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Naomi Klein says the Montreal Massacre made her a feminist

In the latest episode of More with Anna Maria Tremonti, Naomi Klein shares a view from the front lines, and shares how a mass shooting that happened when she was a teenager turned her into a lifelong activist. 

"Yes, people understand it. But what does understanding it mean if it's still happening?"

Before the 1989 Montreal Massacre, Naomi Klein did not call herself a feminist. But that act of mass violence against women set something off in her that still defines her today. (Andrew Medichini/The Associated Press)

These are emotional times for Naomi Klein.

As an activist, she has fought a lot of big battles. But now she's waging what may be the fight of her life — the one against climate change. Many days, the odds seem stacked against her. So what keeps her fighting?

Whatever you do, don't assume it's because, as a mom, she wants to give her kid a better future. ("Do mothers have some sort of monopoly on care and love and investment in the future?") And what gives her hope?

Turns out she doesn't really relate to that word. "Our chances aren't good," she tells Anna Maria Tremonti. She does, however, see "a pathway out of this crisis." 

In the latest episode of More with Anna Maria Tremonti, she shares the view from the front lines of the climate movement, and how a mass shooting that happened when she was a teenager turned her into a lifelong activist. 

The following excerpt from their conversation has been condensed for length and clarity. Find the full interview here or on your favourite podcast app.

When did it change for you? Like when did you sort of sit up and go "Wait a minute, I'm going to listen to what they're saying in a different way now?" Was that École Polytechnique?

My sort of "aha" moment, like for many women of my generation, was Dec. 6, 1989. I was in first year university at the University of Toronto. I was living in residence. And we heard the news that a gunman had gone to the École Polytechnique, had separated the men from the women, said 'you're all a bunch of f--king feminists,' and killed 14 women. And you know I remember that night so well. Like, I don't think we slept.

I remember a little TV in the corner of somebody's dorm room and I just remember like the stories spilled out of all us.

Montreal Massacre killer was bossy with women

34 years ago
Duration 5:36
Lepine's lab partner says he gave her orders.

It was so emotional. It still is for you.

Yeah. And I mean one of the things I was just struck by is that it's still happening ... but so much more. Like that turned me into an activist: a mass shooting. You know I didn't call myself feminist [before that].

It was happening in Montreal in a classroom not unlike the ones you were in. I remember that night too.

Marc Lapin had a list of people who he blamed and they were prominent feminists like my mother. My mother wasn't on the list but women she knew were on the list like Francine Pelletier.

Yeah. I remember that night because I was working in the Ottawa bureau of the CBC. And we all stayed that night because of course there was political fallout... The next day every woman in the Ottawa bureau said that was an act of violence against women. He separated them. He shot only women. He had a list. And every man I worked with in that bureau that day, to a man, told us we were wrong, that it was violence but it was not that violence. 

And they said it on the air.

Yeah they did say those things on the air. But that was a debate inside the bureau. And all the women — we looked at each other with incredulity. And I mean I still remember the conversation because it was so bizarre. But that's how far we've come in understanding that kind of violence. And interestingly enough the news media is more status quo than most at times, and sometimes it is the very journalists covering things who don't get what they're seeing. You got it right away as a 19-year-old.

But as you say, I think so many women got it. How could you not get it? And that was what turned us into activists was turning on CBC Radio and hearing the most powerful broadcasters in the country argue, "No, he's a madman."

I remember it so well. And I remember Francine was on the radio saying it's a crime against women. And I think hers was the lone voice. That's the way I remember it. Like my memory is that she was getting shut down as she was saying this. And that was why we were organizing because, you know, I think if it was just acknowledged, "Yes, this is a hate crime," we wouldn't have needed to organize in the way that we did.

Montreal Massacre eyewitness says Lepine spared male students

34 years ago
Duration 3:26
Barbara Frum interviews one student who survived the École Polytechnique massacre.

But so much of it was because... not only did we feel so vulnerable, but we also had to argue that this was what the shooter said that it was, right? So what we did at U of T is we just put up a few flyers saying we're going to have a meeting in the common room to talk about the Montreal Massacre. And we expected maybe 15 people to show up.

And I had volunteered to chair the meeting for some reason. I had never chaired a meeting in my life. But I think because people knew my mother was a feminist, they thought, 'Well, she'll do it.' And 500 people showed up at this meeting. And it was just bursting at the seams, and men were screaming that it wasn't their fault and stop blaming them. And women were crying and it just turned into this. And I was somehow having to moderate this.

And so that was the moment where I just suddenly found myself in this leadership role. And I think because I had this kind of personal connection because of my mother, because I knew some of the women on the list, I was suddenly like a pseudo-expert at age 19 or whatever. But the reason why I feel so emotional about it is because when I think about, you know, I think about the Parkland teens or all of the young people today. Movements are still being spawned by shooters going into schools and it's just outrageous that it's happening 30 years later, more and more and more. So yes, people understand it. But what does understanding it mean if it's still happening? Which I guess we could say about the climate crisis too.

Want to hear the full conversation?

Listen for free at cbc.ca/more or on your favourite podcast app — including Apple PodcastsGoogle Podcasts and Spotify. And if you're new to podcasts entirely, start here

Episode 6: "Naomi Klein doesn’t like the word hope" is available now on the More with Anna Maria Tremonti podcast. (CBC) (CBC)