In “Because They Were Women: The Montreal Massacre,” journalist Josée Boileau looks back at the murders of 14 women on Dec. 6, 1989, and the reckoning with violence against women in Quebec and the rest of Canada. Boileau covered the murders in her first weeks writing for Le Devoir as a young journalist.
The night of the Polytechnique massacre, there was the shock, of course. Massive. Unimaginable. A shooting never before seen in Canada, rare in the educational world, exceptional even on the world stage. And above all, it was the first time that women were targeted — what we understand today as a femicide.
And yet, this distinction is hardly mentioned in the first few hours following the massacre. The attack took place between 5:10 p.m. and 5:28 p.m. but it takes until 9 p.m. to find out in the news that all the deceased are women. Why this delay?
Maybe because of disbelief.
La Presse journalist Marie-Claude Lortie, on location that night, will reflect on this years later: “I remember refusing to believe the information indicating that all the victims were women, as intended by the shooter.” Similarly, a year after the tragedy, police officer Pierre Leclair, who found his daughter Maryse assassinated, said that when he entered Polytechnique, the first thing that hit him was the magnitude of the carnage. He was so shocked that, “in the moment, [he didn’t] pay attention to the fact that all the victims were women.”
Maybe also because public space was still essentially a male space and we were struggling to adjust our vocabulary.
The reaction of then Minister of Education Claude Ryan illustrates this bias when, that night, he offers “his deepest condolences to the families of the ‘étudiants’ [the masculine form of the word ‘student’] who have been cut down in the prime of life.” The next day, at the National Assembly, Premier Robert Bourassa, Leader of the Opposition Jacques Parizeau and Leader of Equality Party Robert Libman condemn the tragedy and offer their condolences. They talk about “victims,” “youth,” “loved ones,” but the words “women” or “girls” are never uttered. In this way, the terrifying specificity of the tragedy remains hidden.
Alternately, maybe it was because this specificity was too difficult to accept and, right from the beginning, we had to avoid any political analysis. Twenty-five years later, journalist Shelley Page, also sent to Polytechnique that night, will remember the degree to which her bosses (all men, as was the case in the media then) didn’t trust her coverage and how, whether consciously or not, she factored in their concerns.
Since the tragedy took place at the end of the day, a majority of young journalists, who were the last hired and so assigned the evening shift, were sent to Polytechnique. A lot of these recent hires were women in their twenties, barely older than the students targeted by the gunman. Page wrote: “There was immediate anxiety on the news desk about having sent two young women to cover the slaughter of other women. Some editors worried junior reporters like us weren’t up to the task; one told me he worried we wouldn’t cover the story objectively.”
She wasn’t the only female journalist to have to deal with this mistrust. It was also manifest on the air: that night, in the media both in the province and outside of Quebec, all the explaining, talking, commenting is done by men … Feminists are so struck by this that they will constantly bring it up afterwards.
In the end, even if four out of the 14 people injured are men, the gunman was only targeting female students — so all of the dead are dead women … Thus, it becomes impossible to turn a blind eye; the attack was against women.
The next day, this realization is on the front page of every newspaper: “14 morts, toutes des femmes” (14 dead, all women) claims Le Journal de Québec in bold red characters. Several officials also recognize this fact, denouncing violence against women, mourning the young women who chose a field traditionally reserved for men and were so brutally attacked, and pleading for equality …
In a press conference on Dec. 7, the mayor of Montreal, Jean Doré, is unambiguous. He underscores the misogyny of the killer and doesn’t hide his sadness or his tears while talking to journalists.
Crying in public was rare for a man and unheard of for an elected official. But Mayor Doré is personally affected by the tragedy. His colleague, city Coun. Thérèse Daviau, lost her daughter Geneviève, whom he knew very well … A year later, the mayor will recall the press conference and reaffirm his feminist convictions: “Not everyone has followed the evolution of the last 20 years … During the electoral campaign, I saw men who were offended by gender equality programs.”
Still, on television and similarly on radio, which boast a massive following when an event like this happens, the analysis is a lot more timid, both the day after the tragedy and in the following days.
On the evening of Dec. 7, Radio-Canada television presents a special program hosted by news anchor Bernard Derome, who cut short his vacation for the occasion. Louise Cousineau, renowned television columnist at La Presse, is surprised: “Three men with him. They talked about violence; they barely mentioned that this terrifying violence was directed against women.”
The next day, she adds: “Little has been said in the coverage of the massacre about the antifeminist wave washing over North America, that the killer suddenly embodied.”
Case in point, it takes a few more days for Quebec to understand that the attack wasn’t against women, but against feminists. Outside of Quebec, this angle is discussed as early as the day after the massacre during a debate on CBC where women are present. And it’s discussed again on Dec. 8 in the Globe and Mail and in American newspapers, including USA Today.
Given the gender of the victims and the location of the tragedy, this analysis was inevitable. Especially since Marc Lépine himself declared his hatred of feminists in the first classroom he went into, where he killed six of the nine women present. This hatred is also expressed at length in the letter he was carrying on him during the massacre.
Yet, the contents of the letter, whose existence is revealed by the police in a press conference on Dec. 7, 1989, the day Lépine’s identity is also revealed, will stay concealed for almost a year.
The day after the tragedy, we only learn that the letter comprises three handwritten pages, that Lépine announces his suicide, and that it includes a list of 19 women he wanted to kill — well-known feminists, but also first women to hold positions in male strongholds: Lise Payette, Janette Bertrand, Monique Gagnon-Tremblay, Lorraine Pagé, Danielle Rainville, vice-president of CSN Monique Simard … They’re not identified in the press conference, but their names still end up in the media.
La Presse columnist Francine Pelletier, known as the co-founder of the feminist magazine LVR, who was targeted by Lépine, tries to obtain a copy of the letter. She first asks the (Montreal Urban Community) police, then makes a request under the Quebec Access to Information Act. To no avail. Then in November 1990, she receives a photocopy of the letter through the mail, “without any information, totally anonymous, like in a detective novel.”
The letter is published on the front page of La Presse, on Nov. 24, 1990. Lépine’s grievances (against “viragos,” which all feminists are; against women in the army; against maternity leaves; against preventive withdrawals …) leave no doubt as to the object of his obsessions.
Still, in December 1989, a few voices in Quebec manage to pierce through the dominant discourse of incomprehension in the face of Lépine’s act.
On Dec. 7, sexologist and writer Jocelyne Robert participates in a radio show on CJRT 1140 in Trois-Rivières. She was invited to discuss her most recent book on children’s affective and sexual education to foster equality. However, given the recent events, the interview shifts to a roundtable. “I was the only one pointing out that everything indicated we were dealing with the extreme and murderous expression of a hatred of women, a refusal of gender equality … The other guests were looking at me like I was crazy.”
On Dec. 8, on the radio show “Ici comme ailleurs” on Radio-Canada, politician and seasoned essayist Pierre Bourgault answers the questions of host Michel Désautels. He unpacks the tragedy this way:
“This is the first acknowledged sexist crime. There have been thousands of them in the history of the world, but men have always managed to not acknowledge them. There were reasons for doing this or for doing that … It’s also a political crime because it targets a specific group … Their only crime is to be women … It’s been described as an isolated event … The event was by nature isolated but historically, it’s not. It’s a collective crime against women.”
In mainstream media, female columnists analyze the event in the same way.
On Dec. 9, Francine Pelletier writes in La Presse: “It’s an act of retaliation — deliberate, calculated, and directed against women in general and feminists in particular.” For her part, Nathalie Petrowski writes in Le Devoir: “How can we explain that the shooter only killed women … No one could explain it, no one could understand. Did they have their heads stuck in the sand? … [The shooter] aimed with all the strength of his misogyny.”
Marie-Claude Lortie, then a 24-year-old reporter, pens a very personal article in La Presse, feeling that in such circumstances, it’s essential to go beyond journalistic objectivity. She concludes: “Afraid of what we would say, afraid of what we would ignore … Afraid that our fathers, our friends, our brothers wouldn’t react, once again. That they would continue to believe that we’re paranoid. That they would again refuse to hear us tell them that we’re afraid of being raped, of being beaten, of being killed by those who don’t understand.”
On Dec. 10, a demonstration in Montreal organized by the Coalition Québécoise pour le droit à l’avortement libre et gratuit (Quebec Coalition for the Right to Free Abortion), which was already planned, becomes an opportunity for 35 women and five men to condemn the Polytechnique tragedy, violence against women, and the way in which many try to minimize the antifeminist implications of what happened.
Commentators follow, in particular Le Devoir editorial writer Jean-Claude Leclerc, who rejects the catch-all argument of increasing violence. Instead, he says: “The young killer … wasn’t against women in general (he didn’t kill nurses or restaurant waitresses), but against those who embodied new women carving a place for themselves in a still very male world. The message was clear. Few feminists were duped. The attack was on ‘women’s liberation.’ ”
But he immediately adds: “Should we understand this as the threat of a ‘male power’ channelled by the shooter, a performer more spectacular but barely less violent than wife beaters? It’s here that the analysis becomes more complicated, and an error of interpretation could very well lead to more tragedies.”
It’s most of all here that the debate heats up.
“Because They Were Women: The Montreal Massacre” written by Josée Boileau © Les Éditions la Presse. Reproduced with permission from Second Story Press, Toronto. www.secondstorypress.ca