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Women, Violence and the Montréal Massacre

By Lee Lakeman
March 1990

It was a typical Wednesday at the Vancouver women’s shelter. Upstairs in the attic meeting room, six rape crisis workers were busy reviewing November’s reports, extracting and compiling statistics; on the main floor, five women residents who have fled the terror of their husbands’ violence were cooking supper for their assorted children; downstairs in the basement, I was addressing leaflets to B.C. women’s groups that assist sexual abuse survivors. Our transition house was, as usual, stretched to capacity with women quietly, methodically, trying to mend the damage wreaked by male violence. In this humdrum quotidian activity came the phone call.

A volunteer who left the office earlier this afternoon calls from home, interrupting a meeting she knows is in session, with information she doesn’t think can wait. “I’ve been listening to the news for a couple of hours now; I thought you might not have heard yet,” she says. “Some guy has just shot fourteen women at the University of Montreal. He said he was killing them because they were feminists.” Other phone calls follow. Bonnie, a ten year veteran with the shelter movement, tells us, her voice full of emotion, “This is a momentous event.” She suggests we turn on the TV.

“All the dead are female,” a CBC “Newsworld” reporter is saying from her post in front of the École Polytechnique de Montréal;meaning all fourteen killed by the gunman before he turned the gun on himself were women. Anchor Whit Frasier is talking about the twelve injured students who have been taken to hospital. It’s some time before it becomes clear that, of the twelve, eight are women and four, men. It’s hours before we understand the killer, later identified as Marc Lépine, took aim first at women, and then only at men who interfered.

The anti-rape workers at the shelter, who are familiar with how some men intimidate and victimize women, wait patiently for details about the responses of the male students and professors during the rampage.

One man is asked by reporters why the women were abandoned. He says he thought the men were going to be robbed outside in the hall. Were all the men present so ignorant about violence against women not to recognize that a man ordering a group to divide themselves according to gender while hurling insults at feminists represents a greater danger to the women present than the men? Interview after interview on the scene confirms that there was no resistance to Lépine’s gender separation, that the “men left without protest.” A man appeared in a classroom brandishing a deadly weapon and, though there are more than fifty other men there (not to mention the two thousand others on the premises), not one refused. The reporters covering the event seem loathe pursuing the point, implying that the only reasonable response was silent obedience. Imagine the male students fleeing through the corridors, yelling that a madman was shooting at people: if they had known enough to say that a man was killing women, would anything have been different?

And where were those in charge? Later, we discover that the university administrators and staff hid themselves in their locked offices. No one in the press corps investigates how these men came to believe they were at risk. In the evening, a saddened senior administrator admits the school’s culpability.

“They (the parents of the victims) gave us their daughters and we failed to protect them.”

But what, exactly, made these particular women vulnerable to attack? Women entering “non-traditional” occupations do not represent a serious threat to the status quo until their numbers reach 15 or 20 percent. Until then, their presence is largely symbolic and does not imply any fundamental restructuring of the profession. In law and medical schools across the country, women students already account for close to half the enrolment. At the École Polytechnique de Montréal in 1989, 18 percent are female. Was Lépine’s choice, therefore, a strategic one, designed to halt their progress?

It becomes clear that no one halted his. Students say the police arrived while Lépine was still killing. In SWAT-team regalia, they surrounded the school, remaining outside. They evacuated no one and prevented nothing; Lépine ended his rampage at will.

Lépine was clear, “Women to one side. You are all feminists, I hate feminists,” he shouted. One of the young survivors, Natalie, tells reporters how she pleaded at the time, “We are only women in engineering who want to live a normal life.” She is unaware she had risen above her station. But her attacker, Lépine, was sure that it was not yet normal for Canadian women to become engineers.

Whit Fraser constructs the massacre as an “incomprehensible act of violence” and is soon echoed by reporters on other newscasts. Yet how incomprehensible is it, really? Unlike the coverage of rape cases, which usually allows for the possibility that the “alleged” crime didn’t take place, or was unintentional, it’s clear Lépine did it; we know he intended to do it and we know why. Yet we’re told it is all a mystery, way beyond the understanding of normal people.

Apparently we are to believe everything about the case except the killer’s own statement of his motives. In the coming days, acceptable experts will be produced to retrieve his act from the realm of the mysterious, to give it meaning. At the shelter, we predict they’ll be psychologists, not feminists.

Fraser and his co-anchor, Carol Adams, continue the obfuscation, telling us how rare it is in North America for such a large number of people to be massacred at once. They draw comparisons to multiple murders of people avoiding the connection to other acts of violence against women. Perhaps a closer parallel is the premeditated killings of twelve Vancouver prostitutes last year. That Lépine killed fourteen women at once instead of one a month is hardly a key point.

Ninety-seven women were killed by their spouses in 1988. There is a similarity in those massive numbers and in Lépine’s murderous belief that men can use whatever force necessary to control women.

But, having refused to accept the massacre as violence against women, Fraser, Adams and their colleagues are unable to compare and contrast it with other forms of abuse. Lépine did not rape or assault women he knew; he murdered female students who, for him, symbolized a movement.

Feminists coined the phrase “violence against women” to open discussion.  But, instead of starting there, what is asked in the media about Lépine’s killing is, “What was his motive?” There is no room to explore the relationship between this man and his female victims. And so there’s no way to respond to the event with action. But if “feminist” students constitute the new target of rage, should we not rush to university campuses to protect them?

When police search Lépine’s body, they find a letter. Word gets out that he targeted fifteen women. While the police refuse, to release the letter, the “hit list” is leaked to a few by a La Presse reporter. It will be several days before the media publish it, leaving many feminists in Quebec and elsewhere in the country worried and wondering who has been targeted, and who was in danger.

The named are: a feminist journalist; the president of a teachers’ union (the CEQ); the vice-president of the CSN; the Canadian champion of the 1988 Chartered Accountant exams; the first woman firefighter in Quebec; the first woman police captain in Quebec; a sportscaster; a bank manager; a TV host and a transition-house worker.

Marc Lépine indeed retaliated against women for taking liberties and creating liberty. But how did he compile the list? Had it ever been published before? As he didn’t know the women personally, the most likely source was the media. And what was the slant of the articles in which he read their names? What other criteria did these women meet for him? If he saw them as economic achievers, why the transition house worker? And why did he name these women, but kill the students? Since he was clearly attacking a movement, was it important to kill a group of women? Did the police refer to the names as a “hit list” because Lépine called for other men to kill the women?

On Thursday, December 7, Diana Bronson, a Montreal writer, tells the CBC Radio’s “Morningside” audience, “Fourteen women are dead for one reason: they are women. Their male classmates are still alive for one reason: they are men.” It is thrilling to hear her say this so directly, breaking open all the careful packaging and labelling of yesterday. She is eloquent in her expressions of fear and grief. But at the shelter, we begin to worry that all the female voices heard by the public will be limited to emotional identification with the victims. The situation also calls for leadership. So far, only half the message is being delivered.

The Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, through the Vancouver office, issues a press statement: with a few exceptions. The media disregard this and other feminist press releases. It’s beginning to look like a blackout.

Across the country, women are mobilizing. Public vigils are being organized, starting with one last night in Montreal. More vigils will happen tonight. In the coverage, there are no details about the organizers and the speeches. All we get are ten-second clips and one-sentence quotes.

Instead, it goes like this: reporters fill time asking several women, “Does this make you more afraid?” and “Do you identify with the victims?” Asked to identify with the dead, the women are then photographed and filmed while they tremble and cry. This scenario becomes a litany. Some women manage to resist manipulation.

One young Montreal woman says firmly, “This is another event of violence against women, which is part of every-day life.” She is interrupted by a male student in an engineering jacket. He touches her arm and says softly, “Stay calm, okay? Just stay calm. That is not the point.” Turning her eyes back to the camera, she is about to continue when he interrupts again. A chorus of women’s voices rises to join hers as she insists, “But it is the point. Women are being killed. I am not safe on the street.”

Women Against Violence Against Women rallies the community in Vancouver. On the steps of the court house downtown, speakers remember murdered wives and prostitutes, and speak of the continuum of sexist behaviour from jokes to beatings. Bonnie speaks for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women’s Shelter. “Many women have paid a high price for equality and liberty in our struggle,” she says. “We call on men to tell each other that you have no permission to commit any act of violence against women.”

Meanwhile, Kairn is holding the Rape Relief banner in the downpour muttering, “This stinks of classism,” comparing the gathering of hundreds to the smaller response to the murders of twelve Vancouver prostitutes. She is suspicious of feminists, not just the media and the government. She is here nevertheless because, “The murder of any woman is a reason to organize.” Others have stayed away, vowing that, until the murder of poor women, native women, runaways and prostitutes causes public outcry, they will put their energy elsewhere. It is a view that must be noted. For instance, by portraying this as the “largest mass murder in Canadian history,” the massacre of native peoples is ignored. We can learn from the great American feminist, Ida B. Wells, who revealed that lynchings, after the abolition of slavery in the U.S., seemingly random, were, in fact, another method of economic, social and political control.

As the ceremony draws to a close, the organizers ask the men in the crowd to move back, leaving women in the centre for a ritual in which they will hold hands. Few men move. A dishevelled man moves around yelling. Every vigil has been harassed by verbal snipers. In Thunder Bay, feminists who asked men to stay home are denounced by Alderman Johannes Vander Wees as “sexist and extreme”, guilty of “a kind of mind terrorism”. On the eleven o’clock news, Robert Malcolm of BCTV accuses the Vancouver vigil of being “sexist and extreme compared to the legitimate mourning on campuses.”

The vigils are also characterized as “spontaneous” gatherings, effectively hiding the people and groups behind them. Voiceless and, apparently, leaderless women are posited as fearful and passive. The anger and the analysis are both being censored by the media. The movement is portrayed as a loose, informal gathering of individuals, mostly white and middle class. The statements and theories of native, black and immigrant women disappear.

In the moment assigning public meaning to the Montreal massacre, women’s history has to be brought forward. The American feminist, Jane Caputi, gives a political interpretation of urban multiple killers of women in her book, The Age of Sex Crime. She observes that, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries, as the church lost its power to regulate female behaviour, it was replaced by psychiatry, gynecological surgery and Jack-the-Ripper-style killers, which she argues are the patriarchy’s agents of control today.

If feminists are correct in saying the fear and hatred of women in society at large is expressed in individual acts of rape, battering and killing, doesn’t it follow that the anti-feminist backlash has found expression through Lépine, a political assassin? But on “The Journal” the following night, Barbara Frum does not ask such relevant questions. “Surely this is a crime against humanity, not women,” she insists again and again.

Friday, CBC Radio’s “Morningside” continues exploring the significance of the murders with an hour-long panel, including Francine Pelletier, a founding editor of the defunct feminist magazine La Vie en Rose, who now writes for La Presse. She is one of the women on Lépine’s list: she is making herself and all of us safer by staying public. Francine is at her radical best at this moment, and speaks for many. She begins by saying that she sees the murders as a “reproach for feminist success” and speculates that “there will be more.” Peter Gzowski glumly responds, “Yes, but isn’t this time for mourning?” As the discussion proceeds, Pelletier laments the years of work that have been in vain, focusing more and more on the changes in attitude women want from the individual men in their lives rather than the transformation of the power structure and our culture which allowed and, in many ways, encouraged the killings. Why slow down the process of social change when we should be addressing the killing?

 (By January 17th, Pelletier, who is on air regularly through the month, argues that the next ten years must be spent letting men catch up emotionally to women; she says feminists must drop the theory “all men are potentially rapists.”)

Some men are afraid for women; some warn us to keep quiet so as not to attract the rage of other men. Some send money to the shelter and others arrange a discussion group for men to work out their defensive responses. Many seem only to be seeking our approval; instead of asking themselves and each other what they can do to change, they are asking us to take care of them.

“Aren’t there any nice guys out there?,” the handsome “everyman” interviewer on CKVU-TV asks Bonnie. She gasps at the question, but recovers in time to answer, “Well, one in four of us is raped, and not all by the same man. About half the women living with lovers are physically abused”. “Yes, but I’m asking you to make a concession, to say that there are some good guys.”

Why is this the central question for so many men? When half the population is unfairly treated, how can the other half be entirely innocent? It is true that not all men resort to violence, but men as a group do profit from higher wages, better jobs, less domestic work and more control over everything. In this moment of candour, the anchor is asking Bonnie, and all of us, to fudge the facts so he can feel more comfortable.

In The Globe and Mail, after the headline “Killer’s letter blames feminists,” comes coverage of the vigils and the political responses, and commentaries by Emil Sher and Diana Bronson, along with an editorial that asks, “Why were women in the gunsights?” The editorial goes on to state unequivocally that “these executions emerge from a social context and cannot be disowned.” It even recognizes the events as a backlash against “changes that are just and reasonable,” and although there is no credit or praise for feminists or the political movement that has promoted these changes, the editorial does state, “the arrogance of male dominance is to be found, naked and unashamed, at the heart of our democratic system and in centres of higher learning.”

There is no call for affirmative action at Canadian universities, or funding of university women’s centres; neither is there a demand for the reinstatement of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC) funding, universal daycare, equal pay or adequate federal funding for the work of rape crisis centres and transition houses.

Emil Sher writes what women have been speaking about “the continuum of violence”, repeating how individual men in various ways avoid facing their contribution to it by their refusal to talk about it with each other. His insistence that men must talk “about how we can give back what was never ours” seems appropriate but it still side-steps the specifics. (Assume your responsibility for the care of children, the sick and the elderly; redistribute the 40 percent extra on your paycheque to women until we achieve equality: be civil and supportive of one another, stop bullying women and children and organize to get other men to do this and lobby for women’s movement demands.)

In another opinion piece, Diana Bronson evokes women’s terrible fear of men’s violence. She is diverted from a central point: these murders are not just expressions of the same misogyny that women experience every day; they are the product of a vicious new strain aimed at women who fight for women’s rights – at feminists. As does Stevie Cameron in her gut-wrenching piece published the next day. Bronson omits to mention the value of women’s groups, rape crisis centres and shelters in assuaging women’s fear. When feminism is attacked, the first thing required is a reaffirmation of feminism and its political groups. But this does not happen in The Globe and Mail or anywhere else.

On “The Journal” tonight, Anne McGrath represents the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the largest women’s rights organization in the country. McGrath is chair of NAC’s Violence Against Women subcommittee. She is not, however, invited to share her knowledge and understanding of the issues sparked by the massacre. She is, instead, interviewed as a victim, the survivor of a classroom shooting in her high school. This story, the telling of which brings her almost to tears, is all Barbara Frum wants us to hear. “Are you permanently scarred by that event? Does one ever really recover?” she probes. Ann explains that she channels her grief and anger into changing the world by contributing her energy to NAC. It is the only political comment she is allowed.

Following the taping, in a call with me, McGrath says she is exhausted and debilitated from defending feminists against the criticism that we are exploiting this event for our own political ends. How could we do differently, we wonder, without betraying ourselves, our work and our responsibility to other women? How can we leave it to the anti-feminist forces to define the event for us?

In Quebec, there is more of everything. More angry resistance from men, more media sensationalism, more sympathetic columns, but the character of the gender struggle is the same. La Presse has run about a dozen statements denouncing the murders, some from unions, one written jointly by the association of engineers, one written jointly by the rape crisis centres and shelters of Quebec, which is the only piece from the autonomous women’s movement (their communiqué gets equal billing with a press release from Hydro-Quebec).

La Presse has promised space to Madelaine Le Comb, past president of the transition house association. But no, the assistant editor explains in print, today he thinks, like Peter Gzowski, that this is a time for mourning rather than opinion. Feminist analysis, in his mind, counts as opinion rather than reflection.

Three months later, we still don’t have all the facts about the massacre. The media preemptorily closed the door on the debate, but not before making sure that feminists were trivialized. Feminists could express acceptance of the emotional consequences of the massacre, but were not permitted to rail against it. Feminists were honored as victims, but not respected as politicized participants who could constructively shape the event’s meaning. There was some exploration of the environment of violence against women that produced Lépine, but no examination of the anti-feminist climate that created a political assassination.

Fifty years ago this year women won the vote in Quebec. In that historic feminist struggle, no woman was murdered. For feminists today, there is a before and after the Montreal massacre.

The article was first published in This Magazine

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