Echos of Montreal Massacre's misogyny in Toronto van attack

Montreal feminist Francine Pelletier says the same baneful beliefs posted before the Toronto attack simmered after the mass shooting that claimed the lives of 14 women 28 years ago.

Decades divide the two attacks, but the parallels are unmistakable, Francine Pelletier says

Three women hug other after laying flowers in front of École Polytechnique​ in Montreal, where a gunman killed 14 women on Dec. 6, 1989. (Shaney Komulainen/Canadian Press)

Nearly 30 years ago, a man armed with a gun and a dark belief that women were at the root of his personal problems walked into a Montreal engineering school and killed 14 people.

Three decades later, the parallels between that December night and Monday's mid-day van attack on a Toronto street are raising new questions about how far we've come when it comes to addressing misogyny, and how far we still have to go.

Shortly after the Toronto attack, police arrested Alek Minassian. While the investigation is still in its early stages, a post on the accused's Facebook page shortly before the incident suggests he too blamed women for his frustrations. 

Based on the few details available about Minassian, one of Montreal's leading feminists suggested using the massacre at École Polytechnique to help understand what happened in Toronto. 

"They are young, white men of the middle class," said Francine Pelletier, a columnist and documentary filmmaker, referring to Minassian and Polytechnique killer Marc Lépine.

"They are fairly educated. They have a chip on their shoulder. They are mad as hell because they are not getting their due and they are literally going to go on the public square to do a human sacrifice in the name of becoming, at least once in their life, recognized and famous."

'Incel rebellion'

The cryptic post on Minassian's Facebook page praises the actions of a mass shooter in the U.S. who killed six people and injured a dozen more in 2014 after ranting online about women. Minassian also called for an "incel rebellion."

The term incel is short for "involuntarily celibate," a subculture that has emerged largely online. It is typically dominated by men voicing frustration about their lack of sexual relationships, sometimes blaming women for their failures with the opposite sex.

The movement has similarities with sentiments that came to light after the 1989 Polytechnique shooting from a group called the "masculinists," Pelletier told CBC Montreal's Daybreak.

Francine Pelletier was one of 19 women named in the Polytechnique shooter's suicide note.

"It's as if Polytechnique had given them the permission to come out of the basement and start becoming public," she said.

"At that point they were pointing their finger at women who weren't allowing men to have access to their children. But this has pretty much grown into the incels, who don't just have no access to children, they have no access to women."

Looking deeper

Pelletier is, perhaps, more sensitive than most to the consequences these types of targeted attacks can have. As a prominent journalist and feminist in the 1980s, she was among 19 women identified as targets in Lépine​'s suicide note.

She said there's a tendency to write off the actions of mass murderers as simply the work of mad men and to deny there is anything more to their motivations.

But that's too simple, Pelletier said, adding it is important to look closely at what's behind the surface motivations of killers. 

A women fights back tears at a memorial for the victims along Yonge Street the day after a driver drove a rented van down sidewalks Monday afternoon, striking pedestrians in his path. (Nathan Denette/Canadian Press)

In the years since Polytechnique, the rights of women have evolved, the #MeToo movement has pushed for accountability and the legal framework that protects women has been modernized.

But human relationships are tricky and beyond the scope of legislators, she said. That's what makes tackling the misogyny of the incel movement so challenging.

The most important thing, once all the information comes to light, is to make sure any lessons that emerge from this tragedy are heeded, Pelletier said.

"Twenty nine years ago, we didn't want to really understand what was happening and that was very much an aggravating factor," she said.

"Worse than the internet today, there was tremendous denial. We started much later to understand what we should have started understanding years ago. But at least, we're understanding."

With files from CBC's Daybreak