The École Polytechnique Tragedy: Beyond the Duty of Remembrance
Every year on 6 December, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, the women who lost their lives in the massacre are remembered. While flags are flown at half-mast, vigils, conferences and demonstrations are held in remembrance. Despite these efforts, assigning meaning to the shooting has stirred controversy — and continues to do so.
On 6 December 1989, a man burst into a mechanical engineering class at Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique brandishing an automatic weapon. Marc Lépine separated the students into two groups, with men on one side and women on the other. He ordered the men to leave and then fired point blank on the nine women, screaming, “You’re all a bunch of feminists! I hate feminists!” Six of the women were killed and three were injured.
Lépine did not stop there. He continued his violent rampage into the corridors, targeting more women until he ran out of ammunition and committed suicide. The attack lasted about 20 minutes. In all, 14 young women were murdered and 14 other people were wounded (including 10 women). A suicide note was found on Lépine’s body that listed 15 eminent women, whom he had identified as “feminists to slaughter.”
Today, a plaque commemorating the victims hangs in the main entrance of the École Polytechnique. This tragedy sent a shock wave throughout Québec and across Canada. It has since led to many commemoration projects. Works of art and monuments have been erected in Toronto (1990), Moncton (1996), Vancouver (1997) and Montréal (1999). Every year on 6 December, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, the women who lost their lives in the massacre are remembered. While flags are flown at half-mast, vigils, conferences and demonstrations are held in remembrance. A film directed by Denis Villeneuve, entitled Polytechnique, was released in 2009. Despite these efforts, assigning meaning to the shooting has stirred controversy — and continues to do so.
In the weeks and months following the tragedy, the media interviewed various experts who presented Lépine’s attack as an isolated act with no particular social significance. Little attention was paid to feminist experts on male violence. Feminist groups were accused of exploiting the tragedy to draw attention to their cause. As antifeminism was discredited and decried in the Québec media, the tragic events brought the issue of violence against women into the spotlight in English-speaking Canada.
To this day, the Polytechnique tragedy is often presented as a “school shooting.” However, the gender of Lépine’s victims as well as his words during the killings and in his suicide note clearly point to the political and profoundly misogynistic nature of his crimes. The recognition that there definitely is meaning to be attached to the events at Polytechnique must translate into efforts to commemorate 6 December. If not, the tragedy’s main significance will fall by the wayside. As underlined by historian Micheline Dumont in 2009,
Denying the antifeminist nature of the tragedy and suggesting that feminism is outdated and that equality between men and women has been achieved are tantamount to rejecting real change. We all have the choice to either deny or acknowledge change. We must associate 6 December with anti-feminist attacks and not with school shootings.