Were Lessons Learned at L’Ecole?

ecole-polytechnique.jpg?w=300&h=224December 6, 2012 was the 23rd anniversary of the tragic Montreal Massacre.  On that day, in 1989, a lone gunman entered a classroom at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, separated the women from the men –telling the men to leave the room.  He then opened fire on the women…because they were women, all the while violently yelling, “J’haïs les feministes” [I hate feminists].  By the end of this 45 minute shooting rampage, the gunman armed with a semi-automatic rifle had toured three floors and several classrooms, shot 28 people, killed 13 students and one staff member, and taken his own life.  This event, still the worst mass shooting in Canadian history, brought violence against women to the forefront of Canadian collective consciousness, and was the initial catalyst for the federal long-gun registry.

Later investigation revealed that this murderer was himself a university student, who had missed qualifying for the engineering school by two credits. He blamed women (not his own failings) for having ruined his life.  When he chose to kill himself, he still had 60 bullets left and could have continued killing many more women.  However, the police strategy, while he was terrorizing innocent women, was to merely establish a perimeter around the school.  Orders were not given to enter the school until 24 seconds after it was reported that the suspect was dead; no active police intervention was even under consideration.

The gunman received plenty of publicity…everyone heard his name on the news.  But the names of the women whose lives were taken are:  Anne St-Arneault; Geneviève Bergeron; Hélène Colgan; Nathalie Croteau; Barbara Daigneault; Anne-Marie Edward; Maud Haviernick; Barbara Klueznick; Maryse Laganière; Maryse Leclair; Anne-Marie Lemay; Sonia Pelletier; Michèle Richard; and Annie Turcotte.

We would like to recognize December 6th, to commemorate these 14 women and to assert the fact that gender-based violence is still an ongoing threat to the rights, and safety of women here at home and all around the world.  Gender-based violence is not an historical occurrence that used to happen back in the 1980s, nor that only happens in isolated incidents. It is happening today; it is happening to countless women..

In the Fall 2012 Street Health Newsletter, we focused on the menacing threat of proposed cuts to the Community Start-up Benefit, and their potential negative effects on women.  Furthermore, gender-based violence affects all women, regardless of race, religion, income level, education, age, or degree of public visibility.  This threat can be defined as, “any act of gender based violence that results in, or is likely to result in, physical, sexual, or psychological harm or suffering to women…whether occurring in public or private life.”


.  Forms of this violence go beyond the more obvious physical abuses (from shoving and beatings to mutilation and murder) to also include:  emotional/psychological; sexual; financial; neglect or denial of basic needs. [AWHL]  Globally:  women aged 15 to 44 are more likely to die from male violence than from cancer, malaria, traffic accidents, and war combined.

  In Canada:  an average of 6 women per day are killed by their intimate partners; in 2004, 427,000 women reported being sexually assaulted; more than half of Canadian women over 16 have suffered physical or sexual violence at least once. [AWHL]  Again, gender-based violence isn’t an historical, rare, foreign problem; it is happening right now and close to home.

In Toronto, a woman walking home having finished the night-shift at a downtown hotel was approached from behind, in a Cabbagetown alleyway, and brutally stabbed to death.  Nighisti Semret, from all accounts, was a hardworking, quiet yet feisty woman who was focused on bringing her family to Canada, to a better life.  Her life, and her family’s future potential were abruptly destroyed by a man she apparently didn’t even know.  Chilling security-camera footage shows Nicki (as she was known to friends) walking with her umbrella, moments before the yet-unidentified assailant stabbed her more than 10 times…while cursing violently.  At a candlelight vigil held at the site days afterward, women, who didn’t know the victim personally, prayed and wept -deeply affected by another woman’s pain.  News coverage of the October 2012 attack focused on the victim’s immigration status, housing conditions, cultural identity.  One newspaper article  turns the story of a murdered woman (summed up in two sentences) into a discussion on how this incident might affect richer Cabbagetown residents’ property values.  All the while obscuring the fact that an innocent woman was stabbed to death.

Not all forms of gender-based violence result in death, but all of them are serious, prevalent, and deserving of public outrage.  In August 2012, nine women reported being sexually assaulted in the Christie Pits area of Toronto.  Over the Thanksgiving weekend, three more.  Increased police presence and investigation revealed that the suspect descriptions were similar in all of these cases, but did not reveal much detail beyond this.  A man was terrorizing an entire neighbourhood, yet women in the area were not told what he looked like, where he targeted, or when.  Did he approach women who were alone?  Was it always after dark, on residential side streets?  Did he target women whose hearing was impaired by earphones?  Or women who had both hands full carrying groceries?  “Not explaining [what police know] creates a culture of fear…knowledge is power so if we know more, we’ll be able to better protect ourselves”, says one area resident, critical of police. [Livingstone, TorStar]    Despite two well-attended public protests, police tactics became no more transparent or forthcoming.  Instead, police chose to send undercover female officers into the area who, according to Chief Bill Blair, “went into that community and put themselves at risk” in an orchestrated sting operation.  Although a suspect was caught, and the neighbourhood can feel relieved, it cannot be ignored that providing detailed information, inviting public involvement and community response were rejected in favour of putting women at risk to find a man who was already putting women at risk.

Also hard to ignore was the age of the suspect, in this case, a 15-year-old.  In fact numbers released by Statistics Canada [link] reveal that young males aged 12-17 account for significantly more sexual assaults than those aged 18 and over.  Older males do commit more of the physically violent crimes, but sexual violence starts young.

At Ryerson University, in downtown Toronto, emergency meetings were called by the school’s student union because, by the end of the first month of classes, at least 6 women had reported being sexually assaulted on campus.  These meetings attracted front-page media attention, and responses from campus security and Toronto Police.  Security sent emails to students with dates, details, and physical descriptions, also offering safe-walk escorts, free self-defense classes and counselling.  However, according to 4th-year Ryerson student Laura S., a more valuable commitment to assault prevention was missing.  The online ”security watch”  is a website that she has to seek out to learn about safety risks –more akin to student research than to student notification.  Only in the wake of much media attention did she start finding warnings in her email inbox.  It was the students themselves who had to call emergency meetings.  When Laura travelled her campus, often by herself -sometimes at night, signs posted meant to warn women didn’t seem meant to actually find those women.  Near the engineering department (still heavily male-dominated), signs could be found:  Warning.  One has to bypass three floors down to find the exercise facility’s weight-room (equally male-dominated)…and to find the signs warning women about sexual assaults on campus.  Areas of study dominated by female students (nursing, social work) were not covered with warnings, nor were areas that most students go (the library, washrooms).  Laura felt that the message being sent was meant for men (warning, we are watching you) instead of for women (we are watching out for you).

The only police arrest made in this rash of attacks was of a man who was himself a Ryerson student…and he wasn’t the only one.  In mid-November, a different 20-year-old Ryerson student was arrested on a total of 11 armed home-invasion, sexual assault charges –all of them involving extreme violence.


Laura S. shudders to think, “these two guys could’ve been sitting right beside me in class, and I first found about all of this from watching the evening news!” 


According to the Assaulted Women’s Helpline [AWHL], “the goal of an abuser is to frighten and control you.  If you feel unsafe [or] are experiencing any form of abuse, you live with violence.”  The goals of police, the media, security services, or governing bodies ought to be the exact opposite.

If a car is stolen, an innocent bystander shot, or an animal abused –no one blames the victim.  Similarly, if a woman is a victim of violence, we must affirm that, “abuse is always the responsibility of the abuser.”[AWHL] Girls and women have always carried the burden of this issue, but abuse happens at the hands of men and boys.  Our collective response must begin by reframing the minds of those men and re-educating those boys.

“It’s better to build strong children then to repair broken men”, says Frederick Douglas. 

With 24 hour internet access, 80% of boys are watching hardcore pornography by the age of 18 –sometimes starting as young as 12 or 13.  With cellphone photo and video, kids are taking explicit photos and “sexting” them to one another.  Premature exposure to sex acts (which in porn sometimes include violence) engender a new list of expectations that then translate into teen male behaviour.  Teens are emulating pop stars…and porn stars.  Both genders may want romance, but porn, the sexualization of young girls, and pressures to conform to media images rob teens of their ability to discover, experience, or even identify what they actually wanted in the first place. [Sext Up Kids, CBC]

Teach boys that gender-based violence is real, and that it’s wrong.  Tell them that without consent, grabbing a girl’s body is never okay, sex without consent is a crime, that media distortion won’t cover it up, and that government inaction won’t make it go away.

Most men will say that they’re against violence against women.  After all, there are more similarities between the genders than there are differences.  But, words and good intentions aren’t enough.  The White Ribbon Campaign [link] encourages engaging men in both raising awareness of and putting an end to this enduring, global problem.  Men need to examine their own values and attitudes, and realize where those attitudes become tools of oppression.  White Ribbon presents 6 things every man can do right now to help prevent or reduce violence:  believe that it is real; don’t just walk on by; offer support; lead by example; continue to do so; learn more and do more.

This year, the Ecole Polytechnique chose to remember the 14 women lost to violence in a quiet ceremony, one more personal in nature. [link] Twenty-three years after the Montreal Massacre, the threat of violence still exists.  Some acts cannot be predicted, and thereby prevented.  There are others, though, that we’ve researched and identified…ones that mothers warn their daughters to beware.  Violence against women is evidence of the ongoing legacy of unequal power relations between women and men.  Our tendency to diminish or ignore it is evidence that we haven’t evolved past that legacy.  Deliberate efforts to perpetuate it, regardless of how subtle, make hostages out of women living their lives and martyrs out of the women who lose their lives.  This is both a private and a public problem, and as Canadian essayist John Ralston Saul once said, “… we need to stop managing the problem; we need to solve the problem and start managing the solution”