Gun control advocates and Opposition leaders marked the anniversary of the tragic shootings at Montreal's École Polytechnique Tuesday with calls to action against the Harper government's plans to scrap the long-gun registry.

A crowd of about 250 mostly female participants from a conference organized by the Communications, Energy and Paperworkers union and the Coalition for Gun Control rallied on the steps of Parliament Hill for partisan speeches and a rose ceremony to name the 14 young lives lost.

On Dec. 6, 1989, a 25-year-old man roamed the corridors of Montreal's École Polytechnique with a semi-automatic rifle, a Ruger Mini-14, shooting 27 people on three different floors. Fourteen young female engineering students died. In one classroom, the shooter separated the men from the women and before opening fire screamed, "I hate feminists."

The tragedy, as well as a more recent shooting at Montreal's Dawson College in 2006 that left one student dead and another 19 wounded, galvanized gun control advocates in Quebec and across Canada, who pressured governments to try to prevent future tragedies by implementing stricter gun legislation and regulatons.

Wendy Cukier, the president of the coalition and a veteran of the fight for gun-control measures, told the crowd that two-thirds fewer women are killed now than when federal legislation to create the gun registry was passed in 1995.

"For 20 years, in spite of the threats and the hate mail, we've come back over and over again," Cukier said. "We will not give up because the cost of failure is too high."

Registry's days numbered

The Conservative government's bill to end the long-gun registry and destroy the data it contains has been referred back to the House of Commons from the public safety committee and awaits its final votes. It's expected to pass easily in light of the Conservative majority in both the House of Commons and the Senate. 

Scrapping the long-gun registry is a longstanding campaign promise for the Conservatives, going back to the Reform Party's opposition to its implementation in the days following the tragedies in Montreal.

Cukier warned of dire consequences once the bill to eliminate the long-gun registry passes, saying the government should not be "turning cartwheels to protect the imaginary right to bear arms, which does not exist in this country."

"The proposed law will end the requirement to verify the validity of a licence when someone purchases a gun," she said. "And the proposed law eliminates the requirement to track gun sales, a requirement that has been in place since 1977."

"There is no rational defence for this wasteful punitive action," she said of the bill's provisions to destroy all the information in the registry.

Interim Opposition Leader Nycole Turmel has faced divisions in her caucus over scrapping the bill. Two Thunder Bay-area MPs were disciplined for voting with the government at second reading, and two others abstained.

"We have to stand together like today, bravely, against a government that is turning back the clock on women's rights," Turmel told the rally. "That's the reality. Shame on them," she said, chanting "shame on them" repeatedly with the help of some voices from the crowd.

Bloc Québécois MP Maria Mourani told the crowd in French that the battle is not over, insisting provincial governments like Quebec's must take up the cause, fight for the data in the registry to be preserved and create provincial gun registries of their own across Canada.

Interim Liberal Leader Bob Rae was the only male to speak. He too vowed that the battle would continue in the courts, in the provinces and in cities across Canada.

"It isn't enough only for us to recognize the sadness of this event," Rae said. "It is important for us to recognize that however inconvenient it may be to register a gun it is nothing compared to the loss of a life."

"We have to recognize that access to weapons increases the opportunities for violence. It's a very simple truth," Rae said. "The police know that. The police also know that it's wrong to destroy the information."

Suzanne Laplante-Edward, whose daughter Anne-Marie was killed at l'École Polytechnique, told the crowd that the gun registry had been a positive thing to come from this loss.

"We are about to lose a tool that is proven to save Canadian lives," she said. "Please do something."

Event criticized

In a release, the Canadian Sports Shooting Association attacked the union organizers of the event for "grandstanding on the backs of the dead and injured women."

"Women's groups try to wrest ownership of the December 6 tragedy, and in doing so, they only drive the misogyny wedge in farther. What's worse, they send a clear message to would-be copycat murderers that they have access to widespread annual notoriety for decades by killing women," the release said.

The release also noted that the gun registry failed to prevent the tragedy at Dawson College 17 years later. The statement, released Monday, called organizing the event to get media coverage "opportunistic and sinister" and questioned whether former Gov. Gen. Michaëlle Jean, who addressed the CEP conference Tuesday morning about her experiences fighting violence against women, was "complicit in this union circus."

Jean's speech did not specifically mention gun control or the government's bill to end the gun registry.

Status of Women Minister Rona Ambrose will attend an evening vigil in Ottawa to mark the anniversary, her office said. In a statement, Ambrose called on all Canadians to observe the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

"Today's annual commemoration provides an opportunity to reflect on all forms of violence against women, to remember not only the victims of the Montréal Massacre but all victims, and to take joint, decisive action to eliminate all violence from our lives," Ambrose said in the statement.   "A society that tolerates any level of violence against women is neither a healthy nor a just society.   "Let us reaffirm today our resolve to take immediate and long-lasting action to ensure a violence-free society by calling on all Canadians — women and men, girls and boys — to work collaboratively to end all forms of violence against women," Ambrose said.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper's office also released a written statement.

"While the senseless events of that day will never fully be understood, we must continue to do our utmost to ensure such a tragedy never occurs again and to protect society’s most vulnerable," the statement read.

"Our Government is making significant investments to end violence against women and girls in communities across the country and will continue to advocate for the fair and unbiased treatment of all citizens. More needs to be done."