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How I sanitized the feminist outrage over the Montreal massacre

By Shelley Page, Ottawa Citizen
December 6, 2014

I arrived in Montreal four hours after the killing was done. Yellow tape wrapped l’École Polytechnique like a macabre Christmas present; surviving students gripped each other in numb disbelief.

I was 24, sent by the Toronto Star to write about the slaughter of female engineering students, all around my age; fourteen of them.

Looking back, I fear I sanitized the event of its feminist anger and then infantilized and diminished the victims, turning them from elite engineering students who’d fought for a place among men into teddy-bear loving daughters, sisters and girlfriends.

Twenty-five years later, as I re-evaluate my stories and with the benefit of analysis of the coverage that massacre spawned, I see how journalists— male and female producers, news directors, reporters, anchors — subtly changed the meaning of the tragedy to one that the public would get behind, silencing so-called “angry feminists.” We were “social gatekeeping,” as filmmaker Maureen Bradley later asserted in her 1995 film, Reframing the Montreal Massacre: A media interrogation.

It’s probably not much different than how the terrorism narrative was immediately elevated in the recent Parliament Hill shooting or how Sergeant-at-Arms Kevin Vickers was anointed a hero. But how we covered the unprecedented mass murder of women back then still matters.

I chose whom I interviewed and how I wrote the stories based largely on my own experience covering attacks on women (my stories about the Scarborough rapist, later identified as Paul Bernardo, got about the same attention as stories on an arsonist who torched garages).

My reporting was, no doubt, coloured by the response I got from male editors — and I had only male editors — when I pitched stories on women’s issues (not exactly front-page news in the 1980s) and by the way I’d had to negotiate minefields of gender politics just to get hired. I felt lucky to have been sent to cover the tragedy at all.

The killing in Montreal began around 5 p.m., and within 20 minutes, 28 people were shot or stabbed. All the dead were women.

My paper sent me first, and then a few hours later, another female reporter, also in her 20s. We ended up there because none of the male reporters working the night shift could say more than bonjour.

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.

In my hotel room that first night, after filing a few paragraphs to the night desk about the massacre scene, I watched the CBC National’s coverage. Only men were quoted: Eyewitnesses. Professors. Police. Survivors.

The following day, I raced around finding details that humanized the murderer. By that time, we knew the gunman had not only targeted feminists but also had a hit list of other prospects. Even though feminists had been getting death threats for years, there had to be another reason he went on a murderous rampage. So we went looking and found he had been beaten by his father; liked to play war games, and had been turned down by the military.

That evening, I thawed my feet in my hotel and watched the late Barbara Frum, one of Canada’s most respected journalists, refuse to admit that the massacre was indeed an act of violence toward women.

“Why do we diminish it by suggesting that it was an act against just one group?” Frum asked on CBC’s The Journal.

Frum was puzzled that so many women insisted the massacre was a result of a society that tolerates violence against women.

“Look at the outrage in our society,” Frum said. “Where is the permission to do this to women?

“If it was 14 men would we be having vigils? Isn’t violence the monstrosity here?”

She refused to even utter the word feminist. But then, her neutralizing of feminist anger must have resonated, and perhaps was reflexive. Bradley, in her documentary, wondered about Frum’s stance: “Was it necessary to deny any shred of feminism in herself in order to get where she was in this bureaucratic, media institution, boys’ club?”

Bradley also pointed out that the national media did not cover an emotional vigil the day after the massacre, where there was an angry confrontation between Montreal feminists and male students from the Université de Montréal. It would have made great content. Intelligent women voicing their outrage. But the story didn’t make it out of campus newspapers and local TV coverage onto a national stage. This story was not allowed to resonate with angry women.

When I review the stories I wrote, I almost never used the word feminist; I never profiled the achievements of one of the slain engineering students or the obstacles she’d toppled. I never interviewed a single woman who was angry, only those who were merely sad. Why? No one told me what not to write, but I just knew, in the way I knew not to seem strident in a workplace where I’d already learned how to laugh at sexist jokes and to wait until a certain boss had gone for the day before ripping down Penthouse centrefolds taped on the wall near his desk.

My stories were restrained, diligent and cautious. For years, I remembered one of my sentences with particular pride. Reading it now, it shows everything that was wrong with how I covered the event:

They stood crying before the coffins of strangers, offering roses and tiger lilies to young women they never knew.

I turned the dead engineering students into sleeping beauties who received flowers from potential suitors.

I should have referred to the buildings they wouldn’t design, the machines they wouldn’t create and the products never imagined.

They weren’t killed for being daughters or girlfriends, but because they were capable women in a male-dominated field.

I should have written that then.

The article was first publish in the Ottawa Citizen

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