Dec. 6 is a solemn day for Canadians. It’s the anniversary of the largest mass shooting in modern Canadian history, perhaps the largest mass shooting in Canada or the U.S. that explicitly targeted women. Most Americans probably don’t know about the Montreal Massacre, as it has become known. But given several deadly attacks on women by self-avowed misogynists in the past year alone — and how quickly those murders slipped away from the front page and from public memory — this year’s anniversary carries special weight, no matter which side of the Canada/U.S. border you’re on.
In 1989, 25-year-old Marc Lépine stormed into an engineering class at the École Polytechnique in Montreal with a semiautomatic hunting rifle he’d obtained legally. He ordered all the men to leave before shooting the women, six of whom died before help arrived.
From there, Lépine stalked the school’s hallways and cafeteria. In the end, he killed a total of 14 women and injured 10 more (plus four men caught in the crossfire), before turning the gun on himself.
In the days, weeks and years following the attack, the question of whether it was anti-feminist became a point of contention.
Feminists pointed to some important evidence suggesting it was. They stressed that Lépine explicitly targeted women by segregating them from their male peers. Before he started shooting, he shouted, “You're all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!”
Lépine also left a suicide note that listed an additional 19 women he wanted to murder, including Francine Pelletier (a prominent feminist activist and journalist), a Quebec cabinet minister and some female police officers who’d angered Lépine by playing in a work volleyball league.
And yet a range of people from pundits to physicians saw the shooting in a different light. They denied the “political reasons” of the crime that Lépine himself espoused, arguing that the shooting was about the psychological collapse of one man who couldn’t find his place within society. For instance, a Montreal psychiatrist proclaimed in Montreal’s La Presse newspaper that Lépine was “as innocent as his victims, and himself a victim of an increasingly merciless society.” According to Pelletier, a Quebec City columnist also alleged that “the truth was that the crime had nothing to do with women.”
A year later, the remaining contents of Lépine’s suicide note — not just the list of women — was published by La Presse, confirming his motivations: “Would you take note that if I commit suicide today, it’s not for economic reasons (but) for political reasons,” Lépine wrote in French. “I have decided to send the feminists who have always ruined my life to their Maker . . . Even if the Mad Killer epithet will be attributed to me by the media, I consider myself a rational erudite.”
Still, many argued the broader implications of Lépine’s note didn’t matter. École Polytechnique director André Bazergui said as much in a news conference following the publication of the letter. “Who cares? Really, who cares?” he said.
Such assertions angered Pelletier, who argued that ignoring the political nature of Lépine’s crime was dangerous.
“He was our first terrorist and nobody was treating it that way,” she told the Toronto Star in 2014. “Those (engineering) students dared to take the place of men. They represented our future and he was targeting our future — how we imagined ourselves to be.”
In 1989, the shooting at École Polytechnique was novel in its explicit targeting and hatred of women, even if the misogyny that fed it traced back centuries. It was a byproduct of what author Susan Faludi identified as a broader backlash to second-wave feminism, the results of which shaped everything from pop culture to men’s rights groups.
Today, many aspects of the Montreal Massacre feel all too familiar in Canada and the U.S. The violent misogyny Lépine espoused has resurfaced in a visceral, sometimes deadly, way. Most recently, in November, a man who’d posted videos about his hatred of women opened fire at a Tallahassee yoga studio. The gunman killed two women before turning the gun on himself.
There are also important connections between domestic violence and mass shooters that often go unnoticed. This was made clear yet again in the recent shooting at Chicago’s Mercy Hospital, where Dr. Tamara O’Neal was shot, allegedly by her ex-fiance, who killed three others before killing himself.
Overall, violence against women — particularly indigenous women, women of color, and trans women — remains a pressing issue. The Canadian Women’s Foundation reports that a woman is killed by a current or former partner every six days; in the U.S. that number drops to every three days, according to the Violence Policy Center.
And just as in the case of Lépine, we continue to see attempts to deny, downplay or just flat-out ignore the violence manifesting from this misogyny. Consider, for instance, an Alaskan judge’s approval of a plea deal that resulted in no jail time for a man who brutally assaulted an indigenous Alaskan woman. According to NPR, the woman was looking for a ride when her assaulter picked her up and drove her to a spot where he choked her until she was unconscious. Then he masturbated on her. The rationale for the plea deal? He was unlikely to reoffend.
And don’t forget President Trump’s notorious musings in the wake of the Brett M. Kavanaugh hearings that it’s a “scary time” to be a young man. Such assertions — and the widespread belief that the #MeToo movement has “gone too far” — paints women as powerful figures who relish in their ability to ruin a man’s life with a single tweet.
#MeToo has raised awareness about sexual violence and misconduct. And voters have responded as well, voting out the Alaskan judge in protest and voting in a wave of women to represent them in the 2018 midterm elections. But progress is tenuous, and veterans of the second-wave feminist movement are still fighting the same battles decades after they began.
And that is why remembering the École Polytechnique shooting matters so much today. In 2014, one survivor, Nathalie Provost, told the Montreal Gazette that she felt that Canada was regressing and that the feminist movement remained “fragile.” Others echoed this sentiment. Jocelyne Dallaire Légaré, who managed many of the funeral arrangements for the Polytechnique victims, said violence against women remained a taboo topic. She pointed to the women speaking out against Canadian radio host Jian Ghomeshi and comedian Bill Cosby in 2014 as evidence. Four years later, these statements resonate now more than ever.
Next year will be the 30th anniversary of the shooting at École Polytechnique. Whether that year is accompanied by a collective willingness to take the biggest lesson of the tragedy seriously — that misogyny kills — remains to be seen.
Until then, a new generation of women and feminists will likely be introduced to the shooting this year. It’s now a dark moment in Canada’s history and the history of the women’s movement, too. But it’s still so much more. Because as so many events of 2018 have shown, the history of women’s rights and the vicious backlash it’s elicited is still being written.