The Montréal Massacre
The Montréal Massacre of December 6, 1989, in which 14 women students at the École Polytechnique were systematically killed and 13 other students wounded by a lone gunman, is indelibly imprinted on the minds of Quebeckers and others who struggled to comprehend the worst single-day massacre in Canadian history.
Since the beginning of Québec's "Quiet Revolution" in the 1960s, women had been making increasing strides in non-traditional occupations and educational programs. In the 1970s and 1980s, growing numbers flocked to the École Polytechnique, the School of Engineering at the University of Montréal. While most men in Québec and elsewhere accepted and even welcomed these transformations, a minority felt themselves disadvantaged by attempts to encourage women's new roles and opportunities.
One of these was Marc Lépine, a 25-year-old Quebecker and child-abuse survivor who, as an adult, was described by acquaintances as a moody loner. Lépine had sought to join the Canadian Armed Forces, but was rejected. He had also studied for admission to the École Polytechnique, but was not accepted -- a decision he apparently blamed on "affirmative action" policies promoted by feminists and their sympathizers. In the suicide note he would leave on his body, Lépine provided some insights into the virulent mindset that fuelled his rage against women and feminists:
Please note that if I am committing suicide today ... it is not for economic reasons ... but for political reasons. For I have decided to send Ad Patres [Latin: "to the fathers"] the feminists who have ruined my life. ... The feminists always have a talent for enraging me. They want to retain the advantages of being women ... while trying to grab those of men. ... They are so opportunistic that they neglect to profit from the knowledge accumulated by men throughout the ages. They always try to misrepresent them every time they can.
Attached to the letter was a list of 19 prominent Québec women in non-traditional occupations, including the province's first woman firefighter and police captain. Beneath the list Lépine wrote: "[These women] nearly died today. The lack of time (because I started too late) has allowed these radical feminists to survive." It was, instead, dozens of ordinary women at the École Polytechnique who would bear the brunt of his fury.
The act of gendercide
On the evening of December 6, 1989, shortly after 5 o'clock on the penultimate day of classes before the Christmas holidays, Lépine carried a concealed Sturm Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle into the École Polytechnique. His first female victim, Maryse Laganiere, was killed in a corridor. He then proceeded to Room 303, a classroom which held 10 women students and 48 men, along with a male professor. Firing two shots into the ceiling and shouting, "I want the women. I hate feminists!," Lépine enacted a gendercidal ritual that will be familiar to readers of other case-studies on this site (Kosovo, Bosnia-Herzegovina, Colombia) -- only this time, the victims were female. Separating the men from the women, he expelled the men at gunpoint, lined up the remaining women students against the wall, and began to fire. Six women died; the others were injured, but survived.
"Then, Lépine went down to the first floor," wrote Maclean's (December 18, 1989). "Firing at diving, ducking students as he went, he entered the cafeteria, where he killed [Anne-Marie] Edward and two of her classmates. Still on the hunt, Lépine climbed back up to the third floor, where he strode into Room 311. Students, unaware of the unfolding tragedy, were delivering end-of-semester oral presentations. 'At first, nobody did anything,' recalled Eric Forget, 21. Then, the gunman opened fire, sending two professors and 26 students scrambling for cover beneath their desks. 'We were trapped like rats,' said Forget. 'He was shooting all over the place.' Other witnesses said that Lépine leaped onto several desks and shot at women cowering beneath them. Four more women were killed. Then, roughly 20 minutes after embarking on his rampage, Lépine took his own life." By the time he blew off the back of his own head, fourteen women lay dead, and thirteen other students were injured (nine women, four men).
The murdered women were:
Geneviève Bergeron, aged 21;
Hélène Colgan, 23;
Nathalie Croteau, 23;
Barbara Daigneault, 22;
Anne-Marie Edward, 21;
Maud Haviernick, 29;
Barbara Maria Klucznik, 31;
Maryse Leclair, 23;
Annie St.-Arneault, 23;
Michèle Richard, 21;
Maryse Laganière, 25;
Anne-Marie Lemay, 22;
Sonia Pelletier, 28; and
Annie Turcotte, aged 21.
The aftermath --
A shared responsibility?
In the wake of the horrific murders, Quebeckers and Canadians -- along with many others around the world -- rallied to commemorate the victims and denounce the anti-feminist wrath of their attacker. Many called Lépine a "madman," but others rejected the term as downplaying the calculating nature of his hatred towards women and feminists. Indeed, Lépine himself had rejected it in his suicide note: "Even though the Mad Killer epithet will be attributed to me by the media, I consider myself a rational and erudite person that only the arrival of the Grim Reaper has forced to undertake extreme acts." Declared Judy Rebick, who was spurred by the massacre to run for the leadership of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women: "If he'd killed 14 Jews, he'd have been seen as disturbed, but also anti-Semitic."
Municipal and provincial authorities declared three days of mourning; the flag at the Canadian parliament flew at half-mast. Candlelight vigils were held across Canada, and on the Sunday following the massacre, tens of thousands of Québec residents and visitors queued in sub-zero temperatures outside the University of Montréal chapel to view the closed caskets of the murdered young women. One of them was Gendercide Watch executive director Adam Jones, who recalls: "I have never seen such a collective outpouring of grief. The murders united many Quebeckers across generational, ethnic, and gender lines; all turned out to pay their respects. Personally, it was a transforming experience. I had never seriously examined the gendering of violence in our society, and around the world, before those 14 women died."
Since 1989, December 6 has been officially designated a national day of commemoration. Over the years, debate has raged (renewed for the tenth anniversary commemorations in 1999) as to whether the slaughter was an isolated act, or a symbol of male violence against women. It was certainly, as noted, an act of mass murder unprecedented in Canadian history. And the ritual, gendercidal separation of women from men -- as also noted -- usually leaves men dead and women still alive. Nonetheless, Lépine's rampage had strong echoes in the numerous acts of domestic murder and abuse committed by men fearful that "their" women will assert greater independence and move beyond traditional female roles. (Lépine's suicide also typified the pathological self-hatred and self-destructiveness which regularly features in such acts, and which makes it difficult to speak of a simple exercise of "patriarchal power.")
Some carried the argument of generalized male responsibility further still. "Men kill women and children as a proprietary, vengeful and terrorist act," wrote Montréal Men Against Sexism. "They do so with the support of a sexist society and judicial system. As pro-feminist men, we try to reveal and to end this continuing massacre, which will go on as along as we do not end sexism and sexist violence, along with all of men's alibis for them."
Thinking along similar lines, Toronto city councillor Jack Layton co-founded the White Ribbon Movement in 1991 to remember the victims of the massacre and protest against violence against women. "Until Montréal, most of the discussion was introspective," Layton recalled in 1999. "Then the massacre happened, and it got us off our butts. My head exploded that year. 'What must it be like for women?' I thought. It was time to speak out and own up to this behaviour." "Eight years later," writes Hurst, "the cause has spread to a dozen countries around the world. Its comprehensive curriculum on gender violence -- taught at public, junior high and senior high school levels -- is used in 100 schools across Canada, 1,000 in the U.S." The movement has also attracted criticism from those who believe it makes unwarranted generalizations about the attitudes and behaviour of men (see Jones, "Why I Won't Wear A White Ribbon").
In November 1996, the Canadian Women's Internet Association founded the "Candlelight Vigil Across the Internet", with the stated aim of "rais[ing] awareness of violence against women across Canada and throughout cyberspace." Now in its third year, the response has "far surpassed expectations," according to organizers.
The Montréal Massacre was also a key moment in the struggle for gun control in Canada. In the wake of the massacre -- "it came right out of it," she said -- Wendy Cukier founded the Coalition for Gun Control. The Coalition "would go on to play a major part in lobbying Ottawa for laws, in 1991 and in 1998, that would ban all semi-automatic, military assault weapons and short-barrelled handguns, and require the registration of all firearms, starting in 2003, and strict screening for all owners." Ontario and a number of other provinces mounted Supreme Court challenges to the legislation, but in December 1999 Cukier stated she was "confident the court will come through." (See Lynda Hurst, "10 Years Later, How a Massacre Changed Us All," Toronto Star, November 27, 1999.)
Lastly, if Lépine had sought to terrorize Canadian women into staying put in their traditional roles, his rampage may have had the opposite effect. Between 1989 and 1999, the proportion of women enrolled in Canadian engineering faculties rose from 13 to 19 percent. And in absolute numbers, it more than doubled, to nearly 9,000.
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