Reclaiming Lives

Feelings After a Tragedy
Personal or Collective Impressions?

by Anne-Marie Pharand

I now know why it took me so long to identify myself with the feminist movement. I know why I still feel shy about my social and political activities. And that's because it has not been long since I realized how much pain and sorrow are part of the awareness process I am going through. It is only now that feelings of anger, rebellion, anguish, and distress are rising up in me.

December 6, 1989. Late afternoon. A classroom at the École polytechnique of the University of Montreal. A young man enters the room, armed with a gun. He separates the women from the men and shoots at the women, accusing them of being feminists.

Fourteen women died! Ten women and three men were wounded. How many more are suffering?

Later on that day, I was listening to the very sad reports on the news. I could hardly believe what I was hearing, seeing on the screen, so intense was my pain. I wanted to erase this tragedy, I wanted to deny the evidence that men can still be so violent against us, so easily. I felt as much a victim as the wounded. I felt that somebody was out to get me as well.

Little by little, my grief was replaced by a feeling of anger when I realized that the francophone media, and the journalists, whether from the TV, the radio, or the news- papers, the social workers, the male psychiatrists, the criminologists, were all denying the obvious.

Almost all of them were arrogant in their attitude and words. They talked about the victims; they were hesitant to clearly state they were women. Several of them would not even link this massacre with violence against women.

It took a long time to recognize the event was anti-feminist in its nature and to admit men are not ready yet to renounce their old privileges. As for me, reality is obvious: the victims were women longing to live in an educated environment traditionally reserved for men.

I was overcome by rebellious feelings when male student leaders from l'École polytechnique spoke during a march organized by the women of Concordia University and the Comité de défense des femmes de Montréal.

The voices of the women who wanted to denounce the fate of women were stifled, they were accused of taking advantage of the event, and forced back into silence. The media talked about a "touching" silence. In fact, the women were gagged, despised!

At the funeral, I saw scores of men around the altar who took over the ceremony and advocated in their speeches that men and women be equal in our society. This in the Church which itself refuses to apply this principle by rejecting women from the priesthood and by denying them any real power in its structures.

It is insulting and offensive! For the rest of the month, we all felt depressed, my friends, my sisters, my neighbours. We all cried in despair.

This tragedy did not put an end to injustice toward women, but it created a stir. Two months later, some journalists recognized that their coverage had overshadowed the sexist nature of the event and the violence prevailing against women. A special fund was established by the Montreal Assault Prevention Centre to help finance self-defense courses for women as well as workshops for female students and other groups at risk. The Foundation commemorative du génie canadien and the école polytechnique are granting scholarships to encourage women to study engineering.

The Student Association of l'école polytechnique initiated an awareness campaign to promote non-violence as well as arms contrail.

A woman in my neighbourhood organized a one-day debate about violence in our society, in our schools, in male-female relationships. MediaWatch launched a petition demanding that stricter rules be applied to advertising and media content of the communication industry in terms of gender-bias and violence.

It took a
long time to
recognize the
event was
and to admit
men are not
ready yet to
their old

A feminist publisher, Les editions du remue ménage, just published Polytechnique 6 décembre, an anthology of texts, letters, and articles, thanks to the generosity of some men and women who do not want this tragedy to be forgotten.

Women in Quebec will not forget this painful event, and are thankful to all their Canadian sisters, and their sisters around the world for expressing their sorrow and their indignation.

Others have written effectively about the massacre of December 6th: forceful analyses, enlightening comments, constructive reports. I know I have forgotten many key aspects which would have given you a more precise picture of the situation.

But I am overflowing with emotions, and today I am more concerned about sharing these with you. Later, I might be able to tell you why I have joined the women's movement, and decided to be part of it until the day I die.

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