The Sunday Magazine·Point of View

30 years since the Montreal massacre, we still see a deadly hatred of women

On December 6, 1989, an angry young man with a semi-automatic rifle walked into an office at the University of Montréal's engineering school. He killed 14 women. He had compiled a hit list of 19 other women he wanted to murder - journalist and prominent feminist Francine Pelletier learned that she was one of them.
Three unidentified women hug each other after laying flowers in front of École Polytechnique three days after the massacre. Now, 30 years later, Montreal is still processing the tragedy. (Shaney Komulainen/The Canadian Press)

Special to CBC Radio

For those of us who remember the Montreal Massacre, there will always be a 'before' and an 'after.'  It was a fall from grace, a loss of innocence, a defining moment in Canada's history and in our lives.

I was at home, in Montreal, when a friend phoned to say that "women were being shot" at the University of Montreal's Engineering School. I remember little else except sitting glued to the television screen that night. How terribly naive we'd been, I thought, as the horror unfolded. 

How could we not have seen that there would be a price to pay for feminism? 

Mary Moore-Phillips, band councillor of Lennox Island First Nation, lighting candles at a Montreal Massacre vigil in Charlottetown. (Jessica Doria-Brown/CBC)

Until then, I had never realized how uneventful the path toward women's liberation had been. What an easy time we second wave feminists had had of it, all things considered. Now, an alienated 25-year-old named Marc Lépine had broken the seal that had kept resentment towards feminism safely under wraps. 

"Please note that I am committing suicide today," Lepine wrote, "not because of financial reasons, but because of political ones. I have decided to send ad patres ["to their ancestors"] the feminists who have always ruined my life."

Those are the first lines of his suicide note. Lepine pinned it to himself to make sure there was no mistaking his intent. He hated feminists. "Even though I will be labelled a crazed gunman," he concludes, "I consider myself a rational erudite." 

None of this, of course, was made clear at the time. Not only was the attack on feminism overlooked, and Lépine's note held back from the public, there was a concerted attempt — in Quebec, in particular — to obscure the fact that women had been targeted in the first place. The idea that women were being killed because they were women was just too much too bear. 

Grieving relatives are escorted from the University of Montreal, Que., on December 7, 1989, after learning that their loved one was among the 14 women victims of a gunman who went on a killing spree on December 6, 1989. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Ryan Remiorz (Ryan Remiorz/Canadian Press)

Thirty years after that wrenching loss of innocence, many candles have been lit, white ribbons worn and December 6th declared a National Day of Action against violence against women.  Today, no one disputes that indeed this was a crime against women. And yet, I can't help feeling that we still haven't learned the true lesson of the Montreal Massacre.

I have thought a great deal about this dreadful event. Ever since discovering my name on Marc Lépine's "hit-list," I've felt the need to try and understand the unimaginable. And of course, anniversary after anniversary, I'm peppered with questions. How did I feel then? How do I feel now? 

Still sad, after all these years. There is no getting over this completely, I realize. My voice still catches when I talk about it. The sorrow is not just for the innocent women who were killed. It's for the on-going war against feminism — which is precisely what I think we have missed, all these years. 

Police enter the Ecole Polytechnique after a lone gunman opened fire at the school in Montreal on Dec. 6, 1989. Thirty years ago, Marc Lépine went on a 20-minute shooting rampage that eventually sparked a national gun-control debate that continues until this day. (Shaney Komulainen/Canadian Press)

In trying to make sense of this horrible tragedy, we have equated the plight of the victims with the violence women have always endured. We have put this in the category of what we know, rather than what we don't know. I think this is a mistake.  By never focusing on the truly unusual aspect of the crime — an attack on feminism — we are prevented from seeing what's at the bottom of this: men's access to women's bodies. 

A classic mass murderer in many ways — young, white, male, with a terrible axe to grind— Lépine was a glum introvert, uneasy with people, especially women. He'd been abandoned by his father at a young age. He was bullied by his sister and kept at a distance by his mother, a woman who worked long hours as a nurse.  At age 25, had never had a girlfriend. He was angry about all of it.

The Montreal Massacre gave us our first clue that the threat of feminism wasn't about women being allowed to do men's work. It went much deeper. The real threat was not in having women engineers, in other words, as long as men-women relationships remained the same. As long as women remained physically and emotionally available to men. 

I suspect that Lépine instinctively knew that the more liberated women became, the less likely they would choose a man like him: angry, reactionary and forlorn. Feminists were not so much taking up his space as denying him the emotional and sexual companionship he craved. 

Canada's foremost mass murderer was in fact a trailblazer for those angry men who today blame women for their forced celibacy. The perceived lack of women's availability is what lies at the heart of the so-called Incel (involuntarily celibate) Rebellion — responsible for two lethal attacks, in California in 2014 and another in Toronto in 2018. Both Elliot Rodger and Alek Minassian were incensed that women were denying them what they were "owed:" a proper sex life. 

Women's availability is also at the heart of the sexual harassment pandemic that has inspired the #MeToo movement. From CBC Radio host Jian Ghomeshi to Hollywood mogul Harvey Weinstein, International Monetary Fund director Dominique Strauss-Kahn, comedian Bill Cosby, and PBS interviewer Charlie Rose, the list of powerful men who have been accused of sexual misconduct just keeps growing. The extent to which men — some highly respected ones, to boot — continue to avail themselves of women's bodies is truly astounding. 

It begs the question: How does this square with feminism? How can we have more and more strong, educated, independent women, on one hand, and an astronomical level of groping, raping, and lewd conduct on the other? Might there be some kind of trade-off here? Women get to become public figures, maybe even run a country, in exchange for sexual compliancy,  in exchange for male dominance on an intimate level. And if that means getting a little roughed up in the process, so be it. 

When that pact is challenged  or broken, there are terrible consequences. Could this explain both the degree of sexual misconduct we see today … and the deadly outbursts?

In the persistent gloom cast by the Montreal Massacre, I've come to the conclusion that we've underestimated the personal costs related to feminism. We've had a tendency to think that if we tackled the big picture, changed laws and social structures, the rest would take care of itself. But the rest, what happens on a personal, psychological and emotional level, is much more resistant to change, as well as ultimately more complicated. That, for me, is the true lesson of the Montreal Massacre. 

Click 'listen' above to hear Francine Pelletier's essay.

Click here to read her full essay for Canada's History.