The Montréal Massacre, and progressive Canada’s unfinished work

I don’t know how many of the women whose names are inscribed on this memorial actually called themselves feminists, or saw what they were doing as in any way feminist. Knowing the tenor of the times I grew up in and attended university myself, when the Massacre went down (I was in my final year at university then), probably a lot of them thought feminism’s work had done, that women had broken the stuffy old doors down in all of the professions, and were finally being judged — and admitted — on the basis of their abilities. A lot of them probably thought gender, their gender, was no longer an issue, or at least no longer a hindrance. Maybe some of them even rolled their eyes at feminism, or at least at the label, which was decidedly uncool back then.

Well, I was an uncool girl, and I knew from what I had learned as a volunteer at the Queen’s University Women’s Centre that feminism’s work was far from done. And at no time did I realize it more viscerally than on the night one of my fellow volunteers called me at home and told me what had happened that day: A gunman burst into a classroom at the École Polytechnique, separated the students by gender, and gunned down the women.

Right in that moment of stunned, stammering shock, I realized that my work as a feminist was far from done. It wasn’t done on the day I received my acceptance to a university that decades ago had only admitted men. It wasn’t done on the evening all of us, as first-year women, marched to the Candlelighting ceremony behind a trio of pipers, to be welcomed to our education and our future specifically as women. It was only beginning.

And in that moment of realization, I was terrified: Was I up to the task of challenging a status quo that could, at any moment, send a depraved gunman my way?

It was easier to when there were others beside me in solidarity. We tied strips of purple sweatshirt fleece around our coatsleeves as a mark of feminist mourning. On the day the university held a memorial vigil for our sisters in Montréal, I specifically chose to sit not alongside any men, but among women in a space designated for them only. At that moment, I acutely felt my own inequality, and also the need to defy the hypocrisies of a society that had told me I had arrived, and that there was nothing more I needed to fight for. And so I chose to sit in a section where no men were allowed, to tell them silently that no, you do not really see me as your equal, so no, I will not sit beside you and pretend that it’s all good.

I needed something at that moment that no man could give me, not even my many male friends. It wasn’t their fault; they were not the ones who needed any acknowledgement, however belated, that they belonged there. Their belonging was taken for granted, because it had always been woven into the fabric of society. Mine was not. Women’s presence in higher education and the professions was like embroidery on top of that fabric: an embellishment, rather than an integral part of the fibre itself. It was a status symbol, something that our society could boast of: See how far we’ve come? Now, girls, you no longer have to fight, and you don’t have anything to complain about anymore!

That was the lie.

And that lie is tenacious of life. It’s still being told, countless times, every day, all over the internet. Stop bitching, the trolls tell us. If you think you’re oppressed, why don’t you move to Saudi Arabia and see what REAL oppression is? And those of us who still have the energy and the nerve to reply, tell them to fuck the hell off — real oppression is right here, and the trolls are the ones perpetuating it. Just look at how they’re trying to drive women out of every branch of science, and how they’re smugly squelching us in the tech sector and then playing the victim when we call them on it. Just look at all the video games they’ve made where abusing and even killing women is a way to score points. (And we also have whiny fucking neckbeards trying to sweep it all under the rug, of course.) Just look at all that, and then try to tell me that we’re really any better off than women elsewhere. I’ll tell you to fuck off myself. These trolls have even appointed themselves the virtue-and-vice police when it comes to women’s bodies.

And there is no shortage of them anywhere, even in “progressive” Canada. Only here, at least, they manage to maintain a veneer of politeness while suppressing you whenever you try to speak out against a real and pervasive problem. Francine Pelletier, the eminent Québec feminist who was one of the women on Marc Lépine’s “kill list”, found that out when she tried to report the real reason why the “deranged” mass murderer acted out as he had:

After the École Polytechnique massacre, she received a phone call from a man who told her that if she wanted to understand what Marc Lépine was thinking, he would tell her. She agreed to meet with him in a public place and listen to what he had to say; she wanted, after all, to understand why the killings had happened. But when she wrote a column for La Presse about the things this man described — how men’s anxieties and frustrations over feminism bubbled over into violence — she was told that it wouldn’t be published. No one wanted to acknowledge that Lépine’s anti-feminist beliefs had deep and widespread social underpinnings.

“We were told to shut up,” says Pelletier. “In Canada, we like to think that we’re a progressive place, so this completely upset the apple cart. How could this happen here? There was so much denial. It had a very chilling effect.”

Yes, that it did; I felt it in my own bones, that cold wet December night in Kingston, as I trudged home from the vigil through salt and snowbanks with more salt and slush dripping from my eyes and nose.

And in the months between then and the completion of my degree, that chill never went away. Not a week went by when the letters-to-the-editor section of the Queen’s Journal didn’t have some defensive dude sputtering and spinning about how totally-not-evil he was, or grinding his teeth about how it wasn’t fair that women were being allowed in here or there because they “hadn’t really earned” the right, or that women “needed to grow tougher skins if they really wanted to compete with men”, or blah blah fucking blah. All around me were denials of the truth of the massacre which only confirmed that truth in my mind: that men are really, deep down, insecure about being the equals of women. Because if they let women be equals, with no gender-based social restrictions, who was to say that those women wouldn’t one day best them, as the engineering students among the Montréal victims had done to Marc Lépine? After all, they got into engineering school and he did not. Since Lépine could not admit the inadequacy of his own mind (in his murder manifesto, he referred to himself, grandiosely, as “an erudite”), he could not accept that these women might actually be better candidates for engineering school than he. That penis privilege could only get a man so far, and that in the end, he had to accept defeat, even from those he considered his “inferiors”.

And that mentality is certainly not limited to the “mad” mind of a Marc Lépine. It is, on the contrary, quite the standard for “good” men. I saw it all around me at university then; I see it all around me on the internet today. There are still shitloads of people who believe women are inferior, or at least, should act that way in order to “go along and get along” with fragile, defensive men. And not all of those shitloads of people are necessarily male, either. There are plenty of “pick-me” women who try to ingratiate themselves with those complacent men by blithely burbling that “feminism has gone too far”, that we need to “lighten up”, that they’re not like all those ball-busting bitches, that they’re afraid that their sons will be “falsely” accused of rape, et cetera, et cetera, ad nauseam.

So it doesn’t surprise me that even a bold and tenacious fighter for equality, like Francine Pelletier, faced so much smug repression when she tried to point out the blinding obvious: that Marc Lépine was a political terrorist, and that his actions were not those of a mere madman, but of a calculating, deliberate assassin. Or that there were plenty of men who may not have dreamed of acting like him, but who certainly THOUGHT like him, lurking in the woodwork. And some of them were among her higher-ups at La Presse. Men who undoubtedly thought that enough work had been done, enough women admitted, enough, ENOUGH. That Canada was already at its peak of progress, and that nothing more needed doing to make it better. Except, maybe, putting a sock in the mouths of all those clamoring women, those troublesome feminists…

But here’s the thing: We’re still far from the peak of progress. We were never there.

And the troublesome feminists who said so back then are still agitating, and we’re louder than ever. There are more of us now. #MeToo has brought a new generation of feminist fighters out of the woodwork in droves. Conservatives thought they could roll back the gun registry (which arose from the wake of Montréal) and make it easier for murderers to hunt humans? They reckoned without us. They think they can scare us back into the domestic sphere where we “belong”, in their fevered imaginations? No, assholes, that you can’t. And you won’t. Because women, and feminist women in particular, won’t shut the fuck up or go away.

And what you tried to suppress back then is going to keep on biting you in the ass until you have none left.

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