What Don’t We Get After 25 Years and 14 Dead?

I almost quit feminism this week. Seriously. I plummeted into despair over the mélange of hate that allows batterers like Ray Rice to return to the NFL, cops to kill with impunity and universities to give a pass to rapists. My intersectionality nerves were frayed by this host of racist, misogynist traumas. Feminism cannot make a dent in this insane world, I yawped into my morning oatmeal.

Then, Canada’s Minister of Justice, Peter MacKay, wrenched me and much of Canada out of a funk with his smug imbecility the week of the 25th anniversary of the biggest mass murder in Canadian history: the Montreal Massacre.

MacKay set off a fusillade of fury when he told the House of Commons, “We may never understand what occurred, why this happened, why these women were singled out for this horrific act of violence.”

Here is what we know that the Minister of Justice seems not to know:

Marc Lepine was crystal clear on Dec. 6, 1989, when he strode into École Polytechnique, entered an engineering classroom, forced the men out with his Ruger Mini-14 and closed himself in with the remaining women students, claiming he was there to fight feminism, that he hated feminists.

Nathalie Provost recalls the day vividly. She was 23 years old, and she was in that classroom facing down that gun. “We are not feminists, [we are] just studying in an engineering school,” she retorted.

He shot her then, shot her classmates, stormed the building targeting women, killing 14 women and then himself. Provost took four bullets but survived. “I remember when I saw the eyes of one of my classmates,” she said. “She closed her eyes and I knew she was dead. I remember this image. It’s clear in my memory.”

Though she told Lepine she was not a feminist, she acknowledges that today she is. “All the doors were open to me,” she explained this week, “and I imagined it would be the same for all my life.” Provost did not describe herself as a feminist in 1989 because she had not fought for anything. Now, as a mother and an engineer, she realizes “living like I do—working, having an engineering job, having kids and still working—is acting as a feminist because in my day-to-day life I stand for equality between men and women.”

Asked about the Justice Minister’s unthinking comments this week, Provost told the Ms. Blog,

I cannot believe that our Minister of Justice, Mr. MacKay, has forgotten the basic story of the Montreal Massacre. A man, Marc Lepine, came into an engineering school, Polytechnique, to shoot and kill women, and only women, because, from his point of view and according to the manifest he wrote, those women symbolized feminists. … We don’t need to know more to understand those events. We don’t need to know more to be horrified. We don’t need to know more to fight to eliminate violence against women, to fight for equality between men and women, to fight for gun control (because fewer guns mean more safety—not the contrary). If he needs to know more to understand, he can ask me. I can explain.

Indeed, Canada’s Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau suggested MacKay do just that: “I think Mr. MacKay should spend some time speaking to the survivors of Polytechnique and he’d give better answers in the House of Commons.”

Despite MacKay’s befuddlement, Lepine was crystal clear in the detailed letter he carried with him into Polytechnique. It said: “I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker.” He was also crystal clear in a list of 19 prominent Québec women, left along with the letter, that he also intended to kill, saying, “The lack of time … has allowed these radical feminists to survive.”

One of them was journalist Francine Pelletier who said this week that the Montreal Massacre put an “end to my youthful illusions.” Lepine’s was a “precise, political act” against “women that had dared to go where only men had gone before.” We learned, Pelletier said in 1989, that “the liberation of women has a price to it, and it is death … you can hate women that badly.”

Sylvie Haviernick, whose sister Maud was killed at Polytechnique, responded to MacKay’s comments this week: “I think that’s what we are coping with a lot in these last years in Ottawa: It seems that some concern regarding women’s lives is not really, really there…it’s sad.”

Perhaps Jenn Calder tweets it best: “Peter MacKay, please stop talking. Making a mystery of Montreal Massacre is insulting & dangerous to women.”

We don’t get to quit feminism when our world allows guys like Peter MacKay to become Ministers of Justice even though they cannot see what has been there to see for 25 years, in all its crystal clarity. It is hard, exhausting work being a feminist, explaining things to men in power, but if Nathalie Provost can stare down the end of a Ruger Mini-14 and speak back to hatred, I’m all in, starting with spending this 25th anniversary dedicating my continued feminist activism to 14 women I’ve never met who have clarified my view of the world.

Get Ms. in your inbox! Click here to sign up for the Ms. newsletter.

Photo courtesy of Flickr user émilie p licensed under Creative Commons 2.0




Donna Decker is Associate Professor of English at Franklin Pierce University in Rindge, NH. She is also Director of the university's Women in Leadership Certificate Program.