“Je lutte contre les féministes!”
So said Marc Lépine, né Gamil Rodrigue Gharbi, expressly declaring war on feminists before he opened fire. These words have often been misquoted or mistranslated as “You’re all a bunch of feminists”, “I hate feminists”. In fact, they mean “I am fighting against feminists”. This is just one of many truths that have been distorted, ignored or outright whitewashed in our memories of that horrible day.
25 years ago today. A full quarter-century. Has it really been that long? For me, the crime of the Canadian century happened only yesterday. No matter where I am, no matter what day it is, what time of year, for me it will always be December at Queen’s University, whenever I think of those names, that night. I will always feel the cold and damp of the ever-present Kingston slush leaking into my boots, will always smell the snow in the air, will always feel the strangled need to cry as I head to the vigil, to class, to my volunteer work at the Queen’s Women’s Centre. I, who can’t forget, wonder how anyone else could fail to remember.
And yet, fail they do. They fail all the time. Our politicians, our media, they fail us, the women of Canada.
A few days ago, Peter MacKay, our so-called justice minister, stuck his foot in it big-time when he said that “we may never understand” why Marc Lépine did it. In actual fact, only he himself may never know that. He, and maybe the rest of the willfully ignorant, predominantly male morons who comprise the conservative government and its voting bloc. And they may never know it because they just don’t want to know it. They are idiots, they don’t belong in power, and they must not presume to speak for the rest of us.
All other Canadians know the truth all too well. Days after it happened, letters were already pouring in to media outlets all over Canada, and especially Québec, decrying the massacre for what it was: not the random act of a lone madman, but a specifically political act of terrorism. Protests and vigils were organized on university campuses across the land. Feminist women, and a few perceptive, allied men, could already see the truth, and they weren’t having any of the media’s carefully organized, cleverly worded whitewash. None of them were fooled by the conventional “wisdom” that Canadian women had already achieved all that they wanted, that life was fine and fair now, and that feminists should just pack it all in and go home to their kitchens…so to speak.
The women on Lépine’s hit list — oh yes, he had one — know it all too well, too. They were his actual, intended targets. They were meant to become examples of “what happens to feminists when they go too far”. The fact that they did not may be due only to Lépine’s instability and ineptitude; he was apparently almost as poor a terrorist as he was a student. Instead, it was a completely unrelated group who paid the price: the women who were admitted as engineering students to the Polytechnique, taking what Lépine fancied was his rightful place in a profession which is still, to this day, heavily dominated by men.
Did any of them call themselves feminists at the time? I can’t speak for the dead, but I do know that at least some of the survivors said that no, at the time, they were not, although they believed in equality of the sexes, and believed that feminism’s work was done. They were examples of how feminism had succeeded, because they were beneficiaries of female progress and believers in equal opportunity. And yet, also, they were victims — unwitting exemplars of how much of our society’s complacency works against that same progress. They just wanted to fit in, to be accepted; they conceded to the patriarchy without realizing how at the time, or how much. They were not then feminists. But they are now, because now they see the need. Far from sending them to sleep, the shooting was a wake-up call for them. The Massacre drove home to them that there was and is a need for feminism, because women are not free yet, and neither are they treated as men’s equals.
Worse, we are losing ground; the long-gun registry was scrapped, and human-rights protections that women have fought for over decades are being eroded away by creeping conservatism, neo-traditionalism, and ultra-capitalist economics that push the underclass ever further down. If feminism has accomplished all its goals, as is so often insisted by media and “men’s rights” groups, why is there still so much misogyny — enough to kill, not only in spectacular mass form, but on a small, steady, day-to-day basis?
Maybe it’s because our supposedly liberal, enlightened society is still largely an Old Boys’ Club. And maybe because that club is jealous of its power and control, and will do all it can to preserve it; just look at how long the struggle for pay equity has been going on. Maybe because women getting legal personhood, abortion rights, the Pill, the vote, an education, and some limited right to pursue a career, isn’t enough to combat it. Maybe because the scant handful basic, partial concessions of rights we have been able to get have actually served, in the minds of sexist men, as provocations, as proof that we’ve “gone too far”, as “danger signs” that a matriarchy is about to replace the existing “benevolent” patriarchy, and as “evidence” of a “need” to put women back in “their place”. (Note all the quotes; they’re there for a reason.)
And yes, the Montréal Massacre was aimed at doing exactly that.
I know all this because I have a little purple book in front of me on my desk right now. It’s called, simply, The Montréal Massacre. It was compiled by Louise Malette and Marie Chalouh, and translated by Marlene Wildeman for Gynergy Books. I bought it in the early 1990s, and I have yet to finish reading it, because its intensity keeps knocking the wind out of me. It is a collection of letters, essays, newspaper articles and poems, written in the immediate aftermath of the massacre, and it puts the lie to all the conventional narratives. Some of the writers are well-known Québec feminists, others ordinary people who were moved to write letters to the editor because they could not stomach all the bullshit and the lies. All are deeply, darkly critical of the mainstream narrative, of the silence it enforces.
Some note how the francophone media’s language around the victims was absurdly masculinized; the murder victims were not, as the media put it, étudiants, masculine/generic, but étudiantes, female students. Not all were engineering students; Barbara Klucznik was a nursing student. And not all of them were students, either; Maryse Laganière was an employee of the Polytechnique’s budget department. So the “student” appellation was not entirely accurate. The one and only thing the dead all had in common was that they were female. By erasing the gender of the dead, the media whitewashed the fact that the massacre was a gender-specific act of terrorism. (Even in the English-speaking media, where gender-specific noun endings are largely passé, a subtler form of erasure was the order of the day. And at least one journalist now feels guilty about her own unintentional part in the whitewash. It as, after all, quite the Old Boys’ Club in there. And, like the Massacre victims, she just wanted to fit in.)
Several of the writers also note that the media expressed curious sympathy for the killer while ignoring his blatant motives, preferring to portray him as mentally ill, an abused child of a wildly unstable father, and pitiable, rather than as a conscious political actor. Why can’t he be all of those things? they ask. For he WAS all of those things. Being mentally ill, abused and pitiful does not render a person apolitical, nor should it obscure that person’s political motives. Being political does not make one cold, mechanical, divorced from one’s own abused and abusive past, either. Such oversimplification serves the public interest poorly; feminists know that all too well. They’ve had to battle similar erroneous perceptions from the get-go.
Above all, the writers of that little book decry how quick the patriarchy was to fling its mantle over everything, to declare it “incomprehensible” and deem all protest “inappropriate”, “disrespectful”, etc. All FEMINIST protest, that is. If a man spouted blatant sexism to “protest” all the “rampant feminism” that supposedly provoked the killer, why, that was quite all right. The voices of the privileged class were welcome to have their say, over and over and over, ad nauseam. The underclass? Shut up, you bitches, the men are talking. Go home. Make sandwiches. Be thankful that we let a few of you in as tokens, and be quiet. Don’t demand more.
Even today, we’re still fighting the carefully orchestrated ignorance that fell like a shroud over that late afternoon. And it’s like trying to swim through an ever-spinning turbine to get at the truth, to be able to tell it and not be silenced.
I can still remember watching the mass funeral on TV, seeing the Catholic priests swinging their incense-burners over the caskets as they were paraded by. It was a literal smokescreen being cast before our very eyes, a metaphor made real. And oh, how nauseated I was by it all. I can remember thinking, quite clearly, how ironic and horrific and yet strangely appropriate this was; patriarchy had killed those women, and now it was burying them, too. And of course, it decreed forgetfulness, mealy mouths, empty words, lip service in lieu of honesty and action, much smoke but no fire. The victims were “innocent”, and much was made of that innocence and guiltlessness. They did not deserve to die — everyone agreed on that — but they were also not allowed to be women. They were not allowed to be acknowledged as victims of sexism, of patriarchy, of gendercide.
People still don’t want to know why those 14 women were really killed. They’re very curious to know who they were, but not so curious as to why they had to perish. They think that it’s enough to put faces and life stories to the names, and not inquire any further into the killer’s motive for destroying them. Worse, in their efforts to “put the tragedy behind us”, they’ve buried Marc Lépine’s suicide-note-cum-manifesto and hit list, so that it can’t be analyzed and criticized, and so that its contents cannot be properly understood. Who benefits from that? The Menz Rightzers. The MRAs. The “manosphere”. The patriarchy. They’ve already claimed him as their hero-martyr-saint. They have websites set up as shrines to him, and have cultivated them for years. They consider his words to be a kind of holy writ, a truth bomb in the war against feminism. They preserve his ramblings while the rest of us are unable to find the full text of those words on any site that isn’t unsavory, that isn’t dedicated to hating women and calling for their wholesale enslavement and destruction, that doesn’t repulse us and send us fleeing for our sanity’s sake.
Think we don’t need feminism anymore? Think again. This is why we need it, people:
25 years have gone by, and in those 25 years, the message to be silent, to bury the dead women “respectfully” by forgetting the meaning of their deaths, has only grown louder. But if we want to actually make progress, we have to talk about them, analyze, criticize, tear open the hypocritical crypt, and blow away the ashes, dust and smoke that surround it. We have to scrub away the whitewash from the sepulchre, and acknowledge what’s really inside. Otherwise, we’re only doing the terrorist’s work for him, and erasing women from the picture. Not only from the past, but our present and future, too.