On this day in 1989, fourteen women were murdered and another nine women and four men were injured at Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. The singling out of women was no accident. The gunman entered a classroom, asked the men to leave and then murdered the women. The women were murdered because they were women in a male dominated field - women in an engineering school. In the mind of the murderer, they were feminists taking the “rightful place” of men. This is what their murderer said.
Many of us were unable to take any solace in the repetitious use of phrases like “armed madman” in the media. We knew this was not a solitary act perpetrated by a psychotic madman. We knew it was indicative of a sustained attack against women, an attack as old as patriarchy. The Montreal Massacre exists on a continuum with all other violence against women, violence like the enforced financial dependence of wives and mothers, domestic abuse, rape, and the denial of reproductive rights. It exists along side of the misogynist reality in which women can never be without blame, can never quite do “it” right, whatever “it” is. It exists along side of another reality in which women and others with less power are expected to change their behaviour so as not to bring violence on themselves. Historically, it exists on the same continuum as the gendercide of the witch-hunts. Globally, it exists on the same continuum of the death of thousands and thousands of peoples in Africa of HIV/Aids while drugs exist for treatment. It exists on the same continuum of war in which our limited social resources are dedicated to killing each other.
The Montreal Massacre has been analyzed as another example of the backlash against feminism. It certainly is, but this analysis takes it out of the historical and global context in which violence underwrites the lives of women in patriarchal society. We knew at the time, and still know now, that it is connected to the oppression of people by gender, race, ability, sexuality, and age. Our consciousness of this is also under attack, has become part of the backlash. We are told to continue to pretend we do not know what we know. For example, at the time of the Montreal Massacre, there seemed to be a greater sense of outrage in the media that men were being blamed for violence against women than for the fact that 14 women were dead. “They” (whoever they are) wanted to believe this was not an attack on women. They made note of the four injured men. In doing so, they left out the fact that the murderer only took aim at men who interfered and that the murderer’s suicide note specifically mentioned his intent to kill feminists. They ignored the fact that he systematically singled out the women in the classrooms and demanded the men leave.
And it is worth noting that the men left. Report after report indicated there was no resistance to the murderer’s separation of the students by gender. Perhaps leaving as they did really was the only sane response that the men could have. I don’t know what I would have done – I wasn’t there and I’m not a man. But the men left and this makes me sad because I do know that violence will not end without the solidarity of the peaceful.
Our consciousness that violence is the ultimate coercive tool used by enforcers of oppressive systems is the biggest threat of all to those oppressive systems. In fact, when we look at the overwhelming statistics about violence in our society, even just a small sampling of them, we know that violence must indeed be tacitly acceptable as a means of enforcing our oppressive systems if figures like this reflect even a small portion the day to day reality of peoples’ lives. And of course, focusing on the 14 women in Montreal distracts us from the genocide perpetrated against Aboriginal women, violence against prostitutes, the children (male and female) who are abused every day – it can look elitist and classist. I am the first to admit this. But whatever it takes to wake us up – to bring us to consciousness - whether it is the Montreal Massacre or September 11 – we must welcome our awareness and resist the temptation to let go of this consciousness. We must do whatever we can to free people from their prisons of violence and in doing so spread the hope that there is another way. We who are conscious of the violence share our hope that peace is possible, peace in our homes and in our own hearts, peace in our relationships, and peace with the earth.
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