Updated: Dec 9, 2022
It’s December 6, 2022 today. 33 years after the massacre of 14 women in Montreal at École Polytechnique of the Université de Montréal on December 6, 1989. Canada’s deadliest femicide. It was an anti-feminist attack and this day is now the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
I was a first year McGill student living in residence on the day of the shooting. I lived in a single room at Douglas Hall just a few blocks away from the Royal Victoria hospital. I had gone to my afternoon chemistry lab and was returning back to residence when I sensed that something had happened. I remember walking up the hill after my class along Rue University, past the hospital when a string of ambulances and blaring sirens filled the air. Some of these ambulances were the victims and wounded. 14 women died. 10 other women and 4 men were wounded that day.
I arrived back at the residence to nervous chatter and confusion. No one had the details about the shooting. This was long before twitter or facebook. It happened before we had instant messaging and before cell phones. We went to university without the internet. We heard whispers and rumors that raced around campus about what was happening. We turned on the radio to find out more and dialed home on the land lines at residence. I remember the phones ringing as parents called to check on their kids. In the first few hours, the radio was reporting “a mass shooting at a university in Montreal”. There was confusion as live reports filled the airwaves.
I was 18 years old at the time and I didn’t know much about feminism and why it mattered. I was a science student and the required coursework meant that you had to seek out an elective in womens studies if you wanted to discuss feminism. In my four years at McGill I did not discuss the massacre in any of my classes. The student newspaper was the only place that I read about social justice and the importance of feminism. It was not a part of the science curriculum.
The massacre wasn’t the first time I had heard about violence against women. When I arrived in Montreal in 1989, I found out during orientation that there had been a gang rape at a frat party the year prior. We were told to avoid the parties at that frat and to always walk in pairs. I never heard much more about what happened or how it was handled. I don’t remember if there was a trial or consequences. It was not discussed in our classes. We learn a lot in school from how things are addressed or not addressed by the leaders and educators. It’s what’s called the hidden curriculum. It was probably the first time I had heard about a gang rape and I tucked away that knowing in the back of my brain. Not until this morning did I look up what happened and found a mention of it in this article in Maclean’s.
The following year I was living in a 3 bedroom apartment on Rue de Bullion with two other women and we had to be very careful to never walk alone at night. Our male friends would always walk us back to our apartment after dark because the city was not a place to be out alone. The lighting was terrible on the side streets and a number of our friends had been followed on multiple occasions. It was not a safe city for women. One night when leaving a party in a taxi with 2 other friends we realized that we were heading in the wrong direction from the address we had given him. We told the taxi driver that he was going the wrong way but he sped up and didn’t respond. We recognized that we were in serious danger and jumped out of the cab at a red light. I am not sure we told anyone about the incident. It was just another night getting home in Montreal in 1989.
It was not until my graduate work of my PhD that I finally took a class in women’s studies. I had left science to study community and regional planning and I needed to find a research methods class. I walked across campus to a new building to take a graduate level course in feminist methods. The course was transformational as a former science student. I had no idea that I could speak from a place of my own experience and that it could be considered knowledge. Feminist epistemology. How do we know what we know and how can we demonstrate that we know it? To hear feminists explain how women can know something from their own experience, their own bodies, their own perspectives and find ways to make it credible as research in academia was revolutionary.
Feminist planning had been an afterthought in my planning courses - the last chapter in the book, the theory we would cover in the last class before christmas holidays. The class that no one went to or had little energy for.
Reading about Dorothy Smith’s bifurcation of consciousness allowed me to understand how I had been living in a world of science pretending to be a male scientist. This was completely distinct from my experience of being a woman in science. As a women in academia I had learned to live in two worlds in order to be accepted. Standpoint epistemology, institutional ethnography, auto-ethnography, personal narrative - my world would be transformed forever. I would never see the world the same way again. Dorothy Smith, Sandra Harding, Donna Haraway - these were the voices I had unknowingly been waiting to hear since I started university in 1989.
After taking this course, I grounded my doctoral work in feminist methodology and started to write using my own voice and move away from the formal writing style that I had learned in my two degrees of science. I started to use my own voice to describe my own experience of the university system. I wrote my comprehensive exams as a pleated text - black ink describing the theory I was being tested on and red ink describing my reflections of the process as I was writing it. I remember my committee members commenting more on the red ink than the black. I remember the tears of a committee member as he recognized his own experience of transformation through my reflective writing.
I also remember a male committee member suggesting I remove the word ‘feminist’ from my PhD when it came time for the final rounds of evaluation. “It might help you move through the process more quickly,” he said. I thanked him for his insights and left the word feminist in my dissertation. That was 2005.
There is so much more work to be done. But for now, maybe take a moment today to remember the names of the victims who lost their lives on this day, Geneviève Bergeron; Hélène Colgan; Nathalie Croteau; Barbara Daigneault; Anne-Marie Edward; Maud Haviernick; Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz; Maryse Laganière; Maryse Leclair; Anne-Marie Lemay; Sonia Pelletier; Michèle Richard; Annie St-Arneault; and Annie Turcotte.