Hard Road Ahead For Nova Scotia Shooting Survivors, Montreal Massacre Victim Says

Nathalie Provost survived the anti-feminist shooting at École Polytechnique in 1989. Now, she's offering support for survivors and grieving loved ones following the Nova Scotia shooting.
Family paying respects to Nova Scotia shooting
A family pays their respects to victims of the mass killings at a checkpoint on Portapique Road in Portapique, Nova Scotia. Photo by Andrew Vaughan (CP)

Nathalie Provost has built a successful career as an engineer and public servant, has embraced motherhood, and speaks publicly about the need for gender equality and gun control, among other successes, despite enduring unfathomable trauma: Provost survived the Montreal massacre.

Thirty years ago, on December 6, 1989, an anti-feminist gunman, Marc Lépine, stormed into Montreal’s École Politechnique and shot female engineering students, killing 14 and injuring 14 (including four men) before shooting himself.


Provost was one of the injured women, shot in the first room targeted by Lépine. The now 53-year-old was in the last year of her mechanical engineering undergraduate degree, gathered with classmates, when Lépine walked in with a semi-automatic rifle, separated the women from the men, and forced the women into a corner.

The Victims of Canada's Deadliest Mass Shooting

“I don’t remember exactly how it began, but he told us he was anti-feminist,” Provost said. “I replied, ‘We’re not feminist and if you want to study in Polytechnique you can.’ Then he began to shoot.”

She was shot four times and six of her classmates died that evening.

The massacre was Canada’s worst modern-day mass killing until last month. Twenty-two people were killed in Nova Scotia during the horrifying 13-hour overnight stretch that started late on April 18, including Kristen Beaton, a pregnant nurse, RCMP Const. Heidi Stevenson, who died while responding to the active shooter, and 42-year-old Corrie Ellison.

Ellison’s brother, Clinton, found Ellison’s body before the gunman started chasing him. Clinton fled to the woods, where he hid for several hours waiting for police.

"To walk up and find my brother dead, and to be hunted by this fella that killed all these people, I'll be traumatized for the rest of my life,” Clinton told CBC News.

The news cycle is slowly shifting away from the Nova Scotia massacre, but the affected—loved ones of the victims and survivors like Clinton—will have to face the event’s aftershock, some for years to come.


“It’s very hard to accept that yes, it’s still difficult,” Provost said.”I wish (Nova Scotians) to be able to have a lot of self-compassion.”

Provost told VICE that the first five years after the massacre were the most difficult for her. She didn’t go to therapy until two or three years after because she was focused on healing physically and spiritually first. But she still pushed to complete her bachelor's degree and then, her masters.

nathalie provost

Photo courtesy of Nathalie Provost

“I go back to my personal notebook and realize I was able to go back to study in school in January,” Provost said. “I wanted to be able to be autonomous, to have a salary, to live my own life, and that helped me stand up and finish my studies.”

After a situation like the Montreal massacre or the Nova Scotia shooting spree, survivors and relatives of the dead are left to piece together new lives, newly marked with trauma responses (nightmares, flashbacks, painful memories), profound grief, or both.

Those kinds of responses are perfectly normal, said David Paul, a clinical psychologist based in Edmonton who specializes in post-traumatic stress disorder (PTSD).

It’s important to remember that people don’t necessarily end up with PTSD or long-term grief response, clinically referred to as “complex grief,” he said.

There is always an aftermath; you still have to confront new things.

Most people suffering in the immediate aftermath of extreme trauma likely experience symptoms like anxiety, fear, deep sadness, flashbacks, stress, irritability, or nightmares for weeks or months. Those responses can dissipate overtime, Paul said, and don’t require professional intervention when they do.


If intense symptoms persist for months and months, PTSD or complex grief form, and therapy is likely required, he said, adding that people can recover from these extreme forms of grief as well, so traumatic events don’t have to define a person’s life indefinitely.

“You hesitate to talk about good news in the aftermath of something like this,” Paul said. “But if someone is struggling with PTSD or complex grief, there is reason for optimism when it comes to recovery.”

One of Provost’s good friends advised early on that people struggling with trauma have three options: they can try to ignore it, acknowledge the pain while trying to maintain life as it always has been, or face trauma head-on and work to fix the wounds.

“The impulse to ignore it makes perfect sense, right?” Paul said. “Nobody wants to feel the way it feels to confront trauma. The problem with that approach is that it usually doesn’t work long-term.”

By paying attention to symptoms and getting help for persistent trauma response and grief, most people can go on to live extremely rich and fulfilling lives, Paul said.

According to Provost, after the first five years, her mental health improved and traumatic memories didn’t surface as frequently. Every once in a while major milestones—childbirth, for example—would act as a trigger.

“There is always an aftermath; you still have to confront new things,” Provost said. “I had to go back to some dark memories. But the frequency is less intense.”


Provost said she doesn’t want to generalize how people experience trauma, but she did say she hopes Nova Scotians who are currently experiencing unfathomable pain give themselves time to heal.

“I wish them to be able to be very, very loving, patient,” Provost said. “We are often in a hurry to feel good again and then we may be mad at ourselves. But it’s a long, long, long process.”

Both the Nova Scotia and Montreal massacres exposed violent misogyny in Canadian society, and Provost said she’s worried gender-based violence will continue to escalate, especially during COVID-19.

The economic situation we’re going through right now is going to cause strain, Provost said.

Crisis workers have repeatedly said the pandemic is resulting in more, increasingly severe domestic violence cases.

Supporting women’s shelters and spreading awareness about misogynistic violence are two ways Canadians can support families already suffering from trauma and loss and prevent future incidents from occurring, Provost said.

Prime Minister Justin Trudeau responded to the Nova Scotia shooting by banning assault-style weapons. On May 1, it became illegal to buy, sell, transport, and use military-grade weapons, including the AR-15, which was used at École Polytechnique. Provost has been advocating for such a move for years.

“This is a great first step, but we need it to be stronger,” Provost said.

Trudeau’s decision represents a decree, meaning it hasn’t been made law yet.


“We need a strong law to give this decision backbone,” Provost said. “A decree can be reversed by another government. It’s much more difficult to destroy a law.”

Provost said she’d like to see even stricter control on all kinds of weapons, and added that the government should reinstate a Canadian Firearms Registry requirement that forces non-restricted firearms owners to register their weapons, a rule that was repealed in 2012.

When Trudeau announced the ban he acknowledged the long road ahead for people recovering from the shooting. A long road Provost knows too well.

“I am at peace with myself regarding what happened at Polytechnique and I’m very proud that I can say that to you today,” Provost said.

Follow Anya Zoledziowski on Twitter.