A Polytechnique lesson unlearned

It’s been 25 years since the massacre of 14 women at Université de Montréal’s engineering school, and the killer’s BS still permeates our discourse.


I recorded Denis Villeneuve’s 2009 film, Polytechnique, on my DVR the day it premiered on the Movie Network. It stayed there, unwatched, until the machine itself decided that enough was enough and self-destructed. So I recorded it again on my replacement DVR and there it sat, surviving various culls of the detritus that regularly clogs my TV universe.

Until this week, I could never bring myself to watch it. My memories of that December 6 night are still vivid 25 years later, though I was far removed from the actual violence. I remember walking through the falling snow to a meeting of political activists in the McGill Ghetto, oblivious to the news until I knocked on the door and was quickly briefed by one of the small group gathered stone-faced around a radio tuned to CBC. “He was out to kill feminists,” one woman mumbled through her shock. “It could have been any of us.”

We sat around for a bit, talking quietly, trying to assimilate the unacceptable, but the gathering broke up quickly. The news made it urgent to connect with those close to us, even people who we knew were in no danger. During events like these, your entire world feels like it’s in danger. It was an assault felt far beyond the walls of Polytechnique.

Standing on the metro platform on my way home, I noticed the women waiting for the train were clustering together. It didn’t seem like they knew each other, but like they were simply taking comfort in the proximity of other women. I wondered what they were thinking as they looked at me and other men scattered along the quai. I knew that the hatred and violence against women we had seen that night was unusual only in its degree. Were they asking themselves if the men around them on the St-Laurent metro platform harboured similar grievances? I knew that’s the question I was asking.

I didn’t know whether to move closer or farther to express my empathy.


I mentioned my reluctance to watch Polytechnique during a visit from a friend on Saturday. “You should watch it, you’ll be fine,” Karen assured me. “I’ll watch it with you. I’ve seen it several times, but I’d like to watch it again.”

She was right. The choice by Villeneuve to shoot in black-and-white helped give the victims the respect they deserve, muting the violence without silencing the horror. Like most of us, I knew much of the story intimately already, so I wasn’t expecting to be surprised. I knew he had separated the men and women in one class and ordered the men to leave. I knew he then huddled the women together and asked, “Do you know why you’re here?”

“No,” one student replied.

“You’re going to be engineers. You’re a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.”

“It’s not true, we’re not feminists …” the student starts to respond, just as her thoughts and her life were cut short by the killer’s spray of bullets.

Fourteen women would die that night for believing they were equal.


No, there was nothing surprising in the film, but it shocked me to realize that, 25 years later, so much of society still uses the feminist label in the same way the killer did: to shout down and shoot down women who advocate for equality, including — and especially — those who don’t even define themselves as feminist.

At its most basic, feminism is a belief in the political, social and economic equality of men and women. Who, in this day and age, can rationally oppose the right of women and men to share the same economic opportunities, political rights and social standing?

Yet 25 years after Polytechnique, anti-feminist rhetoric still peppers our social discourse like buckshot. It is even being directed these days against those who want the massacre to be remembered for what it was: an attack aimed at women who dared to think they could be equal. “Feminists” are accused of exploiting the tragedy for political purposes, which is akin to accusing members of Mothers Against Drunk Driving of capitalizing on their children’s deaths to push an anti-drinking agenda.

We have to stop accepting the use of “feminist” as an accusation, one often used in an attempt to stifle debate. Feminism is an open, evolving ideology that embraces a broad variety of views, including the beliefs of many of those who refuse to call themselves feminist … or who deride those who do.

No one should be embarrassed to wear the label — but they should be ashamed to cast it off.


Embrace your inner feminist — or simply your humanity — by supporting an evening of music, humour, dance and reflection this Thursday, Dec. 4, to raise funds for the Native Women’s Shelter and the Montreal Sexual Assault Centre. Tickets for the Cabaret la Tulipe event (or donations to the cause) can be made by calling LA TULIPE (514-529-5000) or through Admission (click the link or call 1-855-790-1245).

Organized by the co-founder of the #BeenRapedNeverReported campaign, Montreal Gazette reporter Sue Montgomery, the doors open at 7 p.m. and artists include Vox Sambou, the Empty Yellers, Detour Ahead, the Ekspreyson Haitian women’s dance troupe, comedians DeAnne Smith, les Zélées and Peter J. Radomski, the Odaya native women’s drumming circle, the Umurage Rwandan women’s dance troupe and local burlesque legend Miss Sugarpuss.

For more event details, look  here.

Peter Wheeland is a Montreal journalist and stand-up comic. His sardonic observations about the city and province appear on Cult MTL every week. You can contact him by Email or follow him on Twitter.