol 15, Iss.2 (2001). 22/03/18. <https://search.proquest.com/cbcacomplete/docview/212381188/BB5605B35D98475CPQ/5?accountid=12339>

[3] Bradley, Maureen. ”Reframing the Montreal Massacre: Strategies for Feminist Media Activism”, Canadian Journal of Communication Vol.31, Iss.4 (2006): 929-936. 26/02/18.

[4] Government of Canada. ”Status of Women Canada.” 29/03/18. <http://www.swc-cfc.gc.ca/rc-cr/roycom/index-en.html>

[5] Wilson, I.P (Trish).”Reading the ´Montreal Massacre`: Idosyncratic Insanity or The Misreading of Cultural Cues”. In Ethnographic Feminism: Essay in Anthropology, edited by Sally Cole and Lynne Phillips, 259-278. McGill-Queen`s University Press, 1996.

[6] Montpetit, Charles and Rathjen, Heide. ”Up in arms [excerpt from december 6: From the Montreal massacre to Gun control, the inside story]” in Chatelaine Vol.72, Iss.10 (1999): 86-92. 02/04/18. <https://search-proquest-com.proxy3.library.mcgill.ca/cbcacomplete/docview/214079474/B43F748FF0B648DAPQ/13?accountid=12339>

[7] See: Simon de Beauvoir, The Second Sex (London: Jonathan Cape, 2009).

[8] Denise Baillargeon, W. Donald Wilson, A Brief History of Women in Quebec (Waterloo: Wilfried Laurier University Press, 2014), 174—175. 3 Ibid, 175.

[9] Ibid.

[10] Ibid, 170—172.

[11] James Baldwin, The Fire Next Time (New York: Random House, 1993), 89.

[12] Fanny Bugnon, “J’hais les féministes. Le 6 décembre 1989 et ses suites,” Recherches féministes 23, no. 2 (2010) : 192.

[13] Ibid., 194.

[14] Hélène Charron, “Retour sur un attentat antiféministe,” Recherches Féministes 24, no.2 (2011) : 219.

[15] Maureen Bradley, “Report: Reframing the Montreal massacre: Strategies for Feminist Media Activism,” Canadian Journal of Communication 31, no. 4 (2006): 929-930.

[16] Ayala, Dario. « Polytechnique massacre: Lives forever changed.” Montreal Gazette, December 7, 2015.

[17]Young, Katherine K.; Nathanson, Paul. Legalizing Misandry: From Public Shame to Systematic Discrimination Against Men. Montreal: McGill-Queen’s University Press (2006).

[18] Sourour, Teresa K. Report of Coroner’s Investigation. (1991)

[19] Rathjen, Heidi; Charles Montpetit. December 6: From the Montreal Massacre to Gun Control. Toronto: McClelland & Stewart. (1999)

[20] Rebick, Judy. “Where’s the funding for abused women?”. CBC. (December 6, 2000).

[21] Steyn, Mark. “A Culture of Passivity”. National Review. (April 18, 2007)

[22] “Se souvenir de Polytechnique”. Radio-Canada. December 6, 2014.

Pictures

[1]Rabbel.ca. “Reflection on the 28 years of remembering the Montreal Massacre.” 04/04/18.  < http://rabble.ca/multimedia/2017/12/reflections-28-years-remembering-montreal-massacre >

[2] Morris, Cerise. “Royal Comission on the Status of Women in Canada,” Historica Canada. Edited 22/03/16. < http://www.thecanadianencyclopedia.ca/en/article/royal-commission-on-the-status-of-women-in-canada/ >

 

 

 

 

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