Brand building through storytelling

I didn’t want to write about the Montreal Massacre. Here’s why.

Last Sunday marked the 20th anniversary of a day that left its bloody imprint on every woman in this country—December 6, 1989. If you live in Canada and turned on the TV last Sunday—or opened a newspaper, or listened to the radio while driving to work—you were thinking of that day, when a gunman at Montreal’s l’ Ecole Polytechnique separated the female students and slaughtered 14 of them with an automatic rifle, shouting, “You’re all a bunch of feminists!” An embittered loner, he blamed women for his failure to hold a job or gain acceptance to the school.

I had forgotten that amid the carnage, one young woman cried out, “We are not feminists!” Twenty years later, Toronto Star columnist Catherine Porter tracked her down. “At the time I thought to be a feminist meant you had to be militant,” said Nathalie Provost, who was wounded that day along with 13 other survivors. “I realized many years later that in my life and actions, of course I was a feminist. I was a woman studying engineering and I held my head up.”

Nathalie Provost has four children, two of them daughters. Part of her mission as a mother is reminding her girls they can be anything they want to be. That’s the world-expanding gift of feminism. I’ve always been proud to call myself a feminist. Yet at the same time, I’ve always been conscious of the hostility some people feel toward the very idea that feminism still matters in forward-looking countries like ours. And to have an honest conversation about the Montreal Massacre, you simply must face that reality.

Soon after the killings, Flare magazine asked me for an essay on their meaning to women. There were many who dismissed the shooting spree as the act of a madman. I saw it as the far extreme of attitudes that threaten women in their own neighbourhoods and bedrooms. Yes, even women like me. I didn’t want to think about that, but I’ve learned that the stories I most resist telling are the ones I most need to tell. I wrote the essay. Most readers applauded, but the magazine’s editor was hauled on the carpet for running it.

Rereading my piece, I’m struck by its relevance today. Plenty of people still insist the massacre has been blown out of proportion. Writes Globe and Mail columnist Margaret Wente (an old friend of mine, by the way): “In the narrative of the Montreal massacre, the students were killed for being feminists—for daring to pursue their dream. That’s true, as far as it goes. But this narrative also implies that the rage of Marc Lepine reflected the rage of ordinary men embittered by seeing women get ahead. That’s a misandrist slur.” Okay, everyone. What do the rest of you think?


Posted by Rona

Previously posted comments:

Janet Madsen
December 10, 2009 at 9:09AM

I was a student in Montreal at the time of the Montreal Massacre. At one point in the week afterwards, I was in the weight room at the Y, and heard a conversation between some men talking about Lepine’s act in not so hushed tones. One of them said, “Well, you can understand it…” I was shocked. I was the only woman in the weight room at the time, and I felt really uncomfortable, to say the least. I don’t think that Lepine represented all men, but I felt at that moment that he certainly represented more than I felt comfortable with.

Rona Maynard
December 10, 2009 at 9:09 AM

Janet, I remember other comments like that one. It was reported in the press that a Montreal cabby said, “I could understand if it was his wife cheating on him or a woman giving him a hard time, but he didn’t even know them.” I like to think it’s less acceptable for a man to voice that kind of sentiment today, but I’ve been wrong before.

Deb Pascoe
December 12, 2009 at 1:01PM

People saying anti-feminist sentiment is rare these days is like saying racism is rare. People may not be as casually, out-loud anti- as they once might have been, but that doesn’t mean they aren’t thinking it. The fact that people can say, “Well, you can kind of understand that intense hatred” proves we’re not as enlightened as we like to think we are.

December 13, 2009 at 5:05AM

Neither anti-feminism nor racism is rare, but both have been driven underground now into (slightly) more subtle, and I am afraid, more pernicious forms.

Although I do wonder, when people say “I understand” about such acts of violent hatred, are they voicing approval or rather acknowledging anger exists? Anger can occur without horrific action taken on it.

I have awful thoughts at times but would never act upon them. If I thereby venture to say “I understand” about powerful rage am I endorsing in some way an angry act? I would certainly not have that intent by so stating.

Rona Maynard
December 13, 2009 at 9:09 AM

Deb, while I admire your ability to consider several possible meanings of “I understand” instead of leaping to judgment, I do have to judge the guys in question. The killer was angry about his rejection (twice) by the Polytechnique, yet it was only female students he set out to murder.

ruth pennebaker
December 16, 2009 at 7:07AM

I’d love to see the essay, but the link doesn’t work for me, Rona.

Rona Maynard
December 16, 2009 at 9:09 AM

Eek! Just fixed the link. My apologies.

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