Remember 30: More than memories

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 an undergraduate student at the University of Ottawa when the École Polytechnique massacre took place. I had been taking courses that year that discussed how the issue of violence against women had been addressed within the Canadian political system.

Suddenly, this tragedy made those discussions real and urgent. It was clear that gender-based discrimination was a current concern – in Canada, in places of higher education – and that this discrimination could and did result in loss of life.

The female students in my cohort were scared.

We could identify with – we could imagine, as we were fellow students – the lives of the 14 women who were murdered. This event was seared into my memory because it made very real, too real, the issues I had been studying.

I began attending Dec. 6 commemorations in the years that followed, first at my law school at the University of Toronto and then afterwards as a young lawyer, reflecting deeply on the prevalence of violence against girls and women.

After the Montreal Massacre, my interest in international human rights law began to gain a clear focus.

While at the University of Toronto law school, I took a course with professor Rebecca Cook, one of the world’s foremost authorities on international women’s human rights law. I was captivated: this was why I had come to law school.

International women’s human rights law was nascent; it needed development; it was growing.

Professor Cook served as my mentor and guide, involving me in her groundbreaking research and many projects. As a student, I interned at the 1993 United Nations World Conference on Human Rights, and met Bosnian women who had survived the war crime of rape. They impressed upon me the need for gender-sensitive scholars to delve into the emerging field of international criminal law. They wanted people to understand that what had happened to them was a serious international crime.

These experiences led me to my current area of research: gender issues within international criminal law. Some of my research stems directly from my reflections on violence against women initially prompted by the Montreal Massacre, namely how and when acts such as rape, sexual slavery and conflict-related forced marriage qualify as genocide, crimes against humanity and war crimes.

Other aspects of my research flow naturally from this focus, such as how to make the prosecution of international crimes more gender-sensitive.

Since my awakening to the issue of violence against women back in 1989, I have come to see that the violence carried out at the École Polytechnique in Montreal is not so far removed from the discriminatory violence experienced by women in armed conflicts around the globe. I continue my academic work in this field 30 years later because so much more still needs to be done to address this type of violence.

The time has not yet come to declare that the events of Dec. 6, 1989, are a part of the past, as their effects still continue to shine a light on present reality.

Law professor Valerie Oosterveld is Associate Director of the Centre for Transitional Justice and Post-Conflict Reconstruction.