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Commemorating the Montréal massacre

The killing of women by violent and angry men is not uncommon in Canada


The day after the killing, women gathered outside the doors of l’École Polytechnique to pay tribute to the 14 victims. Photo by Jacques Grenier/Le Devoir.

Dimension remembers the day of the Montréal massacre 15 years ago, December 6, 1989. The news flashes that told, incomprehensibly at first, of a mass murder at l’École Polytechnique. And then, the details: 14 young women gunned down in their classrooms, the gunman dead by his own hand. The images of roses in the snow, public and private grief, and coffins in churches. The horror and rage experienced by so many, as we realized that this was misogyny, practiced in the public and elite space of a university, against women who were seen by the murderer to have violated male space, and thus to have predicated his lack of success in academia and elsewhere. In other words, it was their fault, and, by his analysis, it is our (feminists’) fault. Fourteen women lost their lives at the hands of a murderous misogynist who hated women. He said so. Who hated women being in the engineering faculty of a university. He said so. He called these women feminist. He separated the men from the women and then shot the women. He carried a “hit list” of other women to be killed, all of whom were prominent, many of whom were feminist, all of whom were successful in traditionally male arenas. Misogyny doesn’t get much clearer than that.

Feminists (there are several more precise definitions, but let’s use this one: any woman who differentiates herself from a doormat) are, in the warped minds of misogynists, responsible for male misery and are rightly targets of male rage and hate, including murder. This is the lesson of the Montréal massacre, and it must not be lost, nor conflated with other social-justice aims like equality, elimination of poverty, and so on. Our horror came from our realization of women’s collective vulnerability, as well as from our grief over the specific deaths. Our rage came from our realization that misogyny is socially acceptable, so its consequences are inevitable—as well as from our anger at the specific act. And for those of us in universities, the massacre destroyed any illusion that we, as women, had safe space in public institutions.

These women were killed, not because they were unequal by virtue of gender, but precisely because they had transcended patriarchal social boundaries. They were not killed for being poor, or for lacking childcare, or for having inadequate political representation, though all these issues are important. They were killed for being women in the elite space of the engineering faculty of l’École Polytechnique, for succeeding in the midst of what the murderer conceived of as male space, and they were killed because he was a loser and he blamed women for his lot.

They were killed by an individual, no doubt unbalanced, but the massacre cannot be reduced to the anomalous act of a madman. Indeed, efforts to do this are efforts to deny the reality that misogyny is a social problem, present in our political culture and perpetuated by our popular culture and our faith-based myths that denigrate women. Male violence against women begins early (just check out the rates of abuse and violence in junior high school); is perpetuated in popular culture, in which women are presented as dumb, shallow, maternal and/or hyper-sexual; and is eroticized (consider the nature of porn, much of it violent toward women, much of it featuring children). Not every garden-variety misogynist will enact Lepine’s murderous rampage, or would want to, but the normativeness of misogynist attitudes toward women makes the emergence of Lepine and confreres possible.

In the aftermath of the murders, voices filled the public space trying to make sense of the event. Many analyzed it as misogyny and drew connections to our cultural toleration of violence against women, the denigration and subordination of women, and the phenomenon of male supremacy. These voices called on men and women to challenge social relations that allowed the murderer and others to feel deprived of their entitlements because some women were able to seek a measure of success.

Other voices, however, insisted this was an isolated act. Some blamed feminists, and claimed that equality objectives like women’s reproductive choice were in fact responsible for the murders. One anti-feminist woman, representing a group funded by the federal government, suggested, without any evidence in support of her argument, that the murderer may have been deranged because perhaps his child was aborted. A number of men phoned open-line shows to commend the murderer, and to say they, too, had wanted to kill feminists. Feminism, which seeks autonomy, security, respect and self-determination for women, was blamed for misogyny, hatred of women, which emerges in patriarchal cultures and gives rise to the behaviours that discipline women to conform to male supremacy.

Marc Lepine’s misogyny is obvious and incontestable. But, in our society, the prevalence of garden-variety sexism makes a comfortable context for misogyny, on a spectrum from disrespectful attitudes and discriminatory practices, through to the high levels of male violence against women. In other words, Lepine was an extreme but logical example of a cultural characteristic of male control of, and violence towards, women. Violence against women is common enough that fear of it disciplines us in our everyday lives. We curtail our freedom because of this fear. We self-censor: what we wear, where we go, what we say. And it doesn’t matter: well behaved, careful, conformist women also are killed.

And the killing of women by violent and angry men is not uncommon in Canada. The shock wave that resulted from the Montréal massacre was in part because of the number of dead women, and the fact that they were killed in a public place. But wives and romantic or sexual partners are the most common victims of murderous men. Women who leave violent men are most vulnerable when they leave, for it is then that violent men are most likely to go across the socially acceptable line of patriarchal repression and become murderous toward women who are slipping out of their control. Sex-trade workers are easy and frequent targets of misogynists: these women are especially vulnerable because of social attitudes about “good” and “bad” women, which infest our justice system, our police forces and our civil society.

These crimes often have a racist dimension, and women who are racialized are particularly vulnerable to misogyny. Hence the horrifically long list of missing Aboriginal women being compiled by CBC reporter Audrey Huntley and the Native Women’s Association of Canada. Many of the scores of women killed at the infamous pig farm in BC were sex-trade workers, and most of them were Aboriginal. Misogyny is a comfortable bed partner with racism. As we work to eliminate misogyny, we must also work to eliminate racism.

So, 15 years on, what can we say about the École Polytechnique massacre, and the level of male violence against women? The threat of misogynist violence continues to colour the lives of most women. As the sharp edges of anger and shock over the massacre are dulled by time and new horrors, we risk forgetting that misogyny kills, and that it is both endemic and epidemic to Canadian society. This editorial is Dimension’s call to keep the issue and the anniversary conceptually clear and politically urgent.

Joyce Green is a professor of political science at the University of Regina.

This article appeared in the January/February 2005 issue of Canadian Dimension .


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