On December 6, 1989, Michel Gagnon woke up anticipating his final day of classes at L’École Polytechnique before the winter holidays. Soon, he would be free to sleep in, spend time with his girlfriend and go visit his family in Saint Jean.
Around 5:15 pm, during Gagnon’s last class, a man walked into the third-floor room holding a semi-automatic rifle. He had a slight smile on his face. People waited for the punchline to the prank. Instead, Marc Lépine fired a bullet into the ceiling.
Questions charged through Gagnon’s head, but his body remained fixed until he was ordered into a group with the other men in the class, including the professor. The women were clumped together in another corner of the room. The gunman yelled at the men to leave. Back inside, he fired a dozen shots. He chose his victims based on their gender, targeting the women because he was convinced they were feminists.
It was dark when Gagnon arrived home cold, damp and much later than usual. When he walked in the front door, his girlfriend noticed he wasn’t wearing the jacket he had left with that morning and his book bag was missing from over his shoulder. Fourteen of Gagnon’s female peers wouldn’t be going home that night.
December 6, 2014, is the twenty-fifth anniversary of the shooting at L’École Polytechnique, known as the Montreal Massacre. The tragedy brought the issue of gendered violence to the forefront of Canadian society. Our calendars mark the anniversary date as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
In the days following the murders, journalists at the CBC, the Canadian Press and the Globe and Mail asked how the deaths of these fourteen women could have been prevented. Some insinuated that the men who escaped the classroom should have done something to help the women trapped inside—focussing not on the societal failings that caused the tragedy, but questioning the personal actions of those who were present. As a result, many of those men have never spoken to reporters about their experience. But Dale Robinson, manager of counselling and psychology services at Concordia University, says that publicly remembering tragic events is instrumental as a new generation of decision makers comes into power.
Michel Gagnon lives in a warm, brightly lit home in the eastern end of the Plateau. A pair of colourful sneakers lie by the front door. Inside, there are piles of school books and the sounds of his daughter’s iPod on shuffle.
Twenty-five years after the shooting, Gagnon has two kids, a satisfying job (he works as a senior systems analyst at Telus and is the president of a community green space project called Côté Cour Côté Voisin) and a tight circle of friends. While sleepless nights, difficulty concentrating and feelings of distrust are all common symptoms among people who survive violent events, for Gagnon, none of those come close to being the worst: “By far the hardest thing to live with is knowing that there was no superhero in me to save those girls,” he says.
Feelings of guilt were widespread among many of the Montreal Massacre survivors. A big part of survivor syndrome, a term coined in the late 1960s, is an inability to reconcile the fact that you escaped danger while others did not. For one of Gagnon's classmates, the guilt was so acute that he committed suicide less than a year later. His name was Sarto Blais.
Gagnon declined the counselling services that were provided to the family, friends and students of those affected by the L'École Polytechnique tragedy. Instead, he found strength in his surviving classmates, who formed an unofficial support group—a common coping strategy in the aftermath of traumatic events.
All grieving involves considering what could have been. It’s a way to make sense of the nonsensical things that occur in the world. For some, the dilemma gives way to the greater transitional process leading to self-compassion and acceptance, but Robinson identifies challenges, such as the cultural stigmatization surrounding men seeking help to deal with their emotions, that can make it difficult to come forward. For Gagnon, it isn't the threat of reducing his image of masculinity that's kept him from talking about his story publicly. Gagnon was asked to share his experience many times in the moments, months and nearly every year since the tragedy, but hadn’t accepted before now.
The right to grief is the notion that someone may feel more or less licensed to talk about their pain relative to their closeness to the tragedy. Because Gagnon was not the ultimate victim of the attacks, he hasn’t felt as entitled to speak publicly about what happened to him. To this day, few know Gagnon’s story—not even his kids, both of whom will soon be in university. He anticipates a day when he'll open up to them, but that time hasn't yet come.
Robinson believes that when it comes to sharing stories and passing them down, not only does speaking out serve the purpose of relaying a message, it’s also a very unique kind of therapy. It's important for people who are involved in senseless events to make meaning in order to re-establish faith in their surroundings. When feelings that stem from such vivid anti-life are processed purely internally, recovery can take much longer—even a whole lifetime.
This year, memorial events for the women killed at Polytechnique started as early as November 20. At the University of Northern British Columbia, students, professors and community members were invited to speak, recite poetry and share a moment spent remembering the fourteen victims. Toronto’s Ryerson University is dedicating two weeks of events to discussion of the issue of violence against women and how it ties in with other problems, such as rape culture and victim blaming. Panelists are leading talks about everything from the myths surrounding missing or murdered indigenous women to the Canadian Gun Control Movement, and workshops on self defence and healthy relationships are available. In Montreal, a memorial concert called “For Them—14 Voices In Unison” will be showing at the Outremont Theatre on December 6.
Kyle Matthews, the senior deputy director at Montreal’s Institute for Genocide and Human Rights, believes in the importance of remembering to avert repetition of violent acts. We need to commemorate the victims, he says, so that we recollect what happened and why it happened. He emphasizes that if we don't learn from history, we’re doomed to repeat it. Nadia Bello from York University’s Centre for Human Rights says memorials preserve the massacre for the historical record. They serve an educational purpose for the many students who, on this twenty-fifth anniversary, are too young to remember what happened.
While these types of memorial events are widely supported, others prompt remembrance in a more unconventional way. In 2000, writer and actor Adam Kelly Morton debuted a one-person play called “The Anorak”—a ninety-minute monologue told from the perspective of Marc Lépine. Nearly every year since then, Morton transforms himself into a character that many, including the mother of Polytechnique survivor Anne-Marie Edward, find undeserving of centre stage. Morton says that his impetus for doing the show is to reinforce the public's memory of what happened and to give people insight into the social disaster that was the shooter. “This is my contribution to help avoid future tragedies,” he says.
Julie Michaud of Montreal’s Centre for Gender Advocacy says that for survivors, public remembrances can be both triggering and validating. While they incite difficult emotional responses, designating a moment or a space that’s unequivocally about denouncing the harm that was done and supporting the people who experienced it is important to healing.
On a personal level, Gagnon sees the value in making good things come of his own harrowing situation, but he is disappointed by how far society has to go when it comes to changing the attitudes that lead to harm. Survivors Nathalie Provost and Heidi Rathjen have been outspoken about the necessity for a reassessment of laws and regulations surrounding gun control. Gagnon agrees, particularly since the Firearms Registry was abolished in April of 2012, and Bill C-42, legislation that will further weaken the state of gun control in Quebec, is being debated in the House of Commons.
When assessing the current state of violence against women in Canada, it’s difficult to draw up a number: many cases go unreported. Yet stories of Anita Sarkeesian and Gamergate, the Fappening, the Jian Ghomeshi scandal, the Highway of Tears and the Rehtaeh Parsons (#Youknowhername) inquiry are a clear indication that a culture of misogyny hasn’t been eradicated. It’s important to remember that a quarter-century after the Montreal Massacre, these issues are unresolved.
As for building a stronger equality dialogue, Michaud emphasizes the urgency for better education. In her eyes, implementing a university, if not high school, curriculum that integrates gender, culture dynamics, sex and consent seems like a good starting point, although she doesn’t see any reason why those conversations shouldn’t happen with children at a younger age. Unfortunately, she still encounters many well-intentioned students who have distorted views on seemingly simple concepts like feminism and consent.
Clearly, this is a more complicated issue than just reserving a day in the year for remembrance.
During her 2009 talk at TedX Montreal, Nathalie Provost shared the phases of grief she passed through in getting back up from December 6, 1989. Among them were: prayer and mourning, forgiveness, recognition, rehabilitation and contribution. Provost showed slides coupled with images of one of her four kids. She ended her talk by saying that society could benefit by following similar steps to overcome cynicism, grief and injustice, and eventually build something better.
The anniversary of the L’École Polytechnique murders is a day that falls heavy in Montreal. For Gagnon, December 6 was once a time to gather his family and celebrate his parents’ wedding anniversary. But that changed twenty-five years ago. Gagnon remembers a day that held so much potential, just like the women who were murdered. Now, Gagnon devotes December 6 to quiet mourning, and feeling gratitude for all that he has. “Time has been the most powerful remedy,” he says. Unfortunately this doesn’t seem to hold true for the institutional issues that lead to violence against women.