Gun control: It's been 30 years since the École Polytechnique massacre, so if not now then when?

With the 30th anniversary of the École Polytechnique femicide comes Canada's gun control moment of reckoning, writes Heidi Rathjen.

With the 30th anniversary of the horrific femicide comes Canada's gun control moment of reckoning

The Canadian flag flies at half staff as a family puts their daughter's casket into a hearse after services on Dec. 11, 1989, for nine of 14 women shot dead five days before at Montreal's École Polytechnique. (Mark Tomalty/Reuters)

This column is an opinion by Heidi Rathjen, a graduate of École Polytechnique in Montreal and coordinator of Poly RemembersShe was in a nearby study room when a gunman killed 14 women and injured 14 other people on Dec. 6, 1989. For more information about CBC's Opinion section, please see the FAQ.

The modern Canadian gun control movement can trace its roots back to the tragedy at Montreal's École Polytechnique, and the days following the 1989 massacre when the engineering students launched a nationwide petition calling for a complete ban on assault weapons.

Over the months after the shooting, I sat beside dozens of students in our cluttered boardroom, sustained by vending machine food and coffee while we opened hundreds of envelopes and counted thousands of signatures late into the night.

Altogether, we collected an astounding 560,000 signatures.

As we presented them to our elected officials, we were confident that we had done our job and that they would do theirs.

Yet here we are, 30 years later — the same students, all grown up with families of our own, including many with sons and daughters attending our very own beloved alma mater — still calling on the government to ban weapons that are "basically designed as an instrument of war" with "no sporting use either in the cultural or recreational sense," as the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police describes them.

This, despite the fact that polls over the years have continuously shown an overwhelming majority of Canadians in support of their prohibition.

At a memorial to those gunned down during the Dec. 6, 1989, massacre at Montreal's École Polytechnique, a person holds a rose dedicated to Sonia Pelletier, one of 14 women killed. (Chris Wattie/Retuers)

Tragically, military-style semi-automatic weapons have become more, not less, accessible over the years, as successive governments blatantly ignored gun manufacturers' tactics of redesigning existing models in order to circumvent the minimal controls they're subject to.

Many new models of assault weapons henceforth fall into the least-controlled "non restricted" category. The restricted Beretta CX4 Storm that was used in the 2006 Dawson College shooting, for example, is today available as a non-restricted "long gun."

The greater availability of assault weapons, along with the exponential increase in the number of privately owned handguns, the record number of gun owners and, especially, the loss of critical hard-fought measures (including the mandatory registration of all firearms), indicate that Canada is losing the battle to the gun lobby.

Louise De Sousa, mother of Dawson College shooting victim Anastasia De Sousa, Suzanne Laplante-Edward and Jim Edward, parents of Polytechnique victim Anne-Marie Edward, have advocated for stricter gun controls in Ottawa. (Graham Hughes/Canadian Press)

The Conservatives, patently aligned with the gun lobby, moved full steam ahead when in power to dismantle any gun control measures they could get away with.

As for the Liberals, they have taken only timid steps in the right direction when they had the chance to do much more.

They also bent over backwards to please gun owners, with generous loopholes and deleterious half-measures, and reinforced gun lobby rhetoric by prioritizing the issue of illegal gangs & guns at the expense of equally important gun-related suicide, domestic violence and mass shootings, all of which generally involve legally owned guns.

Because of this lopsided dynamic, successive iterations of the typical Conservative/Liberal/Conservative election cycle will result in more and more ground being lost unless one party takes bold action on gun control.

Already, Canada is the fifth-worst OECD country in terms of gun deaths per capita. Instead of comparing ourselves to the U.S., we ought to aspire to emulate countries such as members of the EU, as well as Australia and Japan, where stricter controls accompany fewer gun deaths.

Flowers are seen in front of the memorial plaque at École Polytechnique in Montreal. (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

So, this is it.

With the 30th anniversary of the Polytechnique femicide comes our gun control moment of reckoning. Indeed, if the current government doesn't deliver, we will lose the long battle for gun control. Because if not now, then when?

We are now in the second mandate of a party that was twice elected on a promise to strengthen gun control. Even with a minority government, the unequivocal support expressed by the NDP and the Bloc Québécois during the election campaign means that demands for stricter controls are backed by a majority of the members of parliament.

But if we are to win this fight, we need the Liberals to act like New Zealand did in the aftermath of the Christchurch massacre: boldly, decisively and without delay.

By the time that nation's new ban on assault weapons and other robust measures are fully implemented, they will be so entrenched that it will be political suicide for future governments to undo them.

So if the Liberals act decisively now, even though other parties will eventually come to power, the likelihood that these parties could repeal forthcoming gun-control gains will diminish with the strength of the new measures.

Survivors and families of victims of the worst mass shooting in Canadian history have waited long enough. In fact, they have fought long enough. It is time for our government to show some backbone, call out the self-serving arguments of the gun lobby, and pass strict, comprehensive gun laws that are soundly based on the public's right to be safe from preventable gun violence.

  • This column is part of CBC's Opinion section. For more information about this section, please read our FAQ.


Heidi Rathjen is a graduate of École Polytechnique in Montreal and coordinator of Poly Remembers.


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