Like the Fall of Berlin Wall, which was commemorated last month, the murder of 14 women at L'École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989 is a news story I remember experiencing in real time. I was 11 at the time, so old enough that some of those memories still reach me a quarter of a century later. By then I knew enough French that "L'École" meant "school," and as much the seriousness of the situation resonated, so did the question: Why would anyone want to shoot up a school? Of course Marc Lépine was not there to shoot up a school, we was there to shoot and kill women. And 25 years later we're still struggling with a society where women feel like they're under attack, and where mistakes of the past seem far too easily repeated.
It's interesting that leading up this anniversary, the issue of violence against women has been cast back in the harsh light of the media. From the CBC firing and the later criminal charges pending against Jian Ghomeshi, which coincided with the launch of the Twitter hashtag #beenrapedneverreported, and from the removal of two MPs from the Liberal caucus for the alleged harassment of two NDP MPs, to shocking stories from woman who've worked in and around Parliament Hill for decades finally being told, there are moments when there's signs of progress, but all that terrible honesty still hasn't taken us where we need to go.
The shortfall was on display earlier this week in the House of Commons when National Defence Minister Peter MacKay said of the perpetrator of the Montreal Massacre, "And while we may never understand what occurred, why this happened, why these women were singled out for this horrific act of violence, we have to stand together." MacKay was attacked for not noting that these women were singled out because they were women, which I think he probably knows, however, I think there is something worth getting at in MacKay's statement: what is it about seeing strong, smart, independent and accomplished women that drives people like Lépine to such terrible extremes?
There's no shortage of opinions on the answer to that question. Halifax MP Megan Leslie, outlined a rationale in her 2008 speech at an event memorializing the events of December 6 saying, "We live in a culture of casual misogyny. We live in a culture that pays attention to women most often when it wants to berate us, blame us, or compare us to each other. And we don’t do enough to fight it."
Francine Pelletier, a columnist for Le Devoir, notes that, at the time, coverage of the events at L'École Polytechnique couldn't, or wouldn't, address the underlining issue head on. "Unable to look the tragedy in the eye — to this day we have yet to acknowledge that this was not just a crime against women but against feminism, against women who dare go where only men have gone before — we have been paying lip service in the fight against violence against women."
Twenty-five years later, there is wide-spread recognition that what ever was going on in Lépine's head, he targeted women because they were women and they were someplace he thought they shouldn't be: an engineering school. Nothing in Lépine's "suicide note" pointed to a particular hatred of engineers, or of higher education, but there was lots and lots about how women were taking over the roles and assignments of men, and how basically his crummy lot in life was served to him by "the feminists." Of course, Lépine used "feminists" like how Truthers use "New World Order," an all-purpose boogie man whose feet to whom all life's grievances should be laid.
Most telling though, Lépine did not consider himself crazy. He even said in his note that, "Even if the Mad Killer epithet will be attributed to me by the media, I consider myself a rational erudite that only the arrival of the Grim Reaper has forced to take extreme acts." Perhaps here we gleam what's wrong in the minds of people like this: they don't think their wrong. Consider even Lépine's use of the word "erudite," which means showing great knowledge or learning. He saw women as having advantages that men didn't (like maternity leave) and saw them trying then to take man-only advantages, and he's basically saying he's one of the enlightened ones.
Some want us to think that the actions of Marc Lépine are an outlier, and in one sense they are as not every man that hates women gets a gun and starts shooting as many of them as he possibly can. No, on the one side of the spectrum is Lépine, down the line a little are the hundreds - if not thousands - of First Nations' women who've gone missing and/or been killed over the decades, and further down the line from that are rapists, and the Ghomeshis of the world that exploit the theoretical debate of consent. And then there are the stories of life in the Canadian capital that would make any really rational man shameful, the things highlight by Chantal Hébert in a recent column in The Star. We file all these things into separate categories like "harassment," "assault," and "massacre," but they all come from the same place: the belief that women are not equal in society and are meant only for the roles defined to them by men.
Changing hearts and minds is almost as easy as lifting a mountain range with your own two hands and moving it three inches to the left, but it can be done with time and dedication. It begins first by recognizing there is a problem. It can be taken a step further by realizing that there aren't going to be any easy solutions. Really though, we have to keep the conversation going beyond the occasion of sad anniversaries, and outside the revelation that certain celebrities may have some shocking and terrible skeletons in their closet.
Yesterday, a poll was published that showed that 78 per cent of those asked said that they had experienced sexual advances, sexual talk or requests for sexual favours from a colleague in the work place and didn't report it. The reasons varied, but in most cases people were concerned that it would affect their careers, that they wouldn't be believed or their employer wouldn't react well, or they were either too embarrassed or too scared to come forward. Talking alone won't solve the problem, but it certainly could help, and the numbers cited seem to say that there are a lot of people in the same boat, have the same experiences and were anticipating the same reaction if they talked. Let's take that as reason to talk more about these issues, be encouraging, and show compassion, respect and understanding lest we will still be talking about about this in another 25 years.
***In an additional coda to this piece I will say that as man, that's perspective from which I wrote it. I can never pretend to know what it's like to be a woman and face the challenges that a woman has to face, but I support wholeheartedly the ongoing cause for equality and the fight to eliminate violence against women.