'We called her Sunshine': Sister of Polytechnique victim reflects on life after Dec. 6, 1989

On Dec. 6, 1989, Catherine Bergeron was teaching children gymnastics, unaware that a lone gunman had just killed 14 women, including her sister Geneviève. Thirty years later, she reflects on how the events of that night have shaped her life — and altered the very fabric of Quebec society.

Catherine Bergeron remembers her sister Geneviève as kind, sensitive, always smiling

Catherine Bergeron was 19 years old when a lone gunman killed her older sister, Geneviève, at Université de Montréal's École Polytechnique. (Charles Contant/CBC)

It was Dec. 6, 1989, and Catherine Bergeron was teaching young children gymnastics when she heard something was happening at the Université de Montréal.

Right away, she felt anxious. Her sister, Geneviève, was studying at the École Polytechnique, the U de M's engineering school — but Bergeron told herself she was probably worrying over nothing. Nevertheless, she decided not to take the Metro home, as she normally would, and hopped in a taxi.

"The cab driver told me that everything was going to be fine," Bergeron said. "I remember that."

When she got home, she tried to call Geneviève at her apartment, but no one answered. She hoped that her sister was at a pub somewhere, having a beer, blissfully unaware of what was happening on campus. 

So she waited. The hours ticked by. Friends and family filtered in. Still no word from Geneviève.

"They said on TV that it was 14 women," Bergeron said. "And I knew."

Geneviève Bergeron, along with 13 other women, had been shot to death by a lone killer in what was to become known as the Polytechnique massacre.

Today, Catherine Bergeron is president of the Comité mémoire, a group dedicated to remembering the tragedy. 

On the cusp of the 30th anniversary of the killings, she sat down with CBC to talk about how the events of that night have shaped her life — and altered the very fabric of Quebec society.

Quebec's innocence lost

Catherine Bergeron's sister, Geneviève, 21, was a second-year student in mechanical engineering and a talented singer and clarinetist. (Radio-Canada)

Catherine described her sister as a kind, sensitive individual who was always smiling with "her big, blue eyes" and had a way of making everyone feel important.

Geneviève played clarinet, sang and was so passionate about music that it had been hard to decide between music and engineering.

"She chose engineering because she told me, 'I will always be able to make music in my life,'" Catherine said.

"She was my hero," Bergeron said, smiling. "I remember her as a sunshine. That's what we used to call her: our Sunshine."

Bergeron said she personally lost "some kind of innocence" the night that her sister died. So did all of Quebec.

"We were so convinced that everything was fine, you know?" she said, sighing. "The woman's place in society, the big battles [of] the feminists before — they were done, we don't have to talk about it anymore."

"It made us realize, 'Oh wow, as a society, there is a lot to do still.'"

Catherine Bergeron on her sister Geneviève's slaying

2 years ago
Duration 2:02
"They said on TV that it was 14 women," Catherine Bergeron recalls, 30 years after the Polytechnique massacre. "And I knew." 2:02

But it was to take a long time, she said, for Quebec to name what had happened for what it was: an attack on women.

A society in shock

Bergeron herself came to that conclusion quickly. In the days following the attack, she wrote in her journal: "My sister was killed because she was a woman."

For decades, the sign that marked Montreal's Place du 6-Décembre-1989, on the corner of Decelles Avenue and Queen Mary Road, did not explicitly mention that 14 women died on that date. 

It simply called it a "tragic event," without referring to the fact that the victims were all women. Only this year has the sign been replaced with one that acknowledges the women were killed in an "antifeminist attack."

A new sign has been erected here at Place du 6-décembre-1989, recognizing the 14 women were killed in an antifeminist attack. (Radio Canada)

But Bergeron said she understands why it took so long for people to recognize the massacre as an attack on women.

"It was so painful and so hard to admit before," she said. "It's easier to say it's some isolated [incident] … but it was an extreme act of something that was going around in our society. And that brought a lot of guilt, a lot of pain, as a collectivity."

"Sometimes it's hard to put it in words or to admit some things. It takes time."

Bergeron said the attack has to be understood in the context of the time: women had only recently secured abortion rights and were becoming a greater presence in politics and in the media.

"It was not so long ago that we had all these battles," she said.

"For [younger generations] it's so far away," she said. "No — no, no, no. It's not. It's close."

Last year, a man drove a van onto a sidewalk in Toronto after espousing misogynistic ideology online. Ten people were killed.

Grief in the public eye

Bergeron was forced to grapple with grief in the public eye once again two years ago, when tragedy struck her family for a second time.

Her son, 18-year-old Clément Ouimet, was cycling on Mount Royal's Camillien-Houde Way when an SUV suddenly made an illegal U-turn in front of him. Ouimet couldn't stop in time and collided with the vehicle, later dying of his injuries.

His death sparked a very public debate about the presence of vehicular traffic on Camillien-Houde Way, ultimately leading to a public consultation on the matter.

Catherine Bergeron's son, Clément Ouimet, died two years ago after colliding with a vehicle on Camillien-Houde Way, one of his favourite training routes. (Clément Ouimet/Facebook)

Bergeron said her son's death took her back to that night in 1989, especially looking at it through her 16-year-old daughter's eyes. 

"When I had my children, I understood how my father, my mother felt when Genevieve died," said Bergeron, who was 19 when her sister was killed. "But then [this] took me another step. And I cannot explain how come that happened again in my life."

As in the case of her sister's death, Bergeron said she felt compelled to have "something positive" come out of what happened, even if it's just the effort "to do better." 

"It's the way to survive," she said. "Otherwise, I think I'm just going to fall in the hole. Doing something positive — it keeps me going on."

One of those positive things? Seeing her daughter grow into a proud young woman who is confident in herself, Bergeron said.

"She called herself a feminist, you know?" she said. "And that's important for me."

Catherine Bergeron wrote the foreword to journalist Josée Boileau's new book which looks back at the Polytechnique massacre, Ce jour-là — Parce qu'elles étaient des femmes (That Day — Because They Were Women). The book was launched Friday morning at Polytechnique Montréal at a ceremony marking the 30th anniversary of the deaths of the 14 women.

CBC will have special coverage later today of the main commemoration ceremony at the summit of Montreal's Mount Royal Park starting at 5 p.m. ET.

You can watch live and join the conversation on the CBC Montreal Facebook page as well as pages hosted by CBC News, The National and CBC Quebec.

You can also watch live here online, as well as on the CBC News App, CBC Gem and on CBC News Network. 

CBC Radio One in Quebec will have live coverage starting at 5 p.m.

Adrienne Arsenault will host a special edition of The National from Montreal tonight.


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