Remember 30: Everything in a moment

Editor’s note: This is one of a series of pieces commemorating the 30th anniversary of the École Polytechnique murders. Read other Western community members’ reflections on the lessons that still echo – and even on those lessons still ignored – three decades out from that tragic day.

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I was sitting in a doctoral seminar on women’s history at the University of Sussex when someone came into the room to break the news of what had happened in Montreal. In a classic example of the pathetic fallacy, at that moment the electricity on campus flickered and went out, leaving us in a darkened classroom, staring out at a torrent of rain and wind.

For women’s historians of my generation, I consider the Montreal Massacre to have been our Kennedy moment, when we realized that the assumptions of safety and progress that we’d built our lives around had been assembled on insecure foundations.

That moment shattered the complacency that had accompanied the story of progress, liberalization, and growing acceptance of women in the workplace that many of us had imbibed and were at that moment being trained to disseminate. It was then that women’s scholars of my generation were both sickened and heartened by what was to come.

Sickened by the disgusting misogyny of the killer, who murdered 14 young women simply because they were women. His choosing to leave the male engineering students unscathed made his message shockingly clear.

What was heartening, if such a word can be used in the context of such senseless tragedy, was the international outpouring of revulsion and condemnation of the murderer, and the resolve to support women seeking education in non-traditional fields, that grew stronger from that day.

I, of course, never met the young women so cruelly killed that day. I suspect we wouldn’t have had much in common other than being young, female, and Canadian. But I know that they were following an educational path that suited their dreams, their abilities, and their aspirations, just as I and my fellow women’s historians were.

Everything was taken from them on Dec. 6 by an upsurge of the dark underbelly of misogyny and chauvinism that still repeats its pathetic themes in the incel movements.

It also shows its ugly and shameless face in other forms: a medical school requiring higher grades from female applicants, in evidence that women musicians are equally successful only in fully blind auditions, in the persistent pay gap, in a complacent acceptance that women athletes don’t deserve the same treatment as male athletes. And, of course, gendered violence persists: in Canada, a minority of substantiated sexual assault accusations are prosecuted and of those, the conviction rate is 10 per cent.

Those women in that Montreal classroom that day didn’t want much. But they wanted the same things we all want, regardless of our gender.

An equal opportunity to pursue their aspirations and follow careers of their choice.

An opportunity to learn.

Security of life and limb.

The promise that, all things being equal, they would live to be old, to hold infants in their arms, to love and be loved, to taste all the bitter and the sweet of the years that stretch out after graduation.

Regardless of that evil man who held a gun that day, regardless of countless casual sexisms placed in our path, regardless of the ravings of incels and the brazen chauvinism of some world leaders, we all deserve these things.

As Principal of Canada’s only women’s university, I’m proud that Brescia stands as a century-long assertion of the right of all women to participate in society freely, fully, and without fear of violence.

Susan Mumm is the Principal of Brescia University College.