Botterell: Massacre opens eyes to different ways women experience the world

December 12, 2014

By Professor Andrew Botterell

Among the many repeating events listed on my computer’s calendar, two are of particular salience to me. One is a cause for celebration; the other for sadness.

The first event is the Persons Case, which was decided on Oct. 18, 1929. The Persons Case – more formally, Edwards v Canada (Attorney General), [1930] AC 124 – concerns the ‘Famous Five,’ who won for women the right to be appointed to the Canadian Senate.

The second event is the Montreal Massacre, which occurred on Dec. 6, 1989.

Late on that December afternoon, news began trickling in about a shooting at the École Polytechnique, an engineering school affiliated with the Université de Montréal. Initially, there were sketchy and unconfirmed reports of shots being fired. It was subsequently confirmed that there had indeed been deaths as a result of the shootings. And finally, it was revealed that the dead were all women, and the shooter, Marc Lépine, had apparently targeted female students in particular.

In the wake of the shootings, the media suggested either that Lépine was insane, or that he had deliberately targeted women. And many were prepared to conclude that, since he was clearly crazy, it had to follow the gender of his victims didn’t matter.

But both at the time and in retrospect, this was a false choice.

Marc Lépine was clearly a very troubled young man. But he was also a very troubled young man who had deliberately targeted and murdered women. Indeed, something more was true: not only had he deliberately targeted and murdered women, he had specifically singled out those whom he believed to be feminists. His aim, in other words, was to kill women whom he perceived to be feminists, and who were pursuing studies in the field of engineering.

At the time of the Montreal Massacre, I was a third-year undergraduate studying Philosophy at McGill University. I had just turned 21 and considered myself a liberal and right-thinking young person. I had many close female friends, and believed, despite minor differences in our respective upbringings, or the fact some of us were interested in biochemistry, while others were interested in Milton, that we shared more or less the same concerns and experiences. The Montreal Massacre changed all that.

For many of my close female friends, it was a galvanizing experience, confirming what they had long suspected – that among some people, women and feminists were not only disliked, but hated. It made me realize the ways in which I encountered and engaged with the world were fundamentally different from what my female friends experienced on a daily basis. That realization has never left me.

I don’t think about the Montreal Massacre often. And I don’t remember a lot about that day, except the overwhelming sense of anger, despair and sadness that enveloped my friends and me. I do remember making our way over the mountain to the École Polytechnique that evening, or the next, and walking silently with others, holding candles, in memory of the 14 women who had been murdered.

Still, every 6th of December, I do my best to reflect on that awful day.

The Montreal Massacre reminds me that hatred of women and feminists is genuine; that it is not absurd to think, in many ways, women inhabit a different world from men; and that 25 years after the massacre we – and especially those of us involved in university education – must continue to nurture the aspirations of women to participate fully in society, and to confront, in ways both large and small, those who might try to prevent that from happening.

I don’t want to say if we do that, the 14 women murdered at the École Polytechnique will not have died in vain, because that would not be true. They died in a particularly pointless and horrific way. But we owe it to them to support women, listen to them and take their experiences seriously.

If we do that we will go some way towards ensuring what happened in Montreal on Dec. 6, 1989, will remain a terrible outlier.

Andrew Botterell is an associate professor jointly appointed to the Department of Philosophy and the Faculty of Law. His primary teaching and research interests are in philosophy of law, with particular emphasis on tort, criminal law and metaphysics.