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CAUT Bulletin Archives

December 2000

Acts of Memory - The Legacy of the Montreal Massacre

Edith Zorychta

From the École Polytechnique shooting came a determination to understand and change a society that often ignored such violence.

It has been 11 years since the massacre of 14 young Canadian women. On Dec. 6, 1989, a killer walked into classrooms at the University of Montreal's École Polytechnique, ordered the men to leave, and fired his automatic weapons at every woman in sight. Because they were women. Because he thought women should not be allowed the same education as men. Because successful women were "feminists," and he shouted "I hate feminists" as he targeted his victims.

The outcome of this tragedy has not been what the killer intended. Canadians have erected close to 30 permanent monuments to the women who died on Dec. 6, 1989. In stone, marble, and granite their names are engraved, not to be forgotten. Other forms of memorials are found in almost every community -- flower gardens, works of art, projects mounted on the walls of schools and universities on our national day of commemoration. These memorials are visible reflections of a primary outcome of the massacre -- a fundamental change in our collective consciousness, a greater public awareness of misogyny and the extent of violence against women.

From this horrible event came a determination to understand and change a society that often ignored such violence. For each physical memorial there are hundreds of action-oriented projects, both large and small, in response to the massacre. We are improving our gun control legislation, discussing gender discrimination in school classrooms, thawing the "chilly climates" for women in traditionally male professions, making movies and writing novels, all directed at change. A CAUT initiative led to the establishment of 14 scholarships for women in engineering by Industry Canada, Science and Technology -- one example among many within our universities. The outcome in Canada's engineering faculties has been significant: the number of female students has more than doubled since 1989.

In addition to their positive features, these memorials evoke some unsettling questions. Do they divert our attention from the disadvantages to women caused by massive decreases in government funding of health care, women's projects, and education over the last 11 years? Do they allow us to feel we have dealt with the problems, rather than awakening us to what still needs to be done? As we memorialize the 14 women who died on Dec. 6, the goal formulated in 1989 must remain at the heart of the process: First Mourn ... Then Work for Change.

Edith Zorychta is a member of CAUT's Status of Women Committee, and professor of pathology at McGill University.