By Penney Kome
Wednesday, December 6, 2000
An armed loner entered a Montreal engineering classroom 11 years ago, shouting he hated feminists. The 14 women who died are remembered by a national commitment to reduce violence against women, reinvigorated by annual commemorative ceremonies.
CALGARY, Alberta (WOMENSENEWS)--At 11 a.m. today many women in this vast nation will stop a moment, united in their remembrance of the tragedy of 11 years ago, and with a red rose held tightly in their hand, light a single candle.
Here, Dec. 6 is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
Women and men at universities and in provincial legislatures will observe a minute of silence at 11 a.m. local time. Throughout the day, women's rights activists will hold candlelight vigils, other ceremonies and workshops all with a single focus: prevention of male violence against women.
Eleven years ago, Marc LePine entered a classroom at l'École Polytechnique de Montréal, shouted, "I hate feminists" and massacred 14 young women with a semi-automatic weapon. He then turned the weapon on himself, ending his own life.
The horrific mass murder instantly seared itself into public consciousness. It also sparked a long-running public debate that still erupts every anniversary.
Especially in the news media, most men dismissed Marc LePine as "an isolated madman." Otherwise, they said, his actions were incomprehensible.
Conversely, many women saw a very clear message in the attack. The massacre was no random impulse, but a carefully planned revenge, women came to believe.
Wife battering had only just begun to emerge as an issue during the 1980s. Given the perpetrator's history as a battered child, the atrocity forced Canadian women to consider the connections between domestic violence and stranger violence.
LePine had been rejected by Polytechnique's engineering school, where 13 of the women were students (the other victim worked as a clerk). A police search of his room yielded a list of 19 prominent Quebec women he also intended to kill.
To a number of women, it was obvious that LePine was acting out the violent rage against losing male privilege that other men expressed less overtly.
These two concerns merged into an overall movement deploring all violence against women, with the understanding that domestic violence and stranger violence are closely linked.
Soon a slogan emerged: "First Mourn, Then Work for Change."
Outrage inspired women to create posters, essays, theses, songs, films--and action.
The second anniversary of the tragedy, most of the men in the Canadian Parliament wore white ribbons on their lapels--signifying their support for the Men Against Male Violence Against Women national campaign--as they adopted Member of Parliament Dawn Black's bill to make Dec. 6 a National Day of Remembrance.
Also in 1991, the government created a "Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women" to investigate violence issues. The panel reported back in 1993 with statistics that proved what feminists had been saying: While fear of violence pervades women's daily lives, more violence is done by intimates than by strangers such as Marc LePine.
At the same time, the federal government set a precedent that it has followed ever since: an annual announcement of a new initiative to eliminate violence against women. This year, Hedy Fry, a physician who is also a government minister, announced a pact for the provinces and the federal government to concur on the methods used to measure violence against women.
Artists at universities from Newfoundland to Vancouver Island persuaded their schools to install monuments displaying the names of the 14 women. Public memorial monuments followed, built by local women's groups, including a grove of trees in New Brunswick, a set of massive granite benches in Vancouver and a sculpture garden in Montreal.
By 1996, the anniversary had a symbol--a candle with a red rose--and became an annual event across the Internet, too.
Immediately after the massacre, the Canadian Council of Professional Engineers established the Canadian Engineering Memorial Foundation, with scholarships for women students and an annual award given to a university that has made significant progress in improving the climate for women engineering students.
On the massacre's tenth anniversary, the council reported, the "number of women enrolled in undergraduate engineering programs in Canada has more than doubled." In addition, the council said, "the 8,000 women currently registered in those programs make up 20 per cent of all undergraduate engineering students."
Perhaps the most significant result of the tragedy also got underway in 1991, when then Justice Minister Kim Campbell introduced the first revision to gun control since 1978. In Canada, 40 percent of intimate femicides are committed with firearms. Eight out of ten Canadian women support strict gun control, according to research supplied by the Coalition for Gun Control.
Led mainly by Toronto professor Wendy Cukier, the coalition includes survivors and families of victims of the massacre, whose vigorous and vociferous support has been crucial to its public campaigns. When legislation passed in 1991 proved inadequate, the coalition continued working and won amendments in 1995.
But the battle wasn't over. Provincial governments promptly asked the Alberta Supreme Court to rule the new legislation unconstitutional. The coalition won in provincial court in 1998, and, on June 15, 2000, in the Supreme Court of Canada.
Currently, the gun law requires that all firearms in Canada must be registered by the year 2003 and all gun owners must earn licenses by passing both police checks and the Canadian Firearms Safety Course. Long guns (rifles and shotguns), once exempt, now must be registered. Short-barreled handguns and automatic or convertible semi-automatic weapons are banned.
Police chief associations in Canada support the gun control legislation. However, feminists insisted on a provision that spouses and former spouses must be notified when someone applies for a new gun license.
In the last two years, the coalition says, the spousal notification line has received more than 17,000 calls from worried spouses, responding to the news that their significant others have applied for gun licenses.
Violence against women is still an urgent problem in Canada. Almost 100 women a year die at the hands of their partners or ex-partners. Homicide is the number one cause of workplace fatalities for women, but not for men. About 45,000 women a year (and 42,000 children) seek refuge at battered women's shelters.
Dec. 6th observances at least keep violence issues at the forefront of public awareness, just as Veteran's Day, Nov. 11, keeps vivid the horrors of war. The difference, of course, is that this is a war within our borders whose victims are primarily women and children and one that many still deny is ongoing.
Penney Kome is a feminist author and journalist based in Calgary, Alberta. She wrote a national column on the women's movement from 1976 to 1988, and a Woman's View column for the Calgary Herald from 1990 to 1994. Her six books include "Somebody Has to Do It," about the economic significance of unpaid work; "The Taking of Twenty-Eight," about how Canadian women won the equivalent of an Equal Rights Amendment in 1981; and "Women of Influence: Canadian Women and Politics." She shares her home with her husband, two school-aged sons and a dog named Patience.