École polytechnique: Remember, remember the 6th of December

Par Jessica Murphy le 3 décembre 2009

Just after dark on Wednesday, December 6, 1989 - a drizzling and foggy early winter day in Montreal - Marc Lepine walked through the doors of Universite de Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique with a hunting knife and a .223 Remington concealed in a bag.

He was dressed in a pair of blue jeans and Kodiak boots.

The 25-year-old gunman entered the engineering building shortly sometime after 4 p.m. But it took him an hour to finally make his way into a classroom of filled with some 60 students, brandishing the semi-automatic rifle.

He told the students to separate. Men to the left, women to the right. But in their fear and confusion, they were slow to react. 

The coroner's report sets the scene in chilling detail.

"They thought it was an end of session joke, and that the attacker was firing blanks," wrote Teresa Sourour, the investigating coroner.

"He said to them: 'Do you know why you are there?' One of the girls answered 'No'. He replied: 'I am fighting feminism.' The student who had spoken added: 'We are not feminists, I have never fought against men. He immediately started firing on the group, from left to right."

Lepine roamed the school corridors shooting, wounding and killing seemingly at random. He  murdered fourteen and wounded thirteen more.

Finally, twenty minutes after the first shot was fired, he sat next to his final victim on the dais of a third-floor classroom, removed his coat and lay down his rifle. "Oh shit," he said, before killing himself with the last bullet in the gun's magazine.

This year marks 20th grim anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. And while the facts are clear, after two decades its meaning remains elusive.

"We'll never manage to understand it," said Rose-Marie Goulet, who designed the memorial to the slain women that fills the Place du 6 Decembre.

"But we need to continue to seek. To try and understand."

Leyton is a retired professor at Memorial University and an expert on mass killings.

Nothing since has come close to so profoundly shaking our national psyche, he contends.

"It was a catastrophic rupture with our past," he said. "It set a lot of things in motion." 

The December bloodshed has entered Canada's consciousness through each annual vigil and through film, music and theater.

"It wasn't just in Montreal that the funerals were watched; that the hearts bled," Leyton said.

In Quebec, we've sought meaning through political action.

The night continues to colour our politics, most recently with the federal decision to repeal the long-gun registry.

The families who lost their daughters in the massacre and those who were on campus that night  have been unyielding and vocal in their lobbying for more aggressive gun-control legislation in Canada.

Alongside gun control, it galvanized Canadians to fight violence against women.

"For some feminists it was a symbol of an anti-feminist movement," said Chantal Maillé, an associate professor of women’s studies at Concordia University Simone de Beauvoir Institute and an expert on feminism and politics in Quebec and Canada.

"For others, it was a random act of violence."

The factions continue to disagree on the social interpretation of Canada's worst mass killing.

But in 1991, Parliament declared Dec. 6 as National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

Campus anti-violence campaigns were established, as were programs to encourage women to seek work in male-dominated fields like engineering.

Men pledge never to condone violence against women in a white ribbon campaign that has become a December tradition across Canada

According to Leyton, as one of the most appalling tragedies in Canadian history, no event - beyond the world wars - had such a resounding impact.

Maillé and Leyton agree women face fewer hurdles in Canada now than in 1989.

"There have been real changes in the way men conceptualize women," Leyton said. "Men are more likely to show respect and avoid macho dominance."

Murders of female wives and partners by their male counterparts has also been on a steady decline, he added. 

Still, both agree change is still necessary.

"In 1989, violence on campus was not so common," said Maillé. "But now the issue of being safe on university campuses is becoming a major issue.

She also called the repeal of the long-gun registry "a major defeat."

Leyton's concern is that "the worst kinds of abuse continue to be possible and take place inside a home."

He added that there are few steps a society can take to protect itself from this type of carnage - as shown at Concordia University and Dawson College and many other sites worldwide.

"Mass killings like this are a form of suicide," Leyton said. "This is their final statement of what their identity is."

One solution is to focus on educating people on the sanctity of life, be it through religion or secular instituions like the Charter of Rights and Freedoms, he said.

Then none of Lepine's victims will have died in vain.

"They died for nothing," Leyton said. "But they died for something, too."


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