Durham leaders from Clarington to Pickering honour the 14 women killed 32 years ago in the Polytechnique Massacre

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Published December 6, 2021 at 4:40 pm

Durham political figures and organizations are honouring the lives lost in Montreal 32 years ago on the anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique Massacre, the deadliest school shooting in Canadian history, now remembered as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

On December 6, 1989 a gunman with a notable history of misogynist tendencies entered the Ecole Polytechnique, an engineering university, armed with a Rutger semi-automatic rifle.

He had previously failed to qualify to attend the university because he lacked required courses. According to the shooter’s mother in her memoir Aftermath, he blamed feminism and women taking jobs from men for his failures.

He had attempted higher education multiple times, initially starting well, but would always flunk out by semester’s end.

The shooter entered a mechanical engineering classroom and instructed the fifty men and nine women to separate to opposite sides of the room. He asked if the students knew why he was there. When a student replied no, the gunman said, “I am fighting feminism.” He would spew more anti-feminist rhetoric through the shooting.

The shooter opened fire on the women in the room, killing six. He then wandered the halls and cafeteria of the school for nearly twenty minutes. He shot another 15 people, two of whom were men, during his rampage.

One woman he had shot and wounded, Maryse Leclair, pleaded for help. Instead the shooter stabbed her to death. Her father, Pierre Leclair, a Montreal police spokesman, found her body minutes after addressing the media regarding the massacre.

The shooter turned his rifle on himself before he could face the consequences of his actions.

In all 14 people were injured and 14 women were killed:

  • Geneviève Bergeron, 21, a civil engineering student
  • Hélène Colgan, 23, a mechanical engineering student
  • Nathalie Croteau, 23, a mechanical engineering student
  • Barbara Daigneault, 22, a mechanical engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Edward, 21 , a chemical engineering student
  • Maud Haviernick, 29, a materials engineering student
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, 31, a nursing student
  • Maryse Laganière, 25, a budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department
  • Maryse Leclair, 23, a materials engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Lemay, 27, a mechanical engineering student
  • Sonia Pelletier, 28, a mechanical engineering student
  • Michèle Richard, 21, a materials engineering student
  • Annie St-Arneault, 23, a mechanical engineering student
  • Annie Turcotte, 21, a materials engineering student

While many sought to rationalize the killings as the isolated attack of a madman, the gunman’s suicide note detail his misogynist motives. It reads in part, translated from the original French, “Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker.”

The shooting had a massive impact across Canadian discourse. The police response was heavily criticized at the time, as officers made a perimeter around the campus and waited sometime before entering. Several women were killed in the meantime.

This led to substantial reforms in police protocol later credited with preventing substantial bloodshed in the 2006 Dawson College Shooting, also in Montreal.

It also led to large calls to amend Canadian gun laws. Survivors and parents started the Coalition for Gun Control to lobby for the Firearms Act, which created the current restrictions for possession and storage of guns.

The act mandated firearms training, applicant screen in and a 28 day waiting period for purchases. The Polytechnique shooter bought his rifle on November 21, less than three weeks before the shooting.

It also established the long-gun registry which stood until 2012 when it was abolished by the Harper government. All data was destroyed after a 2015 Supreme Court ruling quashed attempts by Quebec to keep their information.

Part of the fallout was a House of Commons Sub-Committee on the Status of Women, which recommended the creation of Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women which began in August 1991.

It also resulted in the anniversary being marked as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Flags across the country have been lowered to half-mast every December 6 for the last 30 in honour of the lives extinguished in Montreal.

This year numerous leaders across Durham Region have honoured the victims with statements in support of the National Day of Remembrance.

These calls come amid a time of significant reflection on the status of women in the Region, particularly in the political landscape, with Whitby Regional Councillor Rhonda Mulcahey alleging a hostile work environment for women at the Town of Whitby, citing incidents with Councillor Chris Leahy and Mayor Don Mitchell.

Mitchell denies any wrongdoing, while Leahy has worked to make amends, prioritizing a variety of women’s issues in Town and Regional Council.

This includes a motion at Regional Council in November’s meeting to honour Durham’s women in leadership positions on next year’s International Women’s Day.

Whitby currently has a majority-female town council for the first time, 60 years after women attained universal suffrage in Canada.

A recent survey of Town staff found that of those who experienced discrimination, including from clients, most experienced it based on their sex.  The survey was conducted by the Town is an effort to alleviate discrimination in the workplace.

 

Despite countless strides on behalf of women across the country, including several Durham initiatives, issues of violence and discrimination remain ever-present.

A recent CBC investigation found of the 400 intimate partner homicides committed in Canada, 76 per cent of the victims were women. In more than 36 per cent of cases at least one known warning sign existed.

Closer to home, Durham police instituted a Human Trafficking Unit to combat ever-rising cases of a crime that predominantly victimizes women. The HTU files hundreds of charges a year at an ever-increasing rate.

Most tragically, the legacy of the Polytechnique Shooter also lives on in the Incel community, a online subculture of the “involuntarily celibate” with a myriad of misogynist ideologies.

Three years ago a man with a long history of misogynist social media posts drove a van through a crowd of people in north Toronto killing 11 people and injuring 15 more. In describing the Toronto Van Attack, educator Julie Lalonde said the link between that crime and the murders in Montreal 29 years before “is so clear, so direct, so obvious.”

The van driver also shared this ideology with the 2020 Portapique Nova Scotia shooter, who killed 22 people usurping Polytechnique as the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history.

A study conducted by Call It Femicide found a woman or girl was killed every other day in Canada, showing much work remains undone.

 

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