HALIFAX—Almost three decades after a shooter killed 14 women in an anti-feminist spree, the historic Montreal massacre continues to galvanize young Canadians who want to put an end gender-based violence.
Alishia Berthelet was only four years old when Mark Lépine shot and killed 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique in 1989, so it wasn’t until many years later that she learned about the tragedy.
The story came to her attention as a history student at Mount Saint Vincent University. She said she was “shocked” to learn that a man would so blatantly and violently target women in Canada’s not-so-distant history, but not surprised at the response it generated.
“We’re still commemorating it because it’s not just about the specific incident, which was very traumatic, but I think it’s also a symbol for persisting violence against women and gender today, everywhere, which is important to bring awareness to.”
Two years after the massacre, the Canadian Parliament declared the anniversary, Dec. 6, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. This year, Berthelet helped organize a memorial at MSVU for the victims of the shooting.
She said that she hoped by contributing to the memorial she was contributing to the wider community and to a persistent injustice.
Abimbola Shoboiki, a masters student in women’s and gender studies at MSVU, was the MC of the event. She introduced faculty and students who spoke about the legacy of the massacre and read original poems that touched on gaps of opportunity and justice between genders. As one speaker read the names of the 14 victims of École Polytechnique, 14 members of the rapt crowd brought roses to the front of the room and placed them in a vase.
Shoboiki, like Berthelet, only became aware of the 1989 massacre recently, but she said it resonated with her.
“These women lost their lives just because they were women,” she said in an interview. “It was really a sad moment for me to read and do research on that.”
Many institutions hold a commemorative event on Dec. 6 each year, but MSVU professor Susan Brigham said it’s particularly important for her school because it was founded as a women’s university and continues to focus on advancing women.
Brigham, an organizer of Thursday’s memorial, also said there’s a renewed poignancy to the commemoration of the Montreal massacre in today’s world.
“Thank goodness, I do believe that there’s been more recognition of the oppressive forces that women are facing on a daily basis, and the MeToo movement and variety of other movements are helping us to understand the … prevalence of this,” she said.
“(But) it’s unfortunately persistent in society, so today more than ever I think there’s a growing awareness and we just have to keep that awareness growing.”
Before Lépine opened fire on the women at École Polytechnique he declared his misogynistic motives, and one of the survivors said to him “We are not feminists,” in desperate bid to save her and her fellow students’ lives. The woman, Nathalie Provost, later said that “of course” she was a feminist, but she’d been nervous to own the moniker.
Brigham said she understands that many people share Provost’s reluctance, but she doesn’t share it.
“Feminism is not anything to be embarrassed about or to hide from or pretend that they’re not, when in fact you’re standing for social justice for all people. … To be a feminist is something to be proud of and I stand firm with all feminists and I proclaim myself a feminist and I wouldn’t hesitate to use that term with pride.”
There were memorials scheduled for the Montreal massacre around Halifax on Thursday, including events at Province House, Saint Mary’s University, Dalhousie University and the Halifax Central Library.
Taryn Grant is a Halifax-based reporter focusing on education. Follow her on Twitter: @tarynalgrant