How the way we remember the Montreal Massacre has changed 30 years later

For years after the mass shooting at École Polytechnique in Montreal, there was resistance among some in Quebec to see what happened as more than an isolated act of a troubled man. Alison Northcott explores how that's changed.

For years, there was reluctance to call the École Polytechnique shooting what it was: an anti-feminist attack

A new sign at the memorial park for the victims of the Montreal Massacre was inaugurated Thursday. It now refers to the violence as an "anti-feminist attack." (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

When Jim Edward thinks of his sister, Anne-Marie, he remembers a vibrant young student with an incredible sense of adventure.

"One of her friends used to say it's easier to describe a whirlwind than it is to describe Anne-Marie," Edward said in a recent interview at Montreal's Place du 6-Décembre-1989, a memorial park dedicated to his younger sister and the other victims of the Montreal Massacre.

"Very spunky, spontaneous, happy, lively, very adventurous," he said. "I miss that part of her."

Anne-Marie Edward was a 21-year-old chemical engineering student when she was shot and killed along with 13 other women at École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989, an event that left a lingering sense of trauma for many in Quebec.

Anne-Marie Edward, a 21-year-old chemical engineering student, was shot to death at École Polytechnique. (Submitted by the Edward family)

This year — 30 years after the attack — the city changed the wording on the park's sign to refer to the mass shooting as an "anti-feminist attack" rather than simply a "tragic event." The old sign didn't mention that women were targeted or how many of them were killed.

For Edward, seeing just those few words changed is very significant. 

"It's an important step in making sure that we remember why this happened and how to make sure it doesn't happen again," he said.

Jim Edward remembers sister Anne-Marie, killed at École Polytechnique 30 years ago

3 years ago
Duration 0:59
Anne-Marie Edward was among 14 women killed at Quebec's École Polytechnique. Thirty years later, Jim Edward remembers his sister and what she might have been up to now.

Gunman expressed hatred for feminists

When Marc Lépine, 25, walked into a classroom full of students at École Polytechnique that day, he separated the men from the women. He shouted "You're all feminists and I hate feminists!" and started shooting.

In less than 20 minutes, he killed 14 women on campus, most of them engineering students, before turning the gun on himself.

The suicide note found on his body laid bare his disdain for women and blamed feminists for ruining his life.

"I remember thinking, 'My God, how naive we had been,'" said journalist Francine Pelletier, a columnist with the newspaper La Presse at the time.

The gunman's letter included a list of prominent feminists he said he would have killed if he'd had more time. Pelletier was on the list.

"It occurred to me only then, in fact, how uneventful the whole women's movement, the whole second-wave feminism, had been," Pelletier recalled.

"We'd had a really easy time of it and we had mistaken that easy time of it with the fact that everyone was sort of on board," she said. "As far as the possible resentment this could have created, we did not see it."

Francine Pelletier, a well-known columnist and feminist, was on the gunman's list of women he wanted to kill. (Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

Changing views

She said for years after the killings, there was resistance among some in Quebec to see what happened as more than an isolated act of a troubled man, and to come to terms with what was so clear: that women and feminists were targeted.

She said in news articles and editorials, particularly within Quebec, the coverage was more focused on Lépine as a disturbed lone gunman, than on the political aspects of his crime.

"I think there was great resistance to say that, even though we had refashioned this place, we were the most progressive province in Canada, that something as dark and as evil as the Montreal Massacre could happen here," she said.

Over the years, the view of what happened has changed, she said, and the sign at the memorial park is a symbol of that.

"It took a long time for the city just to do that," she said. "So we are going back and rewriting things as it really happened, and unfortunately, it has taken all these years."

When the city confirmed the sign would be changed, Sue Montgomery, the mayor of the Côte-des-Neiges–Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough, said: "We just felt it was important to name it what it was — and that is an anti-feminist attack."

In this file photo, a girl holds up a white ribbon during a memorial for the victims of the École Polytechnique shooting. The event marked the 20th anniversary of the attack. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

A new generation

In the aftermath of the attack in 1989, journalists scrambled to understand what had happened and the enormity of what it meant, said Julian Sher, who was a producer with CBC News at the time.

"The fact that Marc Lépine had deliberately targeted women and the implications of him being anti-feminist and anti-women took a while for people to absorb," he said.

"Today, with the #MeToo movement and the growth of the feminist movement, it would be much more obvious. But I think it took a while for people to understand what was going on and what it meant for our society."

A change in discourse has come with time, said Diane Lamoureux, an associate professor at Laval University who has studied feminism and anti-feminism in Quebec.

"The idea that there is some kind of violence against women in our society is more acceptable now," she said. She noticed a turning point during the 20th anniversary commemorations, with a new generation of leaders emerging, with new ideas.

"It was another generation of politicians and they started to accept that it had been an anti-feminist attack and that women were clearly the target," she said.

Polytechnique today

At the school today, women make up about 28 per cent of the student body, compared with 17 per cent in 1989. Many of them were not yet born when the Montreal Massacre happened.

But the attack remains an undeniable part of the school's history.

"I think it has woken up not just women but everyone to realize that we should learn from that," said Victoria Houle, a 21-year-old mechanical engineering student. "We have come to our senses and we are acknowledging what really happened."

Éloïse Edom, 27, is a master’s student in applied mathematics from France. (Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

For Éloïse Edom, 27, a master's student in applied mathematics from France, there is still a sense of disbelief.

"It's so unbelievable for me to think that someone says, 'OK, I will kill these people. Why? Because they are women.'"

Elizabeth Roulier, 21, is in her final year of industrial engineering at the school. (Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

Elizabeth Roulier, 21, who studies industrial engineering, said anti-feminism is still a reality today.

She points, for example, to the deadly Toronto van attack in 2018, and the accused's alleged links to the incel subculture, an online community of men who are angry about their failed attempts at romantic relationships with women and often express that anger with hatred and misogyny.

"We need to talk about what's happening, because some people don't even know it exists," she said.

Victoria Houle, 21, is a mechanical engineering student at Polytechnique. (Jessica Rubinger/CBC)

For Houle, it's important to preserve the memory of the women killed at her school, to try to prevent more violence.

"It's only fair to remember who these people were," she said. "Each of them had an identity."


Alison Northcott

national reporter

Alison Northcott is a national reporter for CBC News in Montreal, covering current events and politics across Quebec. Born in Winnipeg, she has over 15 years experience in journalism.