Today is Sunday, 6 December 2020. Thirty-one years ago, 6 December fell on a Wednesday. On that day, just after 4pm, a lone gunman walked into l’École Polytechnique, an engineering school affiliated with the Université de Montréal, my mother’s alma mater, as a matter of fact. He went up to the second floor and stopped at the Office of the Registrar, where he dug through the plastic bag he was carrying. He was silent, and ignored a staff member of the Registrar’s Office who asked if she could help him. He left the Registrar’s Office and wandered the hallways of the second floor, and then entered a mechanical engineering class around 5.10pm. There were about 60 students and the professor in the room. A student was giving a presentation, and the gunman approached the front of the room and asked the class to halt all activities. He then divided the class, men to one side, women to the other. No one took him seriously until he shot into the ceiling.
This was Canada. Canada is not home to a gun culture. Canada is not a nation that has rent itself fighting over the right of the individual to own guns vs. the right of society to be safe.
There were nine women in the room, fifty men. The gunman ordered the men to leave. When they had, he began to lecture the women, he was there, he claimed, to ‘fight feminism.’ Nathalie Provost, one of the women, said: “Look, we are just women studying engineering, not necessarily feminists ready to march on the streets to shout we are against men, just students intent on leading a normal life.” This was not the answer the gunman wanted. As far as he was concerned, they were women studying to be engineers, which made them feminists. ‘I hate feminists,’ he said.
He then opened fire, left to right. He killed six. He wounded the other three. Provost was one of the wounded. After writing ‘Shit! Shit! on a student project, he went out into the hallway, opening fire again, and leaving three women wounded. After entering another room, he attempted to shoot another woman, but his weapon failed; he went into the emergency stairwell, where he reloaded and returned to that same room, but he was locked out. He couldn’t shoot his way in, so he opened fire in the hallway again, wounding one woman, and headed towards the financial services office, where he killed Maryse Laganière, shooting her through the window of the door she had just locked.
He then went downstairs and he continued to shoot, beginning in the cafeteria. And then it was up to the third floor, where he killed two women and a man in the hallway before entering another classroom. He killed more. And then he killed himself.
Outside, the director of public relations of the Société du Police de la Ville de Montréal, Pierre Leclair, briefed reporters before entering the building. There he found the dead body of his daughter, Maryse. She was the gunman’s final victim. The attack had lasted all of about 20 minutes.
We were shocked. From the Atlantic to the Pacific to the Arctic ocean coasts, Canadians were shocked. This was Canada’s first mass shooting. We didn’t know what to do.
I was a teenager living in suburban Vancouver. My mom and I watched the coverage on CTV. The shooting had begun around 1pm Pacific time, but we had no idea. This was before 24-hour news cycles in Canada, before we were constantly bombarded. We saw it on the news that evening. The custom in our family was the the parental units watched the 5pm news before the 6pm news hour on BCTV, the Vancouver affiliate of CTV. The News Hour was hosted by Tony Parsons, the voice of the news of my childhood. My Old Man was in his usual spot at his Command Centre. I was on the couch, my mom in the corner closest to the Old Man and me at the other end.
My mom, sister, and I were all transplanted Montrealers. And, as I noted, my mom’s degree in psychology is from UdeM, though she had gone to the Irish college in the city’s west end, Loyola, which was affiliated with UdeM before it eventually merged, in 1974, with Sir George Williams University in downtown Montréal, to form Concordia University. My sister’s Economics degree is from Concordia. My PhD is as well. Most of our family went to Concordia. The news was so shocking, my mom and I, we were shocked, my mom was crying and the Old Man, who was usually quick with an insensitive comment wrapped up as humour, could say nothing.
The gunman killed fourteen women. He wounded ten more women, and four men. The dead were:
- 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, 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
- Anne Turcotte, 20, materials engineering student
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, 31, nursing student
They were killed for being women seeking an education. They were killed due to toxic misogyny. They were killed for no real reason. May they rest in power.