I got home from work a little earlier than usual that day, but the sun had already set an hour before. The weekly newspaper office where I worked in Pointe St-Charles had closed early, and the Montreal Metro got me home in record time. The details of that early evening before the phone rang on 6 December 1989 are etched in my memory in the finest detail. I remember the saturated colors of the windows of St. Michael the Archangel church spilling into my third-floor apartment across Rue St-Urbain. I remember that it was unusually warm after a couple of bone-chilling days. I remember hearing the wail of sirens moving west along Rue Bernard, and I wondered what was up.
The phone rang just as I took a beer from the refrigerator. It was my friend Azana, who lived further west, in Outremont, about halfway to the campus of l’Université de Montréal. I heard the agitation in her voice: “did you hear, did you hear?” Did I hear what, the sirens? “Jesus, Matt, just turn on the radio – it’s terrible.” I tuned-in to the local news. Everything after that is a blur.
Thirty years ago today, a 25-year-old man named Marc Lépine strode into an engineering class at l’École Polytechnique, told the men to leave and then, after informing the women that he was “fighting feminists,” opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle. Six of the nine women in the classroom died instantly and he strode into the school’s hallways and continued firing. By the time he turned his gun on himself, Lépine had murdered fourteen young women, all between the ages of 20 and 31. One was a university employee, another, a nursing student; twelve were aspiring engineers.
Apart from horror, I don’t recall much from that day after I turned on the radio. I do remember what came later. That date is a kind of caesura in my memory – indeed, in the collective memory of all of us who lived through it – marking both a rupture and a radical departure in gender politics.
As the CBC’s Loreen Pindera noted this week, both civil and police authorities, and the mainstream media, were reluctant to call the massacre what it was: an antifeminist attack. Lépine had explicitly said that his goal was to kill feminists, but an official narrative coalesced around the notion that he was a troubled young man and said simply, in language that would become so familiar decades later, that he was mentally ill.
In 1989, a recent drop-out from Concordia University, I was an aspiring journalist deeply embedded in the Plateau-Montréal’s politicized arts scene. I produced a current-affairs show on CINQ-FM Radio Centre-Ville, and took shifts at Librairie Alternative, the anarchist bookshop on the Lower Main. I played in the pit-band of an agitprop theater group, and discussed politics late into the night at La Cabane. And, in the dark Christmas season following the Massacre, everyone I knew went from horror to rage as the fact of Lépine’s antifeminist, misogynist attack was swept under the media carpet.
It was, maybe, too much to expect that the neoliberal (though we did not yet have that word) technocrats in positions of leadership would acknowledge the obvious. To their credit, Montreal Mayor Jean Dore and Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa spoke out for gun control, but to their shame, they conspicuously avoided discussing the gunman’s ideological motivations, and what that meant in post-Révolution tranquille, secular Quebec society. The media, from the CBC to La Presse, Le Devoir, and The Gazette, studiously avoided the question. It was only discussed in the burgeoning alternative media – and the contrast with the official narrative was both dramatic and exasperating.
Looking back, I shouldn’t have been surprised. This was, after all, a time when feminism was something that polite people did not often speak about. The issue of Time magazine dated just two days before the Massacre featured a cover story on feminism, “Women Face the 90s,” by senior editor Claudia Wallis. But she expressed ambivalence about the feminist movement. ‘”If asked the question, ‘Are you a feminist?’” Wallis said. “I would have said, ‘Yes, but . . . ‘ ‘” That was a huge “but” even in 1989, but it wasn’t unusual, even in the arty-lefty circles in which I traveled; not even for me.
It was, to be sure, a time of activist ferment; women’s groups at Montreal’s universities organized meetings, conferences, and events to raise consciousness and awareness, frequently to the derision of many of their fellow students, and only after fighting for the kind of funding routinely offered the Christian Fellowship. They were often regarded as radicals – a stereotype of loud, man-hating feminists Mary Walsh and Cathy Jones satirized on Codco. There was Dykes on Mics on CKUT, McGill University’s student radio station, and CINQ-FM aired a groundbreaking weekly feminist newsmagazine called Matrix every Saturday afternoon. But what I remember most from our programing committee meetings was how hard the show’s producer, Laura Yaros, often had to fight to be taken seriously.
More than one of my male colleagues dismissed Matrix as “the ladies’ show,” and its producers as “those girls” behind their backs. I was disgusted but, to my shame, I never spoke up.
To be honest, three decades ago feminism was something that I fully supported but thought of as something other people did; specifically, other female people. My girlfriend – a performer in a women’s agitprop theater collective, a journalist and writer – was a passionate feminist, and I respected and supported her political commitments. She hated the word “girlfriend” so I stammered and stuttered until I settled on “partner.”
Only a few months before the murders at the École Polytechnique, we rallied together with thousands of our friends, colleagues, and comrades on the eastern slope of Mount Royal, demanding justice for Chantal Daigle, a woman whose ex-boyfriend had mobilized the full weight of law to prevent her from seeking a legal abortion. There was no question in my mind: Daigle’s right to her own body was absolute and inviolate. I was there, standing in the damp grass just south of the monument to Sir Georges-Etienne Cartier, because it was my ethical and political obligation to support her and every other woman in Canada.
But here’s the thing: I thought of myself as a supporter, not as a feminist. As much as I agreed with what Marlene, Azana, Laura, and every other woman in my life said and fought for, I thought of it as their fight. So I was able to excuse the sexist jokes at the radio station, or the predatory sexual harassment in the theater company and at the anarchist bookshop. I thought nothing of “checking out” a passing stranger on the Main from behind my moddish Wayfarers. I was complacent in my own complicity, and I was certain that this – all of this, from the deeply misogynistic culture to my own positionality and privilege – would work itself out. The feminists had it covered, and I only had to support them.
That all changed on that Wednesday evening. In the days and weeks that followed, it dawned on me that I could not be a bystander. I saw that expression of grief and terror repeated in the faces of every woman I knew. One friend spontaneously broke down in uncontrollable sobs in the middle of a sentence as we were chatting amiably outside Warshaw’s supermarket. “Don’t you see? He was hunting us!” Her “us” did not include me. Marc Lépine killed women; he was fighting feminists. He was hunting the people who not only believed in equality, who demanded full and equal economic rights for women, the right to their autonomy, and to every opportunity, but who struggled for it every day.
As one of my closest friends pointedly noted that December: “You’re with us, or you’re against us. You want to change things, or you don’t. You are a feminist or you are an antifeminist. There’s no middle ground, so pick a side.” I picked a side, and thirty years later, as violence against women rages on, as those questions of economic equality and bodily autonomy are threatened as never before in a generation, and when it is still possible to blithely claim to be an antifeminist, the struggle continues.
Remember 6 December. Pick a side.
Photo: Screen capture of the CBC News coverage of École Polytechnique Massacre, courtsey of the Canadian Broadcasting Corporation.