TRIGGER WARNING: domestic abuse, violence against women
Four days ago was the 28th anniversary of the shooting at Montreal’s L’École Polytechnique. If you don’t know what that is, you’re about to find out.
December 6th, 1989 started off much like any other day. It was Wednesday, drizzling and with a slight chill in the air, but otherwise normal. Around 4PM, shooter Marc Lépine entered L’École Polytechnique, a Montreal engineering school, and headed for the lecture halls. There, he proceeded to separate the men from the women, shouted that he hated feminists, and murdered several female engineers, before moving swiftly through the rest of the building, slaughtering as he went. By the time Lépine ended his rampage by finally turning the gun on himself, he had killed 14 women, most of them engineering students in their 20s, and injured 14 others.
Whether or not they self-identified as feminists, it didn’t matter. Lépine selected the women because they were intelligent, motivated, and on the path to success. “You’re women, you're going to be engineers,” he said when Natalie Provost, one of the women wounded in the lecture hall, protested that they weren’t all radicals about to take to the street. “You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists." His suicide note later revealed that he blamed feminists for ruining his life.
But the thing is, Lépine didn’t just hate feminists: he hated women.
People desperately tried to justify Lépine’s cold-blooded attack as anything but what it really was: a mentally disturbed kid on a rampage, an abused, misunderstood immigrant’s son, a lonely outcast who didn’t know how to make friends. But it wasn’t. It was a man who hated women, hated them enough to kill them simply for being who they were.
Where does this kind of hatred come from? The fact of the matter is that it’s learned. It’s learned from family, friends, teachers, and the media we consume in every different medium. Misogyny is so all-encompassing, so thoroughly interwoven in everyday life that sometimes we don’t even know we’re absorbing hateful rhetoric until it’s too late.
It is the result of many factors, too many to name, but at its root, misogyny is about the devaluation of female life. The belief that female life is expendable, that it is to be controlled, manipulated, ended.
Marc Lépine’s father was a cold man who was “abusive and contemptuous of women” believing that their role was to serve. He often physically and emotionally scarred both his wife and children, and even discouraged tenderness between Marc and his mother, believing it would spoil the youngster. Marc’s parents divorced in the 70s, and shortly thereafter, his father stopped visiting altogether. Marc Lépine loathed his father intensely.
I do not write this to excuse Marc Lépine as a victim, but rather to draw the connection between learned misogyny and violence against women. Marc Lépine is by no means a victim of circumstance, but his childhood experiences no doubt left their mark on him.
Prior to the massacre, Lépine often discussed his sexist viewpoints, including his distaste for feminists and career women, his opinion that women were “taking over the job market from men”, especially in traditionally male-dominated professions, and his belief that women should be homemakers and caretakers. Apparently, Lépine wanted a girlfriend, but struggled to relate to women, often showing off in front of them or bossing them around in an attempt to impress. His anger at career women was no doubt compounded by Lépine’s repeated rejection by L’École Polytechnique.
He was jealous that these women, through their acceptance to Polytechnique, had succeeded where he had failed. He was enraged by their audacity to seek employment— and not just any employment, but what he believed to be a profession for men that was being leeched away by aggressive, uppity feminists. Perhaps, like Isla Vista shooter Elliot Rodger years later, Lépine felt that women owed him something which he had not received. In a chilling YouTube diatribe recorded prior to the shooting and killing of 6 victims, Rodger stated, "If I can’t have you, girls, I will destroy you."
Almost 30 years later, it’s hard to erase the image of something so hateful, however much we may want to. The thing is, the world hasn’t changed enough for us to forget. Misogyny still runs rampant. It still kills women.
Although misogyny is widespread and varied in its manifestations, there are nevertheless common themes present in so many instances of violence against women. Too often we see women punished for refusing to submit to men, whether that’s the thousands of women a yearwho are killed for daring to say ‘no’ to men— marriage, dating, sex— or men who attempt to control women’s sexuality, whether it be a family member or an intimate partner. In the broadest of terms, women are expected to be submissive, to please, to say ‘yes’. Rejection is an insult that cannot be borne.
We see this over and over again in high profile cases of femicide, like the 2009 Shafia family murders in Kingston, when Mohammed Shafia, along with his wife and eldest son, killed three of the Shafia daughters and his first wife in what was later deemed an honour killing. Shafia, an Afghan immigrant, believed that his teen daughters morals had become loosened after moving to Canada, and attempted to curtail this through strict and controlling behaviour at home. The two elder girls, Zainab and Sahar, had become romantically involved with boys. At 13, the youngest of the slain, Geeti, wasn’t old enough for romance, but was nonetheless headstrong and uncontrollable. Their own father killed them for refusing to succumb to his will.
We saw this even more recently in the shocking 2015 killing spree of Basil Borutski in Renfrew County, not far from Ottawa, where he murdered three ex-girlfriends in quick succession. He first strangled Carol Culleton to death in her rural home before stealing her car and driving to the homes of his exes, Anastasia Kuzyk and Nathalie Warmerdam, and shooting them dead. Two of the women had already filed previous domestic abuse charges against Borutski before the murders.
Horrifying as these killings are, they are only four cases that reached national attention. Hundreds, thousands more each year fly under the radar. In cases such as these, we see men attempting to claim ownership over female bodies, and, when taken to the extreme, these men will do everything in their power to make women submit. And all too often, we ignore the warning signs. Domestic violence against an intimate partner or family member is a strong indicator of more extreme violence further down the road. Not to say that every abuser is a murderer, but more often than not, men who kill women have a history of contempt for, and violence against, women.
On December 6th, I was able to attend a candlelight vigil for the victims of the Montreal Massacre. We lit candles, laid roses, and held a moment of silence for the 14 women murdered that day in 1989. And although the shooting took place five years before I was born, I am still struck by how little has changed in the nearly 30 years since the tragedy occurred.
The memorial took place in Picton, ON, about three hours from Ottawa, approximate population: 5,000. Unfortunately, women in rural and small towns are often subjected to higher rates of domestic violence than women in urban areas. At the ceremony, they read out the names of local women who had been murdered in recent years. To my horror, there were 24 of them. My friend who also attended the vigil wept aloud as the names were read. “I knew that woman,” she told me. “I took dance with her daughter for 12 years. She made my costumes.”
It would be nice to forget about all the horrible crimes women suffer at the hands of men, to store the burdensome knowledge away and never look back. But we can’t forget, no matter how awful it may be. To forget would be a disservice to the memories of the women whose lives were snatched away, and to every woman who has suffered from misogyny and domestic violence. And it would be a disservice to women of the future, because we can learn from our mistakes.
It’s not too late for all of us. One of the key factors to reducing violence against women is to educate. It is so important to teach children at a young age about gender equality, about respecting peers both male and female, about expressing a full range of emotion - happiness, heartbreak, fear and ESPECIALLY anger - in a healthy, communicative way.
Earlier I said that misogyny is learned, and that’s true. But respect is also learned. Children can be taught from a very early age to honour women, to listen, to maintain boundaries, to respect the word ‘no’. We can teach them that equality is not a zero-sum game: men are not being diminished by women being uplifted. Adults, too— both men and women— must work to shed learned misogyny, but children are malleable. They understand what they are taught to be universal truth. And if you teach them that women are inherently, unchangeably worthy of respect, that is what they will believe.
So never forget, because learning from tragedies of the past can— and will— change the future.
September 10, 2018
August 17, 2018