It was a typical Wednesday at the Vancouver women's shelter.
Upstairs in the attic meeting room, six rape crisis workers
were busy reviewing November's reports, extracting and
compiling statistics; on the main floor, five women residents
who have fled the terror of their husbands' violence were cooking
supper for their assorted children; downstairs in the basement,
I was addressing leaflets to B.C. women's groups that
assist sexual abuse survivors. Our transition house was, as
usual, stretched to capacity with women quietly, methodically,
trying to mend the damage wreaked by male violence. In
this humdrum quotidian activity came the phone call.
A volunteer who left the office earlier this afternoon calls
from home, interrupting a meeting she knows is in session, with
information she doesn't think can wait. "I've been
listening to the news for a couple of hours now; I thought
you might not have heard yet," she says. "Some guy has just
shot fourteen women at the University of Montreal. He
said he was killing them because they were feminists."
Other phone calls follow. Bonnie, a ten year veteran with the
shelter movement, tells us, her voice full of emotion, "This
is a momentous event." She suggests we turn on the TV.
"All the dead are female," a CBC "Newsworld" reporter is
saying from her post in front of the ecole polytechnique;
meaning all fourteen killed by the gunman before he turned
the gun on himself were women. Anchor Whit Frasier is talking
about the twelve injured students who have been taken to hospital.
It's some time before it becomes clear that, of the twelve,
eight are women and four, men. It's hours before we understand
the killer later identified as Marc Lepine took aim first at
women, and then only at men who interfered.
The anti-rape workers at the shelter, who are familiar
with how some men intimidate and victimize women, wait patiently
for details about the responses of the male students and professors
during the rampage.
One man is asked by reporters why the women were abandoned.
He says he thought the men were going to be robbed outside in
the hall. Were all the men present so ignorant about violence
against women not to recognize that a man ordering a group to
divide themselves according to gender while hurling insults
at feminists represents a greater danger to the women present
than the men? Interview after interview on the scene confirms
that there was no resistance to Lepine's gender separation,
that the "men left without protest." A man appeared in a classroom
brandishing a deadly weapon and, though there are more than
fifty other men there (not to mention the two thousand others
on the premises), not one refused. The reporters covering the
event seem loathe to pursue the point, implying that the only
reasonable response was silent obedience. Imagine the male students
fleeing through the corridors, yelling that a madman was shooting
at people: if they has known enough to say that a man was killing
women, would anything have been different?
And where were those in charge? Later, we discover that
the university administrators and staff hid themselves in their
locked offices. No one in the press corps investigates how these
men came to believe they were at risk. In the evening, a saddened
senior administrator admits the school's culpability.
"They (the parents of the victims) gave us their daughters
and we failed to protect them."
But what, exactly, made these particular women vulnerable
to attack? Women entering "non-tradtitional" occupations
do not represent a serious threat to the status quo until their
numbers reach 15 or 20 per cent. Until then, their presence
is largely symbolic and does not imply any fundamental restructuring
of the profession. In law and medical schools across the country,
women students already account for close to half the enrolment.
At the ecole polytechnique in 1989, 18 per cent are female.
Was Lepine's choice, therefore, a strategic one, designed to
halt their progress?
It becomes clear that no one halted his. Students say
the police arrived while Lepine was still killing. In SWAT-team
regalia, they surrounded the school, remaining outside. They
evacuated no one and prevented nothing; Lepine ended his rampage
Lepine was clear, "Women to one side. You are all feminists,
I hate feminists," he shouted. One of the young survivors, Natalie,
tells reporters how she pleaded at the time, "We are only women
in engineering who want to live a normal life." She is unaware
she had risen above her station. But her attacker, Lepine, was
sure that it was not yet normal for Canadian women to become
Whit Fraser constructs the massacre as an "incomprehensible
act of violence" and is soon echoed by reporters on other newscasts.
Yet how incomprehensible is it, really? Unlike the coverage
of rape cases, which usually allows for the possibility that
the "alleged" crime didn't take place, or was unintentional,
it's clear Lepine did it; we know he intended to do it and we
know why. Yet we're told it is all a mystery, way beyond the
understanding of normal people.
Apparently we are to believe everything about the case except
the killer's own statement of his motives. In the coming
days, acceptable experts will be produced to retrieve his act
from the realm of the mysterious, to give it meaning. At the
shelter, we predict they'll be psychologists, not feminists.
Fraser and his co-anchor, Carol Adams, continue the obfuscation,
telling us how rare it is in North America for such a large
number of people to be massacred at once. They draw comparisons
to multiple murders of people avoiding the connection to other
acts of violence against women. Perhaps a closer parallel is
the premeditated killings of twelve Vancouver prostitutes last
year. That Lepine killed fourteen women at once instead of one
a month is hardly a key point.
Ninety-seven women were killed by their spouses in 1988.
There is a similarity in those massive numbers and in Lepine's
murderous belief that men can use whatever force "necessary"
to control women.
But, having refused to accept the massacre as violence against
women, Fraser, Adams and their colleagues are unable to
compare and contrast it with other forms of abuse. Lepine did
not rape or assault women he knew; he murdered female students
who, for him, symbolized a movement.
Feminists coined the phrase "violence against women" to
open discussion. But, instead of starting there, what
is asked in the media about Lepine's killing is, "What was his
motive?" There is no room to explore the relationship between
this man and his female victims. And so there's no way to respond
to the event with action. But if "feminist" students constitute
the new target of rage, should we not rush to university campuses
to protect them?
When police search Lepine's body, they find a letter. Word
gets out that he targeted fifteen women. While the police refuse,
to release the letter, the "hit list" is leaked to a few by
a La Presse reporter. It will be several days before the media
publish it, leaving many feminists in Quebec and elsewhere in
the country worried and wondering who has been targeted, and
who was in danger.
The named are: a feminist journalist; the president
of a teachers' union (the CEQ); the vice-president of the CSN;
the Canadian champion of the 1988 Chartered Accountant exams;
the first woman firefighter in Quebec; the first woman police
captain in Quebec; a sportscaster; a bank manager; a TV host
and a transition-house worker.
Marc Lepine indeed retaliated against women for taking liberties
and creating liberty. But how did he compile the list? Had
it ever been published before? As he didn't know the women personally,
the most likely source was the media. And what was the slant
of the articles in which he read their names? What other criteria
did these women meet for him? If he saw them as economic achievers,
why the transition house worker? And why did he name these women,
but kill the students? Since he was clearly attacking a movement,
was it important to kill a group of women? Did the police refer
to the names as a "hit list" because Lepine called for other
men to kill the women?
On Thursday, December 7, Diana Bronson, a Montreal writer,
tells the CBC "Morningside" audience, "Fourteen women are dead
for one reason: they are women. Their male classmates are
still alive for one reason: they are men." It is thrilling to
hear her say this so directly, breaking open all the careful
packaging and labelling of yesterday. She is eloquent in her
expressions of fear and grief. But at the shelter, we begin
to worry that all the female voices heard by the public will
be limited to emotional identification with the victims. The
situation also calls for leadership. So far, only half the message
is being delivered.
The Canadian Association of Sexual Assault Centres, through
the Vancouver office, issues a press statement: with a few
exceptions. the media disregard this and other feminist press
releases. It's beginning to look like a blackout.
Across the country, women are mobilizing; public vigils
are being organized, starting with one last night in Montreal.
More vigils will happen tonight. In the coverage, there are
no details about the organizers and the speeches. All we get
are ten-second clips and one-sentence quotes.
Instead, it goes like this: reporters fill time asking several
women, "Does this make you more afraid?" and "Do you identify
with the victims?" Asked to identify with the dead, the women
are then photographed and filmed while they tremble and cry.
This scenario becomes a litany. Some women manage to resist
One young Montreal woman says firmly, "This is another event
of violence against women, which is part of every-day life."
She is interrupted by a male student in an engineering jacket.
He touches her arm and says softly, "Stay calm, okay? Just stay
calm. That is not the point." Turning her eyes back to the camera,
she is about to continue when he interrupts again. A chorus
of women's voices rises to join hers as she insists, "But it
is the point. Women are being killed. I am not safe on the street."
Women Against Violence Against Women rallies the community
in Vancouver. On the steps of the court house downtown,
speakers remember murdered Wives and prostitutes, and speak
of the continuum of sexist behaviour from jokes to beatings.
Bonnie speaks for Vancouver Rape Relief and Women's Shelter.
"Many women have paid a high price for equality and liberty
in our struggle," she says. "We call on men to tell each other
that you have no permission to commit any act of violence against
Meanwhile, Kairn is holding the Rape Relief banner in the
downpour muttering, "This stinks of classism," comparing the
gathering of hundreds to the smaller response to the murders
of twelve Vancouver prostitutes. She is suspicious of feminists,
not just the media and the government. She is here nevertheless
because "The murder of any woman is a reason to organize." Others
have stayed away, vowing that, until the murder of poor women,
native women, runaways and prostitutes causes public outcry,
they will put their energy elsewhere. It is a view that must
be noted. For instance, by portraying this as the "largest mass
murder in Canadian history," the massacre of native peoples
is ignored. We can learn from the great American feminist, Ida
B. Wells, who revealed that lynchings after the abolition of
slavery in the U.S., seemingly random, were, in fact, another
method of economic, social and political control.
As the ceremony draws to a close, the organizers ask the
men in the crowd to move back, leaving women in the centre for
a ritual in which they will hold hands. Few men move. A
dishevelled man moves around yelling. Every vigil has been harrassed
by verbal snipers. In Thunder Bay, feminists who asked men to
stay home are denounced by Alderman Johannes Vanderwees as "sexist
and extreme", guilty of "a kind of mind terrorism". On the eleven
o'clock news, Robert Malcolm of BCTV accuses the Vancouver vigil
of being "sexist and extreme compared to the legitimate mourning
The vigils are also characterized as "spontaneous" gatherings,
effectively hiding the people and groups behind them. Voiceless
and. apparently, leaderless women are posited as fearful and
passive. The anger and the analysis are both being censored
by the media. The movement is portrayed as a loose, informal
gathering of individuals, mostly white and middle class. The
statements and theories of native, black and immigrant women
In the moment assigning public meaning to the Montreal massacre,
women's history has to be brought forward. The American
feminist, Jane Caputi, gives a political interpretation of urban
multiple killers of women in her book, The Age of Sex Crime.
She observes that, during the nineteenth and twentieth centuries,
as the church lost its power to regulate female behaviour, it
was replaced by psychiatry, gynecological surgery and Jack-the-Rippcr-style
killers, which she argues are the patriarchy's agents of control
If feminists are correct in saying the fear and hatred of
women in society at large is expressed in individual acts of
rape, battering and killing, doesn't it follow that the anti-feminist
backlash has found expression through Lepine, a political assassin?
But on "The Journal" the following night, Barabara Frum does
not ask such relevant questions. "Surely this is a crime against
humanity, not women," she insists again and again.
Friday, "Morningside" continues exploring the significance
of the murders with an hour-long panel, including Francine
Pelletier, a founding editor of the defunct feminist magazine
La Vie en Rose, who now writes for La Presse. She is one of
the women on Lepine's list: she is making herself and all of
us safer by staying public. Francine is at her radical best
at this moment, and speaks for many. She begins by saying that
she sees the murders as a "reproach for feminist success" and
speculates that "there will be more." Peter Gzowski glumly responds,
"Yes, but isn't this time for mourning?" As the discussion proceeds,
Pelletier laments for the years of work that have been in vain,
focusing more and more on the changes in attitude women want
from the individual men in their lives rather than the transformation
of the power structure and our culture which allowed and, in
many ways, encouraged the killings. Why slow down the process
of social change when we should be addressing the killing?
(By January 17, Pelletier, who is on air regularly through
the month, argues that the next ten years must be spent letting
men catch up emotionally to women; she says feminists must drop
the theory "all men are potentially rapists.")
Some men are afraid for women; some warn us to keep quiet
so as not to attract the rage of other men. Some send money
to the shelter and others arrange a discussion group for men
to work out their defensive responses. Many seem only to be
seeking our approval; instead of asking themselves and each
other what they can do to change, they are asking us to take
care of them.
"Aren't there any nice guys out there?," the handsome "everyman"
interviewer on CKVU-TV asks Bonnie. She gasps at the question,
but recovers in time to answer, "Well, one in four of us is
raped, and not all by the same man. About half the women living
with lovers are physically abused..." "Yes, but I'm asking you
to make a concession, to say that there are some good guys."
Why is this the central question for so many men? When
half the population is unfairly treated, how can the other half
be entirely innocent? It is true that not all men resort to
violence, but men as a group do profit from higher wages, better
jobs, less domestic work and more control over everything. In
this moment of candour, the anchor is asking Bonnie, and all
of us, to fudge the facts so he can feel more comfortable.
In The Globe and Mail, after the headline "Killer's letter
blames feminists," comes coverage of the vigils and the
political responses, and commentaries by Emit Sher and Diana
Bronson, along with an editorial that asks, "Why were women
in the gunsights?" The editorial goes on to state unequivocally
that "these executions emerge from a social context and cannot
be disowned." It even recognizes the events as a backlash against
"changes that are just and reasonable," and although there is
no credit or praise for feminists or the political movement
that has promoted these changes, the editorial does state, "the
arrogance of male dominance is to be found, naked and unashamed,
at the heart of our democratic system and in centres of higher
There is no call for affirmative action at Canadian universities,
or funding of university women's centres; neither is them a
demand for the reinstatement of NAC's funding, universal daycare,
equal pay or adequate federal funding for the work of rape crisis
centres and transition houses.
Emil Sher writes what women have been saying about "the
continuum of violence", repeating how individual men in various
ways avoid racing their contribution to it by their refusal
to talk about it with each other. His insistence that men
most talk "about how we can give back what was never ours" seems
appropriate but it still side steps the specifics. (Assume your
responsibility for the care of children, the sick and the elderly;
redistribute the 40 percent extra on your paycheck to women
until we achieve equality: be civil and supportive of one another,
stop bullying women and children and organize to get other men
to do this and lobby for women's movement demands.)
In another opinion piece, Diana Bronson evokes women's terrible
fear of men's violence. She is diverted from a central point:
these murders are not just expressions of the same misogyny
that women experience every day; they are the product of a vicious
new strain aimed at women who fight for women's rights - at
feminists. As does Stevie Cameron in her gut-wrenching piece
published the next day. Bronson omits to mention the value of
women's groups, rape crisis centres and shelters in assuaging
women's fear. When feminism is attacked, the first thing required
is a reaffirmation of feminism and its political groups. But
this does not happen in The Globe and Mail or anywhere else.
On "The Journal" tonight, Ann McGrath represents the National
Action Committee (NAC), the largest women's rights organization
in the country. McGrath is chair of NAC's Violence Against Women
subcommittee. She is not, however, invited to share her knowledge
and understanding of the issues sparked by the massacre. She
is, instead, interviewed as a victim, the survivor of a classroom
shooting in her high school. This story, the telling of which
brings her almost to tears, is all Barbara Frum wants us to
hear. "Are you permanently scarred by that event?: Does one
ever really recover?" she probes. Ann explains that she channels
her grief and anger into changing the world by contributing
her energy to NAC. It is the only political comment she is allowed.
Following the taping, McGrath says she is exhausted and
debilitated from defending feminists against the criticism that
we are exploiting this event for our own political ends. How
could we do differently, we wonder, without betraying ourselves,
our work and our responsibility to other women? How can we leave
it to the anti-feminist forces to define the event for us?
In Quebec, there is more of everything. More angry resistance
from men, more media sensationalism, more sympathetic columns,
but the character of the gender struggle is the same. La Presse
has run about a dozen statements denouncing the murders, some
from unions, one by the association of engineers, one written
jointly by the association of engineers, one written jointly
by the rape crisis centres and shelters of Quebec, which is
the only piece from the autonomous women's movement (their communique
gels equal billing with a press release from Hydro-Quebec).
La Presse has promised space to Madelaine Le Comb, past
president of the transition house association. But no, the
assistant editor explains in print, today he thinks, like Peter
Gzowski, that this is a time for mourning rather than opinion.
Feminist analysis, in his mind, counts as opinion rather than
Three months later, we still don't have all the facts about
the massacre. The media preemptorily closed the door on
the debate, but not before making sure that feminists were trivialized.
Feminists could express acceptance of the emotional consequences
of the massacre, but were not permitted to rail against it.
Feminists were honored as victims, but not respected as politicized
participants who could constructively shape the event's meaning.
There was some exploration of the environment of violence against
women that produced Lepine, but no examination of the anti-feminist
climate that created a political assassination.
Fifty years ago this year women won the vote in Quebec.
In that historic feminist struggle, no woman was murdered. For
feminists today, there is a before and after the Montreal massacre.