He ordered the men to leave the classroom. Then he shot the women.
Thirty years ago on December 6, 1989, a gunman walked into a classroom at École Polytechnique in Montreal. He ordered the men in the classroom to leave. Then he shot the remaining people in the room. They were all women. He killed 14 women. Not ‘because they were women’, media. Don’t write or say that as though it’s some kind of valid reason or excuse. It’s not the reason. Please, I shout at Twitter, and Facebook and the paper and the television if I had one. Don’t utter those words. Women are blamed for enough things already. Now it’s 30 years on, can we learn not to phrase what he did that way? These women were not killed ‘because they were women.’
Let’s put the onus where it belongs. They were killed because a gunman felt that women shouldn’t take up space. That they had no right to be there. Because he couldn’t own his own shortcomings and failures. Because misogyny. That’s why.
Today we grieve these women and we remember. I’m going to share their names here and some stuff I didn’t at first recall composing, but now do. I tweeted a thread on Twitter and later remembered that 9 years ago, I googled their names to gather what tidbits I could for something I wrote. Somewhere along the past 30 years, I acquired this information and kept it; remembrances of them gathered in the aftermath of the massacre.
And after I share all this, I want to tell you a story about gender. A story I remember from the third anniversary of their lives being wiped from the planet as though chalk on some blackboard.
Women’s lives. Fourteen women’s lives.
Find a moment today and read their names aloud:
Barbara Maria Klueznick
Here are brief snippets about them:
Anne-Marie Edward, 21, was a first year student in chemical engineering. She loved outdoor sports like skiing, diving and riding and was always surrounded with friends.
Anne-Marie Lemay, 27, was a fourth year student in mechanical engineering.
Annie St-Arneault, 23, was a mechanical engineering student from La Tuque, Que., a Laurentian pulp and paper town in the upper St-Maurice river valley. She lived in a small apartment in Montreal. Her friends considered her a fine student. Annie was killed as she sat listening to a presentation in her last class before graduation. She had a job interview with Alcan Aluminium scheduled the next day. She’d talked about eventually getting married to the man who’d been her boyfriend since she was a teenager.
Annie Turcotte, 21, was a 1st year student in engineering materials. She lived with her brother in small apartment near the university. Described as gentle and athletic, she was a diver and a swimmer. She went into engineering so she could one day help improve the environment.
Barbara Daigneault, 22, was to graduate at the end of the year. She was a teaching assistant for her father Pierre Daigneault, a mechanical engineering professor with the city’s other French-language engineering school at University of Quebec at Montreal.
Barbara Maria Klueznick, 31, was a first-year nursing student. She arrived in Montreal from Poland with her husband in 1987. (Spoczywaj w pokoju, Barbara.)
Geneviève Bergeron, 21, was a second year scholarship student in civil engineering who could easily have become a musician instead of an engineer. Her friends and family described her as a happy person. She played the clarinet and sang in a professional choir. In her spare time she played basketball and swam. On the last day of her life, Geneviève had gone to the school to work on a project with her friends.
Hélène Colgan, 23, was in her final year of mechanical engineering and planned to take her Master’s degree. She had three job offers and was leaning towards accepting one from a company based near Toronto.
Maud Haviernick, 29, was a second year student in engineering materials, a branch of metallurgy, and a graduate in environmental design from the University of Quebec at Montreal.
Maryse Laganière, 25, was the only non-student killed. She worked in the budget department of the École Polytechnique. She had recently married.
Maryse Leclair, 23, in 4th-year metallurgy, had a year to go before graduation and was one of the top students in the school. She acted in plays in junior college. She was the first victim whose name was known because was found by her father, Montreal Police Lieutenant. Pierre Leclair.
Nathalie Croteau, 23, was in her final year of mechanical engineering and planned to take a two-week vacation in Cancun, Mexico, with Hélène Colgan at the end of the month.
Sonia Pelletier, 28, was head of her class and the pride of St-Ulric, Quebec, her remote birthplace in Gaspé Peninsula. She had five sisters and two brothers. She was to graduate next day in mechanical engineering. Sonia had a job interview lined up for the following week. She was awarded her degree posthumously.
Michele Richard, 21, of Montreal, was in second-year engineering materials. She was presenting a paper with Haviernick when she was killed.
In 1989, I was the same age as these women, at university myself when the news broke. On the third anniversary in December 1992, I was asked by the Women’s Centre at University of Waterloo to speak at the memorial on campus. I gathered one week’s worth of current articles about violence against women. About thirty pieces from local, national and international papers. Not about past events, but current news. I read aloud the headlines of one week’s worth of articles containing current instances of violence against women and it nearly took the entire 20 minutes I’d been granted to speak.
After I spoke, a male professor who’d also been invited to say a few words approached the podium.
He began by relaying a story about sitting outside on campus that autumn on a bench in a grassy area where two walls of glass met at a corner. As he sat eating his sandwich, he witnessed one female student coming along one corridor and another down the adjoining corridor.
He said it was like watching it all in slow motion. He knew they were about to collide where the two corridors met. They couldn’t see each other because of the double paned reflections. He stood and mumbled, “watch out”. He tried waving his hands, but his attempts remained futile. He remained unnoticed. He couldn’t get their attention through the glass walls. He said all he could do was watch them collide. Books dropped. Papers went flying.
When they collided, the two women held each other in embrace, hugging each other to stop the other from falling along with their papers and books. They teetered and tottered in each other’s arms. He said they were laughing. They helped each other pick up their belongings, still giggling. And before they parted ways, they hugged once more. They were beaming.
And still smiling, each turned in their initially intended directions and parted ways. And the moment was over.
The professor — I wish I could recall his name — was an esteemed senior lecturer in Sexuality, Marriage and Family Studies on the University of Waterloo campus.
The next thing he said has stayed with me these 27 years.
He said, “I try to imagine if it had been two men.” He talked about if two men had collided instead. The embarrassment over unintentional physical contact, perhaps. He spoke of anger or frustration as a potential reaction. Might they have laughed? Maybe. But he said he had difficulty imagining two men hugging and laughing about colliding together. And he mourned that.
And I did, too.
His anecdote wasn’t a message about how one gender is better than another, but really about the way we are raised and how inflexible and oppressive outdated gender roles and expectations remain.
He spoke of the the spectrum of human expression and how socially and culturally toxic it is to raise children to adhere to a world in which human emotions and expression are prescribed as acceptable or not acceptable depending on gender or the idea of gender conformity. He spoke of how #ToxicMasculinity kills not just others, but those gripped by it; and how we must actively do the hard work to change our attitudes towards the raising of children and the concepts of gender so that toxic masculinity and violence might one day end. That it must.
I’m so thankful, as I raise my son, for the remembrance and sentiment of his words each year on this date.
The first lives I imagine are theirs. Because I was their age, it’s hard not to think of these women without imagining where their lives, so suddenly and tragically snuffed out, might have taken them. They would be in their 50s now. In 1989, their young lives were only really beginning.
In the 30 years since, I fell in love several times. I fell out of love several times. I’ve had occasional lovers and amazing journeys to areas of the planet like Greenland. I put money down for my first home. I had a baby on my own in my 40s. I began to pursue my masters once I turned 50. I aim to graduate next year. I still have dreams. I was their age when they were killed. So the first lives I imagine are theirs.
Once I imagined what might have happened if the gunman had actually been granted a spot in their class. The gunman who blamed women because his application to École Polytechnique for Engineering had not been accepted. The gunman who wrote about how feminists ‘have always ruined’ his life in the suicide note he left the world.
Do I imagine he would be free of misogyny had he been admitted? No. I imagine him harassing them. I imagine him resenting them. I imagine him trying to flirt with them and the growing hate his person would inhabit if rebuffed. I imagine his immense, patriarchal ego might have still ended up killing one of them if not all of them.
Because to someone who can do what he did and who feels what he felt, women are not important. To someone like him they are nothing.
One woman. Fourteen women. One woman. Thirty women. One woman. Sixty women. To people who hate women, misogynists and predators like Trump and Kavanaugh and Weinstein and Cosby, women aren’t individual humans with real lives or emotions or opinions or dreams.
A man shoots up a sorority in California or drives a van onto a Toronto sidewalk, killing others, because he was rejected or can’t get a date and feels entitled to sex.
Elliot Rodger was 22. Alek Minassian was 25. The same age of Lépine when he entered that classroom and told the men to leave.
Over the past 30 years, I’ve also at one time or another, imagined the lives of the men ordered to leave the classroom. I’m sure in the immediate aftermath I even blamed them. At least, I remember feeling angered. I remember asking if there are no heroes left in the world?
But now I know they were in shock. People experiencing trauma go into shock. A gunman walked into their class, shot a hole in the ceiling and ordered the men to leave. They were likely just as terrified as any of us would be if a lone gunman entered our proximity or space.
In the years since, I have pondered the level of survivor’s guilt these men have likely carried throughout their own lives. I like to imagine they grew older to find love, maybe marry. I wonder how the memory of that day affected or still affects the relationships they have with women, whether familial or otherwise. No man ought to need a daughter/wife/aunt/mother to recognize why misogyny, patriarchy and toxic masculinity are as destructive as they are. But I have wondered over the years how the survivors relate to women now.
I still try to imagine the pained lives of the families, parents, spouses, siblings, offspring staggering in the wake of the loss of their daughter/wife/sister/mother. All those ripple effects. But how can you imagine that, unless you’ve gone through that kind of tragic, unexpected loss?
The life I imagine today, on this thirtieth anniversary of the massacre, is my son’s. It’s maybe the only one I might have any effect upon in terms of hoping to shape and steer him away from the traps of gendered stereotypes, outdated roles, ignorant expectations and gender discrimination. Today I impress upon him the need for equality and respect, care and love for one another. That it’s okay for boys and grown men to cry and dance ballet and girls and women are allowed to express anger and we can study engineering. And that whatever gender we are, all the genders, all the people, including non-binary and those who reject gender, are deserving of equality, equal rights and equal pay. And that we must fight for equal rights and stand against violence and against misogyny. Always. It doesn’t mean that’s a fight against men; but yes, it is definitely a fight against toxic masculinity. And men and women and all the genders, the gender fluid, and the non-gendered can fight against that.
Today, I try to imagine a world without misogyny or toxic masculinity. And the lives we would all be living without such poisons. Lives in which when we collide, we laugh and carry on.
What a beautiful world that would be…