Montreal·Point of View

Montreal Massacre lessons took 25 years to learn

The École Polytechnique shooting in 1989 was call to action ignored by too many, but 25 years later, people are finally waking up and paying attention, Quebec columnist Francine Pelletier writes in a guest blog for CBC News.

CBC guest blogger Francine Pelletier says we are finally waking up to real cost of staying silent

Quebec journalist Francine Pelletier, who was named on the gunman's list of targets, says nothing had prepared Canadians for Marc Lépine's horrifying motive. (Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press)

I remember women saying: "Now, they'll believe us. Now they'll see how women are subjected to violence." 

It was in the days following the Montreal Massacre, "the first sexist crime in history," as the late Pierre Bourgault put it.

Everyone was still under the shock of what happened: 14 women killed, 14 others injured, 15 others on a hit list — all because of an angry young man's anti-feminist crusade.

Nothing in the history of this country had prepared us for such a bloodbath. Nothing had warned us that a man would want to kill women simply because they were women.

But the shootings at École Polytechnique did not provide the much needed wake-up call women had hoped for.

Sure, there were a number of initiatives in the wake of the tragedy, starting with the yearly commemorations, the white ribbon campaign and Dec. 6 set aside as a "national day against violence against women."

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But these symbolic gestures did not open the floodgates of collective reckoning the way, say, the Jian Ghomeshi scandal has.

In hindsight, it's obvious that the Montreal Massacre was too extreme — no one could draw a line between women being gunned down on a university campus and what women, as a rule, were being subjected to. 

Not to mention the denial, particularly noticeable in Quebec, that went on around the Dec. 6 tragedy.

Marc Lépine, the 25-year-old assassin, had speculated in his suicide note that he would be dismissed as a "crazy gunman" and that's exactly what happened.

"Un tireur fou tue quatorze femmes" or "Crazed Gunman Kills 14 Women" was La Presse's headline the next day.

The editorial in Le Soleil newspaper even went so far as to say that the killings had "nothing to do with women."

Twenty-five years later, the message that women are disproportionately subject to violent abuse is atlast being heard.

In my mind, the Montreal Massacre, far from giving the women's movement a much-needed boost, officially ended the glory days of second wave feminism.

Unable to look the tragedy in the eye — to this day we have yet to acknowledge that this was not just a crime against women but against feminism, against women who dare go where only men have gone before — we have been paying lip service in the fight against violence against women.

The good news? Twenty-five years later, the message that women are disproportionately subject to violent abuse is at last being heard.

Football players beating their wives, women in the video game industry receiving death threats and young stars and famous performers (Emma Watson, Beyoncé) jumping onto the feminist bandwagon have all participated in tweaking the message.

But perhaps nothing has done so much, at least here in Canada, as the Ghomeshi scandal.

It was the "smooching suddenly turning into smacking," as actress Lucy de Coutere famously confided on The Current, the immense grey zone that almost every woman has experienced — the line that separates comfort from discomfort, pleasure from pain, fun from fear — that did it.

Who knows how many women saw here something that they themselves had experienced?  

Thanks to social media (#BeenRapedNeverReported, #agressionsnondenoncees), thousands were able to say so.

This kind of collective refusal to put up with the untenable, as well as the attention the protest movement has been getting, hasn't been seen for over 30 years. 

Twenty-five years after the horror of École Polytechnique, there is actually something to celebrate.

It's been a long time coming.

Where are we now? 25 years after Polytechnique

​Join CBC News Montreal host Debra Arbec and guests for a live, web-exclusive conversation about how far we've come since Dec. 6, 1989. 

Follow the Google Hangout discussion and take part in our live chat starting at 7 p.m. ET on Wednesday Dec. 3 on Montreal.


Francine Pelletier is a writer, broadcaster, documentary film maker and columnist for Le Devoir newspaper.