I was 10 years old when I learned that being a woman could get you killed.
I was reading on the floor behind my bedroom door, basking in the warm air gushing from the heating vent, listening to the muffled sobs and hushed tones wafting from the kitchen below. I was listening, hoping to hear about the Christmas presents my mother had been out shopping for.
My mother was crying. My father was listening, silent.
It was the evening of December 6th, 1989. Only a few hours before, Marc Lépine had walked into the École Polytechnique de Montréal, separated the men from the women, and opened fire.
“J’haïs les féministes! Vous êtes une bande de féministes! | I hate feminists! You’re a bunch of feminists!”
Lépine had murdered 14 women.
I had watched the evening news in frozen horror that evening, sitting grim and tight-lipped with my father as we watched news from Montreal. It was not lost on either one of us that a policeman dispatched to the scene would arrive to find that his daughter, Maryse Leclair, was among the dead.
As a 10-year old girl, I sought answers from my parents, who could only tell me that these women had been killed because they were women. Because they sought an education in a field of study reserved for men.
I understood: being a woman could get you killed.
Decades later, when I shared my recollections with my mother, she reminisced about the things that men and women told each other in the days following the massacre. Including a joke from a colleague: “It’s sad, yes. But Claire, this is what happens to women who don’t know their place.”
Words that made my blood run as cold as Lépine’s cris de coeur.
Words that only showed that Lépine’s actions were not those of a lone gunman, but those of a man living in a society that condones violence against women. Lépine pulled the trigger, but misogyny loaded the gun.
Twenty five years later, we like to believe that things have changed. That women are empowered, breaking glass ceilings, and able to report violence when it happens. But has anything really changed since December 6th 1989?
To be sure, mass killings at the Polytechnique massacre and more recently by Elliot Rodger in Santa Barbara are not the norm, nor are they typical of women’s lived experiences with violence. They are explosive examples of societies that have sanctified misogyny. But they are a clear articulation of the subtle menace that hangs over the lives of countless women.
Women’s experiences with violence are insidious. We are most often targeted by men we know, sometimes even by men we trust. It happens to us in our homes, on our streets, in our schools, and in cyberspace.
For most Canadian women, violence does not have Marc Lépine’s face.
No. For us, violence has a female face.
Where our politicians have openly instrumentalized sexual violence and child marriage in Syria, Afghanistan, and Iraq to sell palatable military missions, but continue to deny the cries for an inquiry into missing and murdered women.
Where a Charter of values can drive nationalist fervour and spark a rise in violent attacks on veiled women on the streets of Montreal.
A country where our university campuses are rife with the echoes of rape chants.
Where nearly a dozen women have been too afraid to publicly denounce a once beloved CBC personality.
A country where our legal system fail families like Zahra Abdille and her two sons, forcing them back into abusive households and ultimately to their deaths.
Where our Minister of Justice who, decades later, still doesn’t ‘know why’ Marc Lépine opened fire on women, can lay claim to the right to control women’s bodies, maintain the pretense of wanting to protect sex workers, but pass Bill C36 (which cruelly comes into effect today), a law that can only turn our streets into killing fields of women.
On December 6th, when we take a moment to observe the women murdered at the École Polytechnique de Montréal, let us also take a moment to remember Loretta Saunders, Tina Fontaine and Rinelle Harper; Lucy DeCoutere, Reva Seth, Kathryn Borel and the other women who anonymously came forward to tell their stories of abuse; Naima Rharouity and the Muslim women who faced public aggression during the Charter of Values debates; Zahra Abdille and her sons Faris and Zain; Rehtaeh Parsons and Amanda Todd; and the countless women who told their stories through #BeenRapedNeverReported.
Let us remember: the fight is not over.
In memory and in honour of Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.