Montreal·Point of View

Polytechnique shooting shattered us then and still does

The night of Polytechnique shooting, journalist Marie-Claude Lortie became afraid of something that had never been on her radar: the consequences of wanting to break down barriers.

CBC guest blogger Marie-Claude Lortie on breaking the 'new type of silence' that prevailed after Polytechnique

Police enter the Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989. Marie-Claude Lortie had worked at La Presse newspaper for 18 months when she was dispatched to cover the shooting. (Shaney Komulainen/Canadian Press)

I have been a journalist for 26 years now.

I have covered a great number of events, some of them incredibly joyful, some immensely sad and tragic.

But when I look back upon all of them, the most traumatizing, heartbreaking and devastating remains, by far, the Polytechnique shooting on Dec. 6, 1989.

I had just turned 24. I had worked as a reporter for La Presse for barely 18 months.

My paper had sent me to cover a hostage crisis.

I ended up at École Polytechnique​ with a photographer to face one of the most horrific crime stories Quebec had ever witnessed: 14 women, about my age, murdered because they were women and because the shooter thought they did not deserve to study or work at an engineering school.

Even now, 25 years later, I often get teary or choked up when I think or talk about it.

I wonder if the sense of vulnerability, of senseless exposure to violence and injustice, that I felt on the Polytechnique hill that evening will ever leave me.

That night, I became very, very frightened.

Being frightened is not an unusual state for women. We learn to always be slightly scared. It's the kind of feeling that makes you more aware of your surroundings, that steels you and puts you on guard for your own safety.

That night, I became scared of something else, something that had never been on my radar screen: I became afraid of the consequences of wanting to break down barriers.

It was the end of my certitude that the world was OK with equality.

The new terror

The shooting was horrible. The reaction to the shooting was also horrible, including the fights about what we were all supposed to make of it.

There was so much denial. There were so many men refusing to accept that a fellow male could be so cruel.

There were so many women shattered by this new terror.

I remember trying to explain my feelings and trying to express, in vain, that the tragedy was a concentrated version of a kind of violence women knew everyday on much smaller scale.

On top of the deep sorrow for all the victims and their loved ones, there was something else — a realization that violence was an everyday occurrence for women.

Awareness of the prevalence of that violence lay dormant for 25 years and has recently exploded with a chorus of voices joining the #BeenRapedNeverReported movement. 

Those thoughts, however, were more than what the dominant voices in society were ready to hear back in 1989.

So the aftermath of Polytechnique was the beginning of a new type of silence.

Feminists were told to stop trying to explain their sense of connection to the tragedy.

Today, I still read trolls on Twitter — and sometimes sound minded people as well — arguing that craziness was the problem at the heart of the massacre, not misogyny. Every time I want to scream.

The movement to raise awareness about violence against women that was started in the aftermath of the Jian Gomeshi revelations has been groundbreaking.

I hope its impact is deep.

I hope it will help all people understand what we meant 25 years ago when we talked about that constant, lingering fear of being harmed that is buried in so many of us and that Polytechnique, as an act of terrorism, had just reactivated.

I hope it will convince all men of goodwill that we need their help and support to fight senseless violence against us.

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.


Marie-Claude Lortie is an author, columnist and food-critic with La Presse. She was a young reporter in her 20s when she was sent out to report on the Polytechnique shooting. She has written extensively about the shooting, women's rights and gun-control.