Nfld. & Labrador

A generation apart, two engineers reflect on the École Polytechnique massacre

Like many of the women killed in the École Polytechnique attack, 30 years ago, Elieen O’Brien was studying engineering. 

They’ve seen progression in the industry but say there’s room for more

In what has become an annual tradition, 14 beams of light will illuminate Montreal's night sky on Friday in tribute to the women killed at École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989. (Ryan Remiorz/The Canadian Press)

Like many of the women killed in the École Polytechnique attack, 30 years ago, Eileen O'Brien was studying engineering. 

She was in her first term at Memorial University when, over the radio, she heard about a gunman going into a Montreal school and separating the students in a mechanical engineering classroom by gender.

He shouted he hated feminists and opened fire, killing 14 women and injuring many more. 

The shooter targeted women, like O'Brien, who were working to enter a male-dominated field.

After the attack, O'Brien channeled her emotions into a poem and pinned it to a bulletin board in MUN's engineering building.

"Looking back on it now, there's aspects of it that I think were rather naive … but I think it was heartfelt and it was a way to process the whole event."

She wrote from the perspective of the victims — as if she had been in that École Polytechnique classroom on Dec. 6, 1989.

(Photos: The Canadian Press / Design: CBC)

Back then, there was debate over the gunman's motive. Asked if she realized then what she does now — that the attack was an act of violence against women — O'Brien said, "I think I knew it, but I don't know that I saw it.

"I think it took a few years of being in, I guess, the working world and seeing that the inequality was still there, that it really came home to me."

A generation later 

Like O'Brien, Samantha Ellis first heard about the École Polytechnique attack while studying to become an engineer at MUN.

It was years later. At 28, Ellis wasn't alive when the shooting happened, but you can almost visualize how much time has passed by looking at her. 

"It still weighs on me even though it didn't happen in my lifetime," she said.

Samantha Ellis, 28, wasn't born when the École Polytechnique attack happened, but says the event still weighs on her. (Katie Breen/CBC)

"Some people want to believe, I guess, that women have all the rights in the world and that it's not hard anymore.… But this happened 30 years ago this year, and that's really not that long [ago]." 

Ellis said engineering appealed to her because math and science were always her strong suits. She had a desire to understand how the world worked and an interest in the marine industry. 

She studied ocean and naval architectural engineering, viewing it as a real-world application of the sciences. 

"There are unfortunately, still some people that view women as inferior in engineering, just based on their gender," Ellis said. 

Five years into her career, she's noticed some progression — a change in the mindset toward women.

"I think it gets better with every generation, and that's really exciting to see," she said. 

"I hope, and I think, that someday we'll get to the point that it's irrelevant." 

'It's moving in a positive direction'

The attack was a wakeup call, O'Brien said, that highlighted the different ways women and men were being treated in the industry and in the world. 

"It's a continuing struggle," she said. 

"It's moving in a positive direction. There's a lot of work to be done — I don't want to downplay that — but you have to focus on the positive, I think."

O'Brien will be part of the annual vigil in St. John's tonight. 

Eileen O'Brien is a working engineer and the vice president of the non-profit Women in Science and Engineering Newfoundland and Labrador. (Katie Breen/CBC)

A commemorative ceremony is held every Dec. 6 at Memorial University's engineering building — the main lecture hall off the lobby, at 6 p.m.

This year, for the first time, she'll be reading her poem — the one she wrote after the attack and pinned up at MUN 30 years ago. 

She didn't actually keep a copy of it herself, back then. But one was returned to her recently. 

Another student had taken her poem from the bulletin board, dated it, and kept it over the years. O'Brien said the man recently found it in his papers and decided to read it out at an engineering conference for women.

"It touched me that what I had said had touched him," she said.

"I think that is probably the best legacy that I could have had. That I helped somebody see things from a woman's perspective."

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