Montreal

Polytechnique shooting survivor backs gun control

A survivor of the deadly 1989 rampage at the École polytechnique says the Canadian government will have blood on its hands if the controversial federal gun registry dies and there is a spike in firearm-related killings.

A survivor of the deadly 1989 rampage at the École polytechnique says the Canadian government will have blood on its hands if the controversial federal gun registry dies and there is a spike in firearm-related killings. 

Heidi Rathjen, a former engineering student at the Montreal school, was among those who worked to reform Canada's gun laws and set up the registry in the wake of Marc Lépine's attack on the school on Dec. 6, 1989.

"I feel that what the Conservatives are doing, especially at this time, is a slap in the face to the victims of the Dec. 6 massacre and all victims of gun-related crimes," she said on the eve of the tragedy's 20th anniversary.

"What does it say about all future gun victims? If this goes through and the registry is abolished and gun-related murders and crimes go back up, the Conservatives will have blood on their hands."

Fourteen women were killed in the rampage and 13 other people — nine women and four men — were wounded.

Rathjen escaped Lépine's bullets by hiding in a locked classroom until police arrived at Montreal's École polytechnique .

Gun registry debate 'devastated' victims' families

Conservative MPs, bolstered by a handful of Liberals and New Democrats, narrowly voted in principle last month to kill the federal long gun registry. The tally was 164 for, 137 against.

The private member's bill, which would end the decade-old registry of most shotguns and rifles, now goes to a Commons committee for further study and possible amendment.

Heidi Rathjen says the federal long gun registry saves lives. ((Paul Chiasson/Canadian Press))
Conservatives say the registry is a billion-dollar waste that targets honest gun owners while doing nothing to fight crime.

Proponents, including police and victims-rights groups, say the registry is a useful investigative tool and has led to more responsible gun ownership, reducing the number of suicides and deadly crimes of passion.

The legislation was proposed by Manitoba Tory backbencher Candice Hoeppner.

Both the NDP and Liberals freed their MPs to vote as they saw fit on the bill.

Liberal Leader Michael Ignatieff, while supporting "the principle" of the registry, has said it needs to be revamped to make it more palatable to rural Canadians.

Rathjen said she has spoken to some of the families of the Polytechnique victims and said they are "devastated, terrified that this is going to go through."

She had scathing words for Ignatieff and NDP Leader Jack Layton, saying they demonstrated a "complete lack of leadership on this issue, allowing a free vote on what they absolutely knew was a disguised government bill."

She said the Liberals and NDP actions were a "betrayal" of the two parties' commitment to victims of violence and women.

"What good are all these wonderful Liberal values, NDP values if you can't stand up when it really counts? Words are just words. It's action that counts."

Registry supporters brace for fight

Rathjen, who joined an anti-tobacco organization in Montreal after the gun legislation was passed, said she'll rejoin the fight to help the Coalition for Gun Control protect the registry, which she says has been an unrelenting target of misinformation.

She said former students are getting organized and will head to Ottawa for hearings on the bill.

Rathjen did have praise for the Bloc Quebecois, which she said had shown unstinting support for the registry.

There have been a number of expressions of support for the registry from unions, women's groups and police.

The mother of Anne-Marie Edward, one of the women gunned down at Polytechnique, said on the day Parliament voted that she was disappointed the Conservatives have dedicated so much energy to eliminating the registry.

Suzanne Laplante-Edward recalled in a published letter how she travelled to Ottawa in the spring to remind parliamentarians of the kind of devastation a single rifle can inflict in just 22 minutes. She said both Layton and Ignatieff had personally promised her they would stop Prime Minister Stephen Harper from abolishing the registry and had now disappointed her.