I spent today on campus, doing some research and meeting with my advisor about the direction of my degree. And here in the US, December 6th isn’t really a “thing”. People might have heard of the Montreal Massacre, but many of my peers are too young to remember it happening. So this day- one in which I actually felt like I was participating in something cool and (despite the stress of exams) enjoying my time in school- was quite bittersweet. Because while I was getting comfortable in student life, I couldn’t help but be aware of the 14 students who lost their lives simply because they were women.
For those of you who don’t know, on December 6th, 1989, a gunman entered an engineering class at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique, ordered the men (50 of them) to leave, and shot at the women (all 9 of them). In his 20-minute attack, he shot and injured 10 women (4 men), and killed 14 women before committing suicide. There are any number of different reasons that people have pointed to over the years as the reason behind his attack. Ultimately, his suicide note blamed feminism for ruining his life, and included a “hit list” of women who he believed were feminists.
(From the Ryerson White Ribbon Campaign website)
I don’t know when I first specifically learned about this incident, but it’s been a part of my country’s history for as long as I can remember. And I vaguely remember hearing about it in school every year on the anniversary, which left me with a distinct feeling of “women have faced horrible things in the past- you should feel lucky, because we’ve fixed things so you don’t have to go through it.” It was similar to the feelings I would get when the teachers told us that we had learned our lessons in WWII, and that we would never have to deal with war in our lifetime.
But with five years of university experience under my belt, I don’t get this feeling anymore. I feel a horrible, sinking feeling when I read the accounts of what happened that day. It’s a mix of fear, anxiety, sadness, and guilt. Yeah, that’s right, I feel guilty. It doesn’t matter that I wasn’t there, or that I was too young to do anything about it. What matters is that it’s been more than 20 years, and I still don’t think that we’ve learned our lessons from this tragedy. Even at the most progressive of universities, we’ve failed to address misogyny and sexism which contributed to such violence.
This evening, I read an incredible piece by Megan Leslie, the MP for Halifax. And there was one line that really hit home for me. In describing some of the discrimination women continue to face in Canada, she wrote
Like when on my first day in Ottawa as a new MP, another MP said something so sexist and so degrading to me that my first thought was “what am I wearing? Did I ask for this?”
The problem isn’t that we have elected representatives who make derogatory comments, or that women are underrepresented in the House (although that’s another issue that we need to talk about), it’s that this is our programmed response. Just as society teaches women ‘don’t get raped’ instead of teaching men ‘don’t rape’, we still feel the need to question what we did to bring the bad behaviour on ourselves. We don’t ask why someone thinks it’s okay to say something like that to us. We ask why women don’t leave abusive relationships; we don’t ask why men abuse their partners.
I don’t want this to sound like an “us-vs-them” issue. We know that men are victims of intimate partner violence at the hands of male and female partners. We know that trans folk face even greater discrimination and barriers. And we know that there are good men out there who are actively working to stop violence against women. But the fact of the matter remains that women while women make up the majority of the population, men are still the ones with control. We know that the majority of studies have found that most rapes are committed by men, and against women. We know that more women are killed by their partners than men. I know that I still go out of my way to walk out to the parking lot with someone at the end of the evening, while many male friends don’t think twice.
In short, I know that my experience is different than that of men. I know that there are things that I’ve been socialized to fear, things that (statistically, at least) don’t make much sense. But I also know that if I were ever attacked while walking alone to my car, it wouldn’t just be society who asked me why I was stupid enough to be walking alone at night. I would be asking (and blaming) myself. And this isn’t a situation that I’m okay with accepting. We can’t change the past, but we can influence the future.
We need to stop calling out men as our enemies, and instead embrace them as our allies. We need to engage with people who continue to make public space hostile for women, not unilaterally dismiss them as monsters. We need to question what kind of messages kids are getting at home that makes them think that it’s okay to engage in misogynistic behaviour in class, not suspend them and tell their parents to deal with it. We need to communicate with parents- especially those who are repeatedly told how lucky we are now that women are equally- that this isn’t quite the case. We have to stop (and I believe that online feminist forums have been some of the worst offenders for this) condemning men who dare to assist us in fighting violence against women. Just as we hope for men to recognize that violence against women is an issue that affects everyone, we have to recognize that violence against women is an issue that affects them and have an important role to play in ending violence against women.
We need to speak up. We need to tell our coworkers that we’re not okay with them calling someone else a “slut”. We need to say something when the media talks about men as though they have no control over themselves (they deserve better too). We need to step in when we see a situation that’s quickly escalating out of control at a party. We need to say something when politicians keep attacking women’s health, sexual, and reproductive rights. We can’t live in fear of being labeled a feminist for speaking up- I can guarantee you I’ve been called way worse this week alone.
We need to recognize the power that lies within each and every person who dares to fight back.
And again, I want to go back to Megan Leslie’s statement and leave you with her words, because she’s said it much better than I could hope to.
On December 6th, 1989, fourteen women were shot because someone thought that they’d stepped out of line.
On that day, all of their power and potential was taken from them.
On this day, and on all days, we owe it to them to not waste ours.