Remembering the Massacre at Polytechnique

Twenty years ago this week—December 6, 1989—Mark Lépine shot or stabbed 27 engineering students, mostly women, at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal after accusing them of being feminists. Of the 14 students who died, all were women. December 6 is now National Violence Against Women Day in Canada, in memory of the 14 women whose lives were stolen simply for being women. Catherine Porter has an article commemorating the ‘Montreal Massacre’ and reflecting on what the anniversary means for the future.

Porter writes that, of all of the school massacres North America has seen in recent years, like Columbine, Dawson College, and Virginia Tech, “The Montreal Massacre was different. Lépine had a specific target: women.”

He blamed them for his own failures. His suicide note listed other women he’d set in his sights: a politician, a union leader, and Quebec’s first female firefighter and police captain, among others. He’d settled for easier targets – the young women at Université de Montréal’s engineering school, who had the audacity to study for careers that still today are the domain of men….

It was an event that changed the lives of students at school, and women around the country. We all had posters of those women on our walls. We went to commemorations. We walked the streets in Take Back the Night marches. We felt exposed to a hatred many of us hadn’t realized was festering – over the fact that we could work too, that we could study men’s subjects, that we could be good at it.

Although the Montreal Massacre changed the way that Canadians treated violence against women, misogyny still “festers.” Indeed, the anniversary of this event serves to remind us that violence remains a far more magnified threat for women all over the world, and that the gender dimension is still as prevalent as ever in school shootings and similar massacres. Despite Porter’s claim that the Montreal Massacre was ‘different,’ Lepine is not the only shooter to have specifically targeted women. Bob Herbert in his 2006 NYTimes op-ed points out that in two recent school shootings in the United States, a rural Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania and a large public high school in Colorado, the shooters separated the girls and the boys, and then deliberately attacked only the girls:

In the widespread coverage that followed these crimes, very little was made of the fact that only girls were targeted. Imagine if a gunman had gone into a school, separated the kids up on the basis of race or religion, and then shot only the black kids. Or only the white kids. Or only the Jews.

There would have been thunderous outrage. The country would have first recoiled in horror, and then mobilized in an effort to eradicate that kind of murderous bigotry. There would have been calls for action and reflection. And the attack would have been seen for what it really was: a hate crime.

None of that occurred because these were just girls, and we have become so accustomed to living in a society saturated with misogyny that violence against females is more or less to be expected. Stories about the rape, murder and mutilation of women and girls are staples of the news, as familiar to us as weather forecasts. The startling aspect of the Pennsylvania attack was that this terrible thing happened at a school in Amish country, not that it happened to girls.

In 2009, this pattern remains. In a shooting spree in March in Winnenden, Germany, 11 of the male shooter’s 15 victims were female, and authorities believe the shooter deliberately targeted women. In August of this year, misogynist George Sodini shot up a women’s exercise class in Pittsburgh. As we remember the incident at Polytechnique, we must remember that the clearly gendered massacre is not an ‘isolated’ incident, nor is it outdated. Instead, it is another horrifying example of women and girls being attacked for one reason: the fact that they’re female.


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