The only thing more enraging than the murder of 14 women on a rainy day in Montreal 25 years ago is the fact that so little has changed since then.
We all thought the one redeeming thing about Marc Lépine’s misogynist rampage through the École Polytechnique was the searing Parliamentary report that followed, “The War Against Women.”
“I want the women,” said Lépine, who was armed with a semi-automatic hunting rifle, as he entered a packed third-floor classroom on Dec. 6, 1989. He separated the female students and lined them up against the wall.
“You’re all a bunch of feminists; I hate feminists,” he said before shooting. By the time he’d finished his hunt through the school 20 minutes later, he had murdered 14 women and himself.
It was the biggest mass murder in a single day in Canadian history.
At first, much of the media framed Lépine’s action as those of a deranged individual. But thousands of the country’s women disagreed, pouring into the streets across the country to weep together and demand justice.
Even before the release of Lépine’s suicide note — which spelled out his misogynistic reasoning —women across the country recognized his actions. They had seen them before. They knew them personally. They were part of the deep societal hatred and subjugation of women.
“The War Against Women” was Parliament’s nod of agreement, one and a half years later. It was the title of a House subcommittee report.
“We worried the title was so provocative, people would dismiss it,” recalls Dawn Black, a former NDP MP who sat on the subcommittee, which wrote the report after five months of hearing about the torture, murder, rape, poverty and struggles of women across Canada. “But we felt in the end, the reality demanded we recognize the deep and unacknowledged violence against women in our society.”
The 69-page report was filled with statistics the committee dutifully collected to support the war analogy. Many are maddeningly familiar:
• One in 10 women were assaulted — physically or sexually — by their partner every year.
• In 1989, 48 per cent of Canadians personally knew a woman being abused by her live-in partner.
• In a recent study, 80 per cent of aboriginal women in Ontario said they’d been assaulted or abused.
• One in four women had been sexually assaulted, half of them before they turned 17.
The committee quoted one rape crisis worker’s comparison of battered women shelters and rape crisis centres to unfunded, unrecognized Red Cross units in this war against women. Some of the 25 recommendations it made sought to bolster those facilities and to sensitize judges, Crown attorneys, police officers and others to the grave nature of the crimes.
What made the document radical, though, was its brief examination of the root causes of the war. Violence, it said, stemmed from inequality and traditional values that held men as the bosses and women as the servants.
To end the war would require no less than a complete restructuring of society, in body and soul.
The committee called for massive media campaigns, mandatory public school courses, more women in positions of power, notably in government (it called for gender-sensitivity training for MPs, ha!), and a national plan to build affordable housing “inextricably linked to wife assault,” since women who escaped their abusive husbands arrived at shelters with no money, no job prospects and no hope of paying rent. Poverty pushed many back to their abusers.
We were tragically reminded of that again this week, with the murder of Zahra Abdille and her two sons.
We still don’t have a national affordable housing plan. Our members of parliament never got that training, clearly. Poverty is still “feminized,” with Toronto women earning 31.3 per cent less than men on average. And the statistics for university campus rapes — cited at 15 per cent of female students in the report — are infuriatingly the same.
“The War Against Women” reads like one of those dark east coast novels. It piles on depressing detail after depressing detail. But what makes it especially disturbing is that the bulk of it could have been written yesterday.
“We are still fighting the same battles,” says Mary Clancy, the former Liberal MP from Halifax who sat on the committee. “I wouldn’t have thought at 66, I’d be saying ‘We’ve made some inroads, some things improved but a whole lot hasn’t.’ You wonder 23 year later, what good did it do?”
After some protest from Tory MPs over the report’s title, it was accepted by Parliament. A few months later, the government released its formal plan to address violence against women with a tepid title, “Living Without Fear.” It included a massive education campaign and created a blue-ribbon panel to dig deeper into the subject.
But it never launched a full-scale action plan on violence against women. There was no war effort, only isolated skirmishes, notably the strengthening of sexual assault laws.
The biggest legacy of both the massacre and Parliament’s report was gun control. The ease with which Lépine had bought his Ruger Mini-14 two weeks earlier had alarmed many Canadians.
The parliamentary committee heard from Wendy Cukier, a university professor who launched Canadians for Gun Control after the Montreal Massacre with École Polytechnique student Heidi Rathjen. The statistics she provided revealed how often men killed their wives and ex-wives with hunting rifles.
“It is apparent to this committee that the presence of guns in our homes and communities puts women and children at risk,” the report states.
Government tightened the licensing requirements in 1991. Then, four years later, it created the long-gun registry. Quickly, the number of suicides and homicides by hunting rifles dropped across the country.
Two years ago, the Harper government dismantled the registry.
That came six years after removing the word “equality” from the mandate of Status of Women Canada.
To many of us, it felt like the gleeful stomping on the ashes of the feminist movement.
“We don’t have a problem of ignorance, we have a problem of refusal,” says Lee Lakeman, a veteran rape crisis centre worker who flew in from Vancouver to address the committee all those years ago.
“Here we are in a national election year, and where are the promises from any party?”
Women across the country took great hope from “The War Against Women.” Such exposure, they sensed, would result in real change.
There is a similar sentiment in the country today regarding sexual assault. But, if we can take one lesson here, it’s that radical change needs more ammunition than the truth.
“We only got ‘The War Against Women’ report because we created political pressure,” Lakeman says. “Women went to the street in outrage. When we stopped doing that, we lost. Women have to go back to the streets in public outrage and be ungovernable until that governance is fair.”
Feminist lawyer Pamela Cross compares Dec. 6 to Nov. 11. Both commemorate the dead. But Remembrance Day includes national newscasts, government ceremonies, pipers at cenotaphs. Do you know where your local Montreal Massacre commemoration is being held?
“There is a private members bill to make Nov. 11 a statutory holiday,” says Cross, a board member of the National Association of Women and the Law until the Conservative government cut its funding. “Why is there no call to do the same thing for Dec. 6? A lot more women die at the hands of men in this country than soldiers die at war.” (She is right, according to Brian Vallée in his book also called The War on Women. From 2000 to 2006, he writes, 44 Canadian soldiers were killed on duty while 500 Canadian women were killed by their intimate partners.)
A sad aside: Cukier was scheduled to speak as part of a Dec. 6 panel on gun control at Ryerson University, where she works. Organizers cancelled the event after non-university members reserved 150 of 200 seats in 10-person blocks. Many of them boasted of their success in silencing Cukier on the “Gun Owners of Canada” forum.
Last year, Cukier received a photograph of herself riddled with bullet holes in the mail.
“The intensity of the vitriol and the threats and harassment are very different for men who speak out on the issue,” she says. “There still is a very deeply embedded aggression against strong women in leadership roles.”
If Lépine’s actions alerted the country 25 years ago to a dark misogyny in the bones of Canadian society, we clearly haven’t broken it.
“The war is still going on,” says Clancy. “We are still an occupied country.”