It has been 20 years. Most of those women would be in their early 40s today — mothers, wives, mentors, leaders — the possibilities were limitless, but now we can just speculate.
I was 13 years old, a new immigrant facing my first winter here, and barely understood this country. Truthfully, I didn’t comprehend the magnitude of the act when, on December 6, 1989, a gunman (whose name is best forgotten) uttered the words, “I am fighting feminism,” before taking the lives of 14 women at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique engineering school.
As I reached the age of awareness, I finally understood what had happened. That day was more than an attack on the women of this nation; it was an attack on our sensibilities and our morality. And over time, I saw it as an attack on my complacency and apathy. I read stories about the aftermath — about the police officer who found his daughter lying dead on the floor, about the survivors who carried shame and guilt for their inaction, about the families who still carry the memories of their loss. After watching the play December Man by Colleen Murphy, I finally grasped how deep the tragedy ran even after the fallen were buried.
Let there be no doubt about it — this was an act of hateful misogyny. But it would be simplistic to say that this was the only contributing factor. The answer to the question “why” requires all of us to look inwards.
As I went through my engineering studies at the University of Calgary, I learned about the soul-searching that my faculty and my profession had done. There was a marked effort to invite and include women in the sciences and engineering, so that those professions would not be considered bastions of male dominance.
Over the years, the engineering faculty added the Women’s Advancement Office, and the student group Women in Sciences and Engineering (WISE) started. Today, the dean of engineering at U of C is Dr. Elizabeth Cannon, an accomplished professor and researcher, and the first woman to hold this position.
The average number of women enrolled in engineering programs across Canada has increased from 11 per cent in 1985, peaking at 21 per cent in 2001, and is currently around 18 per cent. The suggested reason for the drop in enrolment since 2001 is because women now have a lot more career choices.
It’s interesting to note that half of the six Canadian school shootings in the last 20 years have happened in Montreal. And all the perpetrators have been visible minorities (the man who committed these murders was of Algerian and French-Canadian descent). What made them into such disenfranchised outsiders that they used extreme violence as their voice? And we as citizens have to look at the values that we inherit and espouse. Anyone soaked with prejudice and hate will absorb it — be it towards women, minorities, homosexuals, non-believers or any others who aren’t “normal.”
Over the years, the struggle for feminism and gender equality has also changed considerably. Modern feminism has transformed drastically since it came into prominence more than 40 years ago. I have had several discussions with women today who don’t consider themselves to be feminists or different in any way from their male counterparts. That is the greatest tribute that we can pay to all those who worked towards gender equality over the years.
These modern women pay silent tribute to the memories of the Famous Five every time they consider themselves to be a person, honour the memories of all suffragettes when they vote (or abstain on their own free will), and vindicate all those who fought for women’s rights when they apply for law, medical and engineering schools or join the military as combat soldiers.
That is not to say that the struggle is over. Just recently, the B.C. courts have ruled against a challenge by female ski jumpers to allow them to participate in the 2010 Olympics along with their male counterparts, while the International Olympic Committee, is adamant about keeping them out. There is also a court challenge by polygamists wanting the right to marry multiple women (of various ages) in order to exercise their freedom of religion, but we don’t hear any talk about their support for polyandry, where the women, too, could have many marriages of their choosing. And Highway 16 in northern B.C., a national shame that is mournfully called the Highway of Tears, serves as an obnoxious graveyard to all the women who have disappeared on it over the years. These causes are still very current.
There is no excuse for what happened on that day 20 years ago and no justification for why it occurred. But it happened. Most of the students entering our universities today weren’t even born when this event took place, and they need to be told about what happened, and why. So for the same reasons that we remember the Holocaust, let us all respectfully remember this tragedy as well.