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'It Galvanized a Generation:' These Women Were Slaughtered in Montreal Because One Man Hated Feminists

Twenty-six years to the day after Marc Lepine strolled into Quebec’s largest engineering school with a hunting rifle and opened fire on women he accused of feminism, many who gathered to remember their lives wore the label proudly.

by Jake Bleiberg
Dec 7 2015, 3:25am

Photo by Jake Bleiberg

Pillars of light stood on Sunday night amidst the Montreal skyline as a young girl's voice pierced the silence. 

"Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward," she read to a vigil assembled in Mount Royal Parc to remember the women murdered in 1989 at the École Polytechnique, in what has come to be known as the Montreal Massacre. "Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier," the girl continued, as spotlights were lit to mark the dead. "Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz," she finished. 

And then scores of heads peered up at the 14 towers of light raised in place of the skyscrapers the young engineers never got to build. 

Twenty-six years to the day after Marc Lepine strolled into Quebec's largest engineering school with a hunting rifle and opened fire on women he accused of feminism, many among the crowd gathered to remember their lives wore the label proudly. 

For Melanie Leavitt, who recalled watching a wailing procession ambulances and police cars speed towards the University of Montréal before arriving home to hear the tragic news, the date marks an opportunity to keep the lessons of the shooting fresh. 

"I remember December 6, 1989 like it was yesterday," Leavitt told VICE News. "It galvanized a whole generation of girls and young women, and older women too, to become more adamant in their feminism or to identify as being feminists, because if you hadn't previously, suddenly you realized that just the fact that you're a girl or you're a women could make you a target. You could be killed for it."

Since 1991, December 6 has been marked as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada, and this year's vigil in Montreal was attended by the newly elected Prime Minister Justin Trudeau — a self-described feminist. In 1989, Trudeau was a student at Montreal's Collège Jean-de-Brébeuf, located just down the street from the Polytechnique, and he later spent two years studying engineering at the university. Trudeau did not speak publicly at the memorial, but was among the group of survivors and other politicians to lay flowers before a plaque bearing the photographs and names of the victims. He later told reporters that he was there to keep a promise he'd made to never forget the 14.

While Trudeau and the Quebec government officials present refrained from politicizing the somber occasion, for many of the survivors who have campaigned against gun violence, this year's memorial held special significance. Last Thursday, hard on the heels of two horrific mass shootings in the United States, the Quebec government announced the creation of a provincial firearms registry to replace the federal long-gun database that was scrapped by Stephen Harper's ruling Conservatives in 2012.

"We have a reason to celebrate today, because we just got the registry from the Quebec government," Helene Thibault, who survived the Polytechnique shooting, told VICE News. "Yet the rest of Canada doesn't want to do the same thing," her husband added with clear frustration.

Leavitt also said that she saw Quebec's willingness to enact the registry for non-restricted guns, like shotguns and hunting rifles, as one positive legacy of Polytechnique — although she had further hoped that Trudeau would use the occasion to announce a re-enactment of the national registry. For both women, however, the most important message of the day was one of female empowerment, even in the face of violence. 

"The thing for them to know about it is that they can do whatever they want, because they are human beings, because they are women, and they can't let some stupid person try to stop them" said Thibault.

Follow Jake Bleiberg on Twitter: @JZBleiberg