December 6, 2020 § Leave a comment
It was a cold and wet day in the suburbs of Vancouver. Then again, most every day in the Pacific Northwest from November to March was cold and wet. How we did not develop webbed feet and moss is something I never understood. I was 16 years old, disaffected and bored beyond words in suburbia. It was an unremarkable day.
That evening, I was in the living room with my parental units watching the news. We weren’t really people for tradition, but the news was sacrosanct. The Old Man sat in his Command Centre, a reclining chair with his remote. My mom sat in the corner of the couch closest to him. They watched the early news at 5pm on BCTV, the Vancouver affiliate of CTV. Then they watched the national news at 5.30. And then at 6pm, the News Hour with Tony Parsons came on. Tony Parsons was the official voice of the news in our house. He was taciturn, with a deep voice, and these brown eyes that were soulful. His was a trustworthy face, his was a trustworthy voice. The rest of British Columbia agreed, as the News Hour was, by far, the most watched news programme in the province.
I didn’t spend a lot of time with the Rental Units, but for some reason, I was with them that night. I watched the early news with them and the News Hour. I don’t recall why, it’s possible that my mom called me in when the 5pm news began. There was news from Montréal, from whence my mom, me, and my sister came from. There’d been a shooting. Hours earlier, a lone gunman had walked into the Êcole Polytechnique de Montréal, part of the Université de Montréal. The school is on UdeM’s campus, which is nested under the northern side of Mont-Royal, between Outremont and Cote-des-Neiges, two Montréal neighbourhoods. Cote-des-Neiges is the neighbourhood just north of where both sets of my grandparents had lived when I was a kid in Snowdon.
We watched the news, shocked, dismayed, saddened. This gunman had opened fire at l’École Polytechnique because he ‘hated feminists,’ whom he believed had ruined his life. I knew what misogyny looked like, I knew what violence looked like. This wasn’t sexism, this was misogyny.
My mom raised me as a feminist, as she was. Her friends were feminists. My mom had worked in the 1980s helping divorced women get back on their feet, to find jobs and a means to support themselves after being essentially dumped by their husbands, quite often with the children. This was the 1980s, and the women my mom worked with were of a generation where they had quit work when they got married, or at the latest, when they got pregnant. By the time they were dumped, they’d been at home with the kids from anywhere from 5 to 15 years, they had no recent experience, they had no clue.
I spent a fair amount of time in my mom’s office, her colleagues, Christine, Audrey, and Gail, were all really nice to me, and even as an eight year old, I could see what was going on, even if I couldn’t name it. I saw they did good in the world, I was proud of my mom and I was proud of her colleagues.
By the time I was 16, I was a feminist, I believed in equality. I believed in the equality of men and women, but also of people of all ethnicities and races. I thought that Canada as a whole saw things in the same way I did, though I knew better.
We were collectively, as a nation, shocked by what happened in Montréal that day. We didn’t have mass shootings. Even today, 31 years on, the number of mass shootings in Canada can be counted on one hand. We don’t have paralyzing discussions about the rights of individuals versus collective rights. Guns are not part of our national myths and culture.
And whilst misogyny wasn’t hard to find, and men did beat their girlfriends, wives, daughters, mothers, and they sometimes they killed them. One of my dad’s soccer teammates, a few years later, spent a stretch in prison for attempting to murder his girlfriend. Everyone was shocked. I was not. But that didn’t mean that these crimes manifested into massacres. Except on 6 December 1989, they did.
The gunman that day made misogyny a national crisis, he took all that violence and hatred, and fear, of women, and he manifested it onto the national stage.
The great Canadian novelist, Margaret Atwood, sometime in the early 80s, in an interview, said something along the lines of:
“‘Why do men feel threatened by women?’ I asked a male friend of mine.
“‘They are afraid women will laugh at them’, he said, ‘undercut their world view.’
“Then I asked some women students, ‘Why do women feel threatened by men?’ “‘They are afraid of being killed,’ they said.”
Thirty-one years on, we have made all the right noises, every 6 December, we repeat the same lines, from the Prime Minister one down. But just as I argued recently that Canada is an inherently racist society, it is also true that we are an inherently misogynistic society.
The gunman that day pointed this out to us. He killed fourteen women for the sin of seeking an education. He wounded ten more women and four men. The dead:
- Geneviève Bergeron, 21, civil engineering student
- Hélène Colgan, 23, mechanical engineering student
- Nathalie Croteau, 23, mechanical engineering student
- Barbara Daigneault, 22, mechanical engineering student
- Anne-Marie Edward, 21, chemical engineering student
- Maud Haviernick, 29, materials engineering student
- Maryse Laganière, 25, budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department
- Maryse Leclair, 23, materials engineering student
- Anne-Marie Lemay, 22, mechanical engineering student
- Sonia Pelletier, 28, mechanical engineering student
- Michèle Richard, 21, materials engineering student
- Annie St-Arneault, 23, mechanical engineering student
- Annie Turcotte, 20, materials engineering student
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, 31, nursing student.
May they rest in power.