A person with short black hair and a white button-down speaking at a podium
A speaker at the École Polytechnique massacre memorial

News  Remembering the École Polytechnique massacre

Speakers at memorial service bring attention to gender-based violence

On December 6, the Sexual Assault Centre of the McGill Students’ Society (SACOMSS) held a memorial service in the Birks Heritage Chapel to remember the 14 women who lost their lives in the massacre at the École Polytechnique de Montréal 26 years ago.

On December 6, 1989, Anne-Marie Lemay, Anne-Marie Edward, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Daigneault, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Maud Haviernick, Michèle Richard, Nathalie Croteau, and Sonia Pelletier were killed by a man whose intention was to “fight feminism.”

In addition to commemorating the lives of these women, SACOMSS’ event also aimed to incite discussion and take a stand against gender-based violence and oppression.

SACOMSS has been organizing annual December 6 memorials for more than twenty years. Speaking to The Daily, SACOMSS Special Projects Coordinator Jean Murray explained that SACOMSS wanted this year’s event to also commemorate those people who face gender-based violence but do not “have their tragedies memorialized.”

SACOMSS Special Projects Coordinator Talia Gruber agreed with Murray. “We’re trying to open up the space a little bit more this year to talk about [… people] whose lives we are not memorializing and what memorials we are not having – […] trans people, missing and murdered Indigenous women, migrant women – especially with the refugee crisis,” Gruber told The Daily.

The memorial service featured speeches from Murray and Gruber, as well as McGill’s Liaison Officer (Harm Reduction) Bianca Tétrault, Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering (POWE) President Vanessa Jones, and Anaïs Cadieux Van Vliet from Concordia’s Centre for Gender Advocacy.

In addition to the speeches, the memorial service also featured Stephanie Lawrence and Shanice Yarde, two spoken word artists, and a performance by the McGill a cappella group Effusion.

Naming and condemning violence

Van Vliet reminded those at the memorial that the December 6 massacre should not be “written off as senseless acts from one random individual, who just didn’t know what he was doing.”

“[Remembrance is] about collectively naming violence – the violent actions of one man, seeped in misogyny. A planned, deliberate act of hatred. […] Tonight, as well as every time we talk about this violence, I want to name misogyny, so we never ease the gendered violence perpetrated against women, women of colour, trans women, trans women of colour, women with disabilities, intersex people, gender non-binary people, working-class women, migrant women, and in this case, most specifically, women in traditionally male-dominated fields,” Van Vliet said.

Also speaking at the memorial, Gruber brought up the recent mass shooting at the Planned Parenthood Colorado Springs Westside Health Centre, where a man killed three people.

“Finally, our world leaders are beginning to condemn these acts and [are] making public statements against the men who perpetrate them. But the trope remains the same. They focus on mental health, they use rhetoric about lone men with guns,” Gruber said.

Murray, echoing Gruber, said, “Today, we want to recognize that these are not isolated incidents. They are merely symbols of institutionalized oppression; not only sexism and misogyny, but also racism, colonialism, ableism, classism, and transphobia.”

Speaking to The Daily, Stephanie Lawrence said,“It’s time for change. It was time for change yesterday. And violence against women, violence against trans folks, communities of colour – violence in general just needs to be a thing of the past. These events are very important to bring that to the forefront, so that we don’t forget.”

Gender-based violence and higher education

Tétrault spoke about the role McGill and other institutions of higher education have to play in eradicating sexual and gender-based violence.

“While the ways in which gender-based violence occurs is not always as it was at the École Polytechnique massacre, it happens on a daily basis in the workplace, at parties, in bedrooms, among friends and family members, and in higher education,” Tétrault said.

“Educational institutions must [commit] to do more for their students and recognize [their] significant role in influencing attitudes and behaviours that contribute to a campus culture that rejects acts of sexual and gender-based violence and one that provides an environment for those affected by it to come forward without judgement,” Tétrault continued.

At McGill, SACOMSS has been organizing annual December 6 memorials for more than twenty years. Murray told The Daily that the group has been considering why the responsibility for organizing the December 6 memorial always falls to SACOMSS.

“Obviously, as a feminist organization on campus, this is certainly a feminist event. I think it’s important to have a group on campus put on this event. Do I think it necessarily has to be SACOMSS? No. But I think it’s an appropriate thing for us to be doing,” Murray said.

Jones emphasized that progress has been made over the past 25 years for women in engineering. For instance, Jones mentioned that 27 per cent of all students in McGill’s Faculty of Engineering are women, and that this number is increasing on average by 1 per cent every year.

She noted, however, that talking and reading about the massacre this year “was even more difficult than usual.”

“Like me, they were almost all students in engineering, and like me they were almost all fourth year students preparing for graduation, with the same hopes and dreams for the future as me.”

In an email to The Daily, Shanice Yarde said, “I think too often women are forced to silence the violence we experience, and that in itself is an act of violence that we live every single day. As a Black woman, I also think it’s especially important to hold space to honour the women of colour who experience said violence at exponentially higher rates but are not memorialized or commemorated or acknowledged.

Yarde continued, “We need to understand that our liberation as women is dependent on the liberation of all women – especially those who are the most marginalized – and therefore our activism and organizing must be inclusive of and centre those surviving on the margins of our society.”