I was 22 years old, living in Ottawa, going to Carleton University. And although I was a journalism student — my sister is the engineer in our family — I have never been able to escape the brutal reality that if the gunman had walked into my classroom, he’d have shot me, probably while screaming “Feminists!” at my female classmates and me.
In no way am I at the centre of any remembrance of December 6, 1989. But it marked a turning point in my life — the dawning of a new awareness. Because it seemed so obvious that the angry man who entered Montreal’s École Polytechnique looking to kill the women he blamed for his lack of success was not an isolated case. That he was just the most extreme example we’d seen of a culture that belittled, objectified and suppressed women.
And yet, I remember that almost as soon as we started talking about the shooting, about the violence directed at women in so many ways, there were people resisting the idea that the victims’ gender was even relevant. Even though the shooter left a note and yelled his misogyny for all to hear, there were those who insisted it was a mass shooting that affected us all the same — that the real issue was his home life or access to guns.
I remember holding back fury while my friend’s boyfriend doggedly maintained that everyone felt the same grief — that there should be no distinctions in how we mourned, that the gunman was completely unlike other men. I remember speaking through clenched teeth, although I probably spoke in a shaky, tentative voice instead. “If you and I had been there, he’d have put us on opposite sides of the room and shot the people on my side — the women. So yes, my grief and anger are different from yours.”
It seemed so obvious to me. And yet those voices persisted. They were mostly, but not all, male voices. They were incensed at being placed on a continuum with the Polytechnique shooter. They didn’t want to hear that their “locker-room banter” or casual sexism or unequal pay systems or old boys’ network or handsy tendencies or any other of their behaviours could possibly have anything to do with a man they wanted to see as a monster — completely unlike them.
For many people of good conscience, regardless of gender, the shooting on December 6, 1989, opened their eyes. For many women of all ages, it made us realize that we were not alone — that our lives were, for better or for worse, bound to all other women in living with the reality of misogyny. Perhaps not from our own partners or fathers or bosses, but no matter how protected we thought we were or how enlightened the men in our lives, we ran up against it eventually. And it made us realize just how fragile our gains were. We could excel in traditionally male-dominated fields … and be murdered because of it.
I called myself a feminist before December 6, 1989, but pretty quietly, doing my best not to be too insistent or express unpopular opinions. But afterward, I wasn’t so concerned about that. I allowed myself to see the connections between the boys at my elementary school who stuck their knuckles in the backs of the girls who wore bras, and the teenagers who took “no” as encouragement, and the caller to my workplace at the CBC who assumed I was a secretary rather than a producer, and the guys who found jokes about hitting women hilarious, and…you can no doubt supply your own memories here.
December 6, 1989, didn’t make me hate men — far from it. But it did make me realize that women’s experiences of their lives and their world are real, and that there’s no such thing as “harmless” sexism. We need to celebrate how far we’ve come even as we’re aware of how far there is left to go.
First we mourn. Then we work for change.
December 6, 2021 Vigil – Women’s Resources will have a link to a video posted on the website www.womensresources.ca honouring the victims of femicide. When the video is available, it will be posted on our social media pages.
By Nancy Payne