Polytechnique Montreal masscre Mount Royal anniversary Valérie Plante gun control

Why we can’t forget Polytechnique, and why we shouldn’t

“The massacre left an indelible imprint on Quebecers, and Montrealers in particular. It also had very real legal consequences: nearly all of Canada’s modern gun control legislation came about as a consequence of the lobbying by the gun control advocates born in the hallways and classrooms of Polytechnique on the night of Dec. 6, 1989.”

It is hard to understate the impact of this particular (WARNING: graphic) image: a close shot of two figures in a cafeteria; you can make out the cash register at one of the checkouts in the background, a tray on a table with plates and a cup in the foreground. There are several chairs; the dead body of a young woman occupies one. Her head and hair and thrown back, as is her limp arm, hanging over the backrest. You can easily imagine her sitting there chit-chatting with friends in the moment before her untimely, violent end. Behind her a man reaches up to take down a Christmas decoration.

This photograph appeared on the front pages of newspapers across Canada on Dec. 7, 1989 and for many people was the defining image of the Polytechnique Massacre. It remarkably gets more and more shocking with time: it’s doubtful any publication in Canada today would print a similar image, television news would pixelate it and posting the image to a social media network might get you banned. I can’t recall seeing the image in any recent remembrances of the massacre. It is an offending image but that was the point: mass murders like the Polytechnique Massacre are a societal failure, and this image made that clear.

Look at what you’ve done.

I used to think the photograph was exploitative, but given the epidemic of mass shootings in North America in the three decades since the Polytechnique Massacre, I now think we need to see many more images like it. Imagine how different the gun control debate in the United States would be if uncensored photos of dead children in their classrooms were on the evening news. 

The Polytechnique Massacre wasn’t just a mass shooting, it was a mass femicide. The gunman very explicitly targeted women and blamed feminists for the troubles in his life. The Polytechnique victims were primarily engineering students at a time in which women entering the STEM field was still considered groundbreaking. Moreover, most of the victims were born in the early 1960s — right at the start of the Quiet Revolution — and were representative of the first generation of Quebec women to grow up outside the strict and suffocating social conservatism imposed by the Catholic Church. Further still, the Polytechnique is a prestigious institution, located in a privileged enclave of the Quebec elite. That such horror could strike at what must have seemed like the safest place in the entire world for a young woman, and happen just weeks before Christmas, still feels oddly inconceivable, even though similar massacres have happened many times since.

Any of these individual factors would have made the massacre difficult to forget, but taken together they have left an indelible imprint on the collective minds of Quebecers, and Montrealers in particular. The massacre also has had very real legal consequences in Canada: nearly all of our modern gun control legislation came about as a consequence of the massacre and subsequent lobbying by the gun control advocates born in the hallways and classrooms of the Polytechnique on the night of Dec. 6, 1989. 

Our annual collective acts of commemoration have helped ensure those women did not die in vain, just as much as they have encouraged gun control advocates to doggedly pursue politicians and force them to act in our collective best interest.

Ecole Polytechnique 1989 Montreal massacre gun control

Despite the fact that strict gun control has for the most part worked and benefitted Canadians, anything important to Quebecers could be exploited as a wedge issue by the Conservative Party and the rest of the cancerous tumour that is conservatism in Canada. Something as benign as a gun registry was attacked by the Harperites as an inexcusable assault on fundamental freedoms, even though Canada doesn’t have a second amendment and access to firearms isn’t guaranteed in our charter of rights and freedoms. And to confirm that they were not actually interested in provincial rights, despite initially framing the issue as one of federal government overreach, the Harper administration tried to force Quebec to destroy the information it had already collected on firearms within the province.

Again, we have nothing to apologize for. If the majority of Quebecers want strict gun control because we’re all still collectively traumatized by a mass femicide that occurred 33 years ago, that’s our right (and frankly, good for us). If the strict gun control demanded by the people of the second most populous province, and second most populous city, effects federal gun control laws, and has an impact beyond our borders, that, too, is our right. We’re still a part of this country, we have the right to flex our muscle.

That said, the latest piece of gun control legislation — Bill C-21 — wasn’t born out of the experience of urban Quebecers, but rather of rural Nova Scotians. Though Justin Trudeau had promised stricter gun control laws during the 2019 campaign, largely in response to increasingly horrifying mass shootings in the United States, Bill C-21 is itself a very direct consequence of the 2020 Nova Scotia rampage, which coincidentally happens to be the deadliest mass shooting in Canada since the Polytechnique Massacre. Unlike gun control legislation that came into effect after Polytechnique, C-21 specifically bans the weapons used in all of Canada’s most notorious mass shootings, including the kinds used at the Dawson College shooting and the Quebec mosque shooting, as well as the Ruger Mini-14, which was used both at Polytechnique and in the Nova Scotia rampage.

Predictably, the effort to control firearms in the wake of horrifying mass shootings has prompted angry responses from the ultra minority of Canadians who believe their interest in owning and operating machines capable of mass death is somehow more important than the general populations’ right to live their lives in peace. And because that minority’s viewpoint has a hard time gaining traction with the general public, gun lobbyists — and their enablers in Canada’s conservative mainstream media — have been hard at work trying to change the narrative to imply federal government overreach. As you can probably imagine, the same crowd that thinks Bitcoin is a sound investment, that vaccines cause autism and that public health ordinances are akin to living in Nazi Germany also thinks reasonable gun control measures are proof that Canada is slipping into an authoritarian dictatorship.

There are no reasonable gun advocates in Canada (or if there are, they’re not making themselves heard in the debate over C-21). Instead, the pro-gun side is dominated by bullies who want to impose their minority interest on the majority, and there is simply nowhere too low for them to stoop. One such organization, whose name isn’t worth mentioning, was recently reported to be using the promo code ‘POLY’ to get discounts on merchandise sold on their website. 

Rather than apologize for this inexcusable and deliberately provocative act, a spokesperson for the group instead doubled down and criticized the PolySeSouvient gun control advocates. 

Consider, the gun rights group isn’t even trying to win over hearts and minds here, and this should be expected. They are bullies, pure and simple.

Enter into the conversation: Carey Price. 

On Saturday, Price posted a message to his social media that has been repeated by many other followers of this particular gun rights group, wherein he states that he isn’t a criminal, that he loves his country, family and neighbours, that what Justin Trudeau is doing is “unjust” and that he supports the gun rights group in question.

Today, the backpedaling. Price (or perhaps the public relations team at the Montreal Canadiens), would like you to believe that he had no knowledge of the Polytechnique Massacre, despite the many years he has lived in Montreal. Perhaps this is true and Price simply lives in a bubble — if getting paid millions of dollars to play a children’s game to help sell beer isn’t living in a bubble, I don’t know what is.

While Price is a well-known hunting enthusiast, his command of Bill C-21 leaves a lot to be desired. As La Presse reported, the gun he was holding in the photo he posted is not in fact on the list of soon to be prohibited firearms. Apparently neither the gun rights advocates nor the Conservative politicians who jumped on the bandwagon seemed to know this either, and that sure as shit isn’t inspiring any confidence.

I don’t want to be completely unsympathetic to Price. He’s Indigenous, and I do not believe that the federal government has any right to tell Indigenous nations or people what to do with firearms, particularly given that hunting is a component of the traditional Indigenous lifestyle, one that was brutally repressed by the federal government. Moreover, the federal and provincial governments have a very bad habit of invading, occupying, harassing and occasionally murdering Indigenous people engaged in non-violent resistance and land protection. If I were Indigenous, I would strongly encourage strict gun control amongst the whites.

Price may be engaged in therapeutic hunting, an aspect of Indigenous-focused therapy that seeks to reconnect Indigenous people with aspects of traditional Indigenous lifestyles. If that’s the case, I have no quarrel, but as a public figure it is his responsibility to understand the issues, know who he’s supporting and, above all else, have a modicum of appreciation for the collective trauma experienced by the people who paid good money to watch him play, just as he might expect the same appreciation vis-à-vis the trauma of the Residential Schools from the non-Indigenous community. He should consider as well the overlap between the population eager to use an Indigenous person as a poster boy for loosening gun control laws and the population that doubts the Residential Schools were a genocide (because they vote for the same party and read the same national chain of newspapers).

This morning, Price apologized via an ephemeral Instagram story — while clarifying that he was, in fact, aware of the massacre.

The gun nuts who deliberately try to trigger painful memories and score cheap political points off the victims of unspeakable horrors should do the same.

We, the people of Montreal, have nothing to apologize for. It is our shared trauma, and we have every right to fight like hell to make sure it doesn’t happen again, to anyone.

  • Geneviève Bergeron
  • Hélène Colgan 
  • Nathalie Croteau 
  • Barbara Daigneault 
  • Anne-Marie Edward 
  • Maud Haviernick 
  • Maryse Laganière 
  • Maryse Leclair 
  • Anne-Marie Lemay 
  • Sonia Pelletier 
  • Michèle Richard 
  • Annie St-Arneault 
  • Annie Turcotte 
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

Don’t you dare forget their names. ■

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