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'Human suffering that I will never forget': Honouring the women of the Montreal massacre 31 years later

Elisabetta Bianchini
·10-min read

It has been 31 years since the tragic massacre of 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montreal but the flashback of the Dec. 6, 1989 femicide will remain a vivid memory for many in Canada and around the world.

“There were the parents of the young women, who they hadn’t heard from and couldn't find, and some were injured and some were dead, and nobody knew which was which,” Heidi Rathjen, a graduate of École Polytechnique who witnessed the attack told Yahoo Canada. “It was just a horrible, horrible thing to see, the human suffering that I will never forget.”

“The pain I saw in the eyes of the parents...when they were waiting to find out what happened to their daughters. It was a terrible, terrible moment.”

Dr. Mary Wells, dean of the faculty of engineering at the University of Waterloo, graduated from McGill University in 1987, shortly before the Montreal massacre. She was working for Stelco in Hamilton, Ont., at the time and still remembers hearing about the shooting on the radio.

“After that happened it really shocked me, the memory of hearing it is like burned in my brain,” Dr. Wells told Yahoo Canada. “All the women and my colleagues, we just considered ourselves engineers, we didn't think of ourselves as women engineers,…it was just so shocking for me to see that he was trying to get rid of people like me, and why would that be? It was just unbelievable.”

“I didn't say it out loud but I think I sort of said to myself, well he wanted to get rid of women in engineering, well we're not going to allow him to do that. What can I do so that for every one that he has murdered I can bring a thousands more in...to change what he wanted to see happen.”

Dr. Lianne Lefsrud, assistant professor, engineering safety and risk management at the University of Alberta, was a second-year engineering student, at the Alberta school, when the attack happened.

“I was in civil engineering and there [were] five or six women students...with me and we just kind of sat together like absolutely dumbfounded,” Dr. Lefsrud told Yahoo Canada. “It was just so unbelievable that where we felt safe in class could be so unsafe for someone else.”

‘Remembrance comes with a responsibility to act’

Rathjen is now a coordinator of PolySeSouvient (PolyRemembers), a group that continues to call for more gun control, which includes a group of École Polytechnique students and parents of victims, and other families and survivors of tragic shootings in Canada, who “don't want other people to experience the same suffering.”

“It's important to remember because we don't want their death to be in vain and remembrance comes with a responsibility to act,” Rathjen said. “It's sad enough that the families of the victims and other groups had to fight for six years to get reasonable, basic, standard gun control, which is the norm in most developed countries.”

In a recent call to action, the group is calling on Canadians to send an email to their local MP to call on the federal government to take action for stronger gun control and to make the assault-style weapons ban permanent.

“Poll after poll after poll shows the majority of Canadians support a ban on handguns, a ban on assault weapons and more gun control in general,” Rathjen said. “Yet the reason why we don't have these measures is because just like in the United States, we have a very powerful, very influential, very organized gun lobby, which is incredibly active and which has managed to water down or prevent a lot of measures that most Canadians would want to see implemented.”

She identified that there has been a “victory” in terms of the Liberal government’s ban on about 1,500 variants of assault-style weapons but there are still guns that are not registered, particularly with the loss of the long-gun registry.

The federal government has also deferred the markings that are supposed to be on all guns to fight international gun trafficking until December 2023.

Canada has seen a number of attacks involving the very assault weapons Rathjen’s group wants to see banned, including murders of the three RCMP officers in Moncton, N.B., in 2014, the murder of two police officers and two civilians in Fredricton in 2018 and the Quebec City mosque shooting in 2017.

“This is like a betrayal of the system, which continued to allow these weapons to be sold to ordinary Canadians knowing the risks that you can't predict who is going to be the next mass shooter,” Rathjen said. “It's more frustrating because we've seen what can happen, with Polytechnique, when one of these weapons fall into the wrong hands.”

The shooter in the Nova Scotia attacks earlier this year had three weapons that were smuggled in from the U.S. and one, the same model that was used in the Montreal massacre, that he obtained “through the estate of a deceased associate,” which was not registered.

“It's like the lesson still wasn't learned and it took 30 years before a government in power decided to ban these weapons,” Rathjen said. “So now it's finally happened, and unfortunately at the cost of too many lives.”

MONTREAL, CANADA - DECEMBER 6: Canadian pepople hold papers that bears the victim's names as people take part in a ceremony at the memorial park to mark the 25th anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, Canada on December 6, 2014. 25 years to the day, 25-year-old Marc Lepine killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique because of their gender. (Photo by Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)
MONTREAL, CANADA - DECEMBER 6: Canadian pepople hold papers that bears the victim's names as people take part in a ceremony at the memorial park to mark the 25th anniversary of the Ecole Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, Canada on December 6, 2014. 25 years to the day, 25-year-old Marc Lepine killed 14 women at the École Polytechnique because of their gender. (Photo by Amru Salahuddien/Anadolu Agency/Getty Images)

‘A huge amount of lost potential for our engineering community’

Aside from questions about gun control in Canada that came up after the Montreal attack, and are still ongoing, Dr. Wells believes that the massacre in 1989 also had a significant impact on how people thought about what the experience for women in engineering was really like.

“[The victims] represent a huge amount of lost potential for our engineering community,” she said. “I actually think after that happened, in Canada and around the world, everybody paused, for the very first time maybe, [to] think collectively about what is the experience like for women in engineering.”

“It did kind of galvanize us to think about ways, and to devote part of our lives, to mentoring the next generations coming after us, both men and women but with maybe a little bit more of a focus on women.”

Jean Boudreau, president of Engineers Canada, graduated from university earlier in the 1980s but identified that at time, there was “very limited” support for women in engineering.

Dr. Lefsrud said the tragedy “boosted” conversations at the University of Alberta about solidarity and celebrating engineers, and some things that were “perhaps not so friendly to women.”

“During engineering week in January, you'd have a princess and then you'd have the queen of engineering week, it was just the most backwards-looking thing, the fact that these engineering students would have a trophy and the trophy would be a woman,” she said. “We're not queens or princesses, we're your workmates and we don't think that's necessarily appropriate.”

Dr. Lefsrud identified, as someone who teaches risk management, a message she tries to get through to her students is that every incident is a tragedy but “the greatest tragedy is not learning from them.”

“What remembering the Montreal massacre is, is an opportunity for us to learn from it and to say, what barriers do we still face as women, or different genders...in STEM more broadly, and there's plenty of them,” she said. “This [is] an opportunity for us to reflect on those barriers, on the progress that we've made and the progress to still make.”

A woman walks past a memorial at University of Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique, the engineering pavilion in Montreal, Quebec December 5, 2014. December 6 marks the 25th anniversary in which 14 women were killed at the polytechnique in a shooting by a lone gunman. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (CANADA - Tags: CRIME LAW EDUCATION)
A woman walks past a memorial at University of Montreal's Ecole Polytechnique, the engineering pavilion in Montreal, Quebec December 5, 2014. December 6 marks the 25th anniversary in which 14 women were killed at the polytechnique in a shooting by a lone gunman. REUTERS/Christinne Muschi (CANADA - Tags: CRIME LAW EDUCATION)

Why are there still fewer women taking high school physics courses?

These influential women in the engineering community believe a lot of work has been done to support women in the field, but one common gap they agreed on was more supports for girls in high school who may be interested in studying the engineering in university.

Boudreau shared that when she was in high school she “shocked” her guidance counsellor with her decision to pursue engineering in university.

“Back when I chose engineering, I rather shocked the guidance counsellor when I was discussing with her what I was thinking of doing, it just caught her off guard,” she said. “There's still more progress to be made in terms of guidance counsellors even suggesting or recommending it to their female high school students.”

“We have made progress...there are more females registering in engineering, there are more graduating, there are more going on and becoming professional engineers, but we still have work to do.”

Engineers Canada has a “30 by 30” campaign where the goal is to see women account for 30 per cent of newly licensed engineers by 2030. Dr. Wells identified that the “ultimate goal” would be to get to 50/50 but that’s “unrealistic” at the moment because one of the pain points in the system is the high school courses.

“Physics is one of the courses you need to take in order to even apply to engineering and in Ontario, the number of women that are taking physics fractionally is 34 per cent,” Dr. Wells said. “We have to go back into high school and even elementary school to figure out, why don't we have more women wanting to take courses like physics.”

“Many schools don't teach physics in a way that is necessarily appealing to women, or they don't have a physics teacher at all,” Dr. Lefsrud explained, adding that outreach programs at the University of Alberta are also looking at attracting high school students into the field and helping them get those early requirements, while also looking at adding more science experiences for kids in the elementary and junior high school levels as well.

“Yes there are more initiatives but progress is slow. We need some patience, we need to keep our eye on the ball. These initiatives are working and it's just a matter of...how do we create those role models of women engineers doing different kinds of things, it's not just, here I am the typical person designing a bridge or designing an electrical power plant.”

In terms of advice for aspiring engineers, Dr. Wells said they should believe in themselves and understand that engineering offers a wide range of opportunities.

“To train your mind to think like an engineer will set you up very, very well for your future career because you could apply your newly trained engineering brain to whatever you are interested in,” she said.

Boudreau wants women currently pursuing a career in engineering to “stick to your guns.”

“When I faced negative situations or discrimination,...you almost need to be spurred on by that as opposed to put down by it,” she said. “Most times...it's somebody's preconceived idea that maybe women shouldn't be there.”

Visit PolyseSouvient to support better gun control in Canada, email an MP or donate to the cause.