Remembering the 1989 Montreal Massacre
by Louise Moyer
Senior Program Manager, White Ribbon
December 6th is Canada’s highly significant commemorative day - the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. Over 30 years ago, 14 women were murdered at École Polytechnique in Montreal on December 6, 1989, by a man, in a violent act of misogyny and hatred.
It’s a painful time in our history/herstory; 14 women, future engineers, lost their lives because of horrible social norms, attitudes and behaviours that reinforced inaccurate ideas that men were more worthy than women. And since this time thousands and thousands of other women, girls and non-binary folks have experienced gender-based violence, and many more have lost their lives.
The year before this hate crime, I was at Queen's University completing my Masters degree, where I lived in a co-ed dorm on campus. Many nights, on my way back to my room after being at labs or study groups, I would come across posters and graffiti scattered across campus with messages saying "NO means YES". Rumors had it that these were authored by male engineering students. At that time, the campus administration did nothing.
It was traumatizing to be subjected to those signs, and the clear messages that were being conveyed. Women’s consent to sex was seen as irrelevant to the engineering students, but also to the broader campus community. I was a sexual assault survivor - it happened to me in my first year at York University. When I saw those signs, the words of the offender kept ringing in my ears - “well you know you wanted it, women always say no”. But I didn’t. And I also didn’t want the physical violence that came with my resistance.
Then a year later I was working at my first job when the Montreal massacre happened. I remember reading that the Queen's engineering students had plastered those offensive signs AGAIN. The early dialogue at the office was dismissive of the feminist analysis of the Massacre and my perspective. ‘Of course, women weren’t targeted.’
More retraumatization. The men’s voices in the office got to say “the truth.” But soon the real truth came out - women and feminism had been targeted. But in the meantime I had been left silenced, retraumatized and reliving my pain and feeling the pain of my ‘sisters.’
A few years later, I and some other women in York region came together to establish our local Sexual Assault Centre - to empower women’s voices, support their healing journeys, and advocate for social change.
Today, Ontario post-secondary institutions have put in place policies and protocols to help address sexual violence on campus; supports for survivors; training for staff and students, and wide-scale public education initiatives. We can thank the feminist movement for this and the male allies that speak up and support gender equality. But so many years later, after those early experiences, some students still hang deeply misogynistic posters at college and university campuses across Canada. And today, acts of mass misogynistic hatred still happen - the 2018 Toronto Van Attack, this year’s Nova Scotia mass shooting, and so many everyday acts of violence and femicide in Canada and around the world. We must never forget December 6, 1989.
But there is hope, and I find some solace in knowing that change is happening. This year for December 6th, Queen’s University has honoured Brielle Thorsen, an Indigenous student pursuing her Masters in Mechanical Engineering. She is the recipient of a prestigious $30,000 scholarship, commemorating Canada's National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women and the loss of the women’s lives.
There are things that we can do to create further change: listen, believe and support survivors; recognize that acts of gender-based violence are part of a broader patriarchal system of gender-based discrimination and oppression; continue to advocate for systemic change in our education and political institutions; help raise and educate new generations of gender-equitable boys and young men that grow up to understand the importance of consent, and to become kind, respectful, and strong allies to create a gender just, and peaceful world. And so much more needs to be done.
We remember, and we commit to action.