Montreal·Point of View

Polytechnique massacre laid bare hidden oppression of women

The École Polytechnique massacre was a horrific crime. But as Giller Prize-winning guest blogger Sean Michaels writes, it was also the brutal, explicit assertion of an ideology that is usually hidden.

CBC guest blogger, Giller Prize winner Sean Michaels, says misogyny still lingers and haunts us

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)

On Dec. 6, 1989, 28 students were shot at a school in Montreal. Most of them were women. It was a tragedy that rang out, reverberated, around the world, through decades.

Events like these are chords; they comprise several notes. Nineteen minutes on a winter's day. Fifteen deaths, each one an individual human life. Matters of policing, gun control, and mental health.

But above all this is a lament that has lasted because of what it seemed to say, and still seems to say, about the trouble that exists between men and women.

Our society is made out of systems. System upon system, layers of tactic and edict and habit, new schemes and old logic.The older the system, the more power it circulates, the harder it is to dismantle.The subtler the system, the more covert its processes, the more difficult it is to even apprehend.

The École Polytechnique massacre was a horrific crime. It was also the brutal, explicit assertion of an ideology that is usually hidden.

At the end of 2014, sexism is like a colour: a faint, ubiquitous shading.

Marc Lépine said he was "fighting feminism." He said he wanted to stop women from "seizing [the advantages] accorded to men." He said they had ruined his life.

The oppression of women is one of our eldest systems.And it is subtle. Bizarre: here is a thing as rife as garbage and yet it is so camouflaged that a man will sometimes claim, deluded, "We have solved it."

We have not solved it. 

At the end of 2014, sexism is like a colour: a faint, ubiquitous shading. Misogyny is a wraith standing by every window. Women are victims of physical, emotional, sexual and institutional violence, and often we don't believe them. Mainstream society tolerates abusers and so do many of our smaller, more fragile communities, as if taking power from the assholes might make us weaker. 

Twenty-five years after Lépine's death, many men and women are still campaigning against "social justice warriors" who dare to challenge the patriarchy.

'I am a witness to everything around me'

Most of us were not at the École Polytechnique that Wednesday in 1989. I was seven years old, in Ottawa. I will not pretend to know what the survivors felt or go on feeling. I was not there. I was not a witness.

But I'm a grown man now and I am a witness to everything around me. Everything I condone and abet, everything I participate in and let be. Everything I fight for, too; everyone I listen to and learn from. 

Every Dec. 6 is a memorial to 14 women killed because they were women. It is an echo of what happened in Montreal, years ago. But in a smaller way it is also a lament for this year, this December, and all that has not changed.

As we mourn, as we stand in solidarity, we must also (and men especially) bear witness to the present world, our present selves, and the work that's still to do. The truest way to answer a tragedy is to render it unimaginable.