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(There is one more entry in the series, In pursuit of justice, and I will post the conclusion to those thoughts and observations a little later in the week. For today, December 6, 2009, I wanted to acknowledge the 20th anniversary of the murder of 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montreal.)

In 1989, I was writing a feminist column for The Daily News in Halifax. As I read those columns 20 years later, I am disheartened to find that too much has not changed, that many of the columns are as relevant today as they were when I wrote them.

Case in point: This column was first published on Sunday, December 10, 1989. The only changes I’ve made today are in square brackets or are added links.

On Thursday morning, distinguished lawyer and former MP George Cooper made a little joke on CBC Radio’s Information Morning. He was discussing the recent NDP leadership convention with host Don Connolly and panel mates Dale Godsoe and Ray Larkin when he decided to use a colourful comparison to express his opinion about some aspect of the race.

It’s a good news/bad news sort of situation, he said, like that old joke about your mother-in-law driving over a cliff — trouble is, she was in your brand new Cadillac at the time. I believe I detected some laughter from the others and I’d be interested to know whether the CBC switchboard lit up with outraged callers, the way it does when someone says a rude word on the air. Somehow I doubt it.

In my household, we sat in stunned disbelief, hearing a joke which would be in poor taste at the best of times but was absolutely scandalous being told and snickered at the morning after the murder of 14 women at the University of Montreal.

It wasn’t the only joke being told that day. Francine Pelletier, a Montreal feminist who was interviewed extensively on the TV coverage of the murders, said that men in the corridors at Radio-Canada were treating the massacre in a most light-hearted way, one of them remarking, “I’ve often wanted to do that myself.”

At around the same time, a young friend of mine was walking into Tim Horton’s to buy some doughnuts. There were two men in front of her carrying a newspaper with a screaming headline about the murdered women and one of the men said something along the lines of, “way to go, buddy.”

Her friends asked her how she handled this awful moment; most of them felt, bravely, that they wished they’d been there. In retrospect, we can all come up with the enviable line, the cutting quip, the perfect putdown.

She said nothing, of course. There are few women — including me — who could respond to those men. Such verbal violence is part of what renders women powerless, unable to act, not so much from fear as from emptiness, from the debilitation that results from crying out for so long and not being heard.

I’ve been told so often — all feminists have — to lighten up, to learn to take a joke. They don’t really mean anything by it, you know. This week, finally, I’ve been told by men — among others, by Peter Gzowski [the late host of CBC Radio's Morningside] and his panel on the radio, by Tom Regan [a former columnist with The Daily News] on the phone, by my husband at home — that it is time for them to do something about their violent brothers.

They know now that they must begin listening to women and they must refuse — loudly — to listen to the dehumanizing “jokes” that so many of them allow to slip by. They must disdain the views of those who keep saying that the carnage in Montreal was an isolated act carried out by a madman.

They must examine and be willing to change their political, economic and judicial systems, all of which conspire to keep women in positions of dependence. They must observe their sons — their vocabularies, the games they play, the way they’re learning to deal with anger, the things they say about little girls. They must stop undermining the mothers and, once and for all, lay to rest that age-old excuse that “boys will be boys.”

They must not simply be available to provide protection; they must work actively to create a safer world, where their sisters and daughters and mothers can live with the same sense of security that brothers, sons and fathers take for granted. They must recognize and acknowledge that the 14 women in Montreal are only the most recent to die at the hands of a man, that in 1987, almost 70 per cent of women murdered in our country were murdered by the men they lived with.

One of the buttons we brought back from the Winnipeg NDP convention — where I saw the joy and exhilaration on the faces of the women who had worked to elect Audrey McLaughlin as their leader — bears the slogan “Men of quality are not threatened by women seeking equality.” The words seem almost horrible in their irony this week but the message remains true.

And so it’s time to take another step forward, to convince men that violence against women is the fault of men and — to resurrect an old phrase — if they’re not part of the solution, they’re part of the problem.

6 Responses

  1. #1
    Wilf Day 

    I was a school trustee at the time. The massacre was in the early evening of a Wednesday. Our regular board meeting was Thursday evening.

    On Thursday morning at 10:02AM the Quebec National Assembly had convened. The Premier had declared three days of mourning, with flags at half-mast on all government buildings.

    Thursday afternoon at 1:40PM the Ontario legislature had observed one minutes’ silence. No days of mourning. No half-mast flag. The House adjourned at 6:08PM.

    We 15 trustees, part-timers paid $8,000 per year, met at 7:30PM. We had briefly discussed informally the different levels of response. We unanimously felt ashamed of the difference. We unanimously passed a motion to lower all flags at our schools to half-mast the next morning.

    The next morning some principals objected. The Ministry of Education had a policy on when to lower flags at schools. It did not mention Montreal students. Faced with an unprecedented event, they asked for precedent.

    One woman trustee phoned the rest of us to alert us. We all left our jobs and went to our respective local schools and made sure the flags were lowered.

    Twenty years later I am still proud of us 15 trustees.

  2. #2

    Thanks for this post, Sharon. It’s excellent. Sharing!

  3. #3

    Thanks for re-cycling this meaningful article, Sharon.

  4. #4
    Margaret Davis 

    Sadly, still relevant. And beautifully written, as always.

  5. #5
    Bonnie (Morrison) Arnold 

    I so enjoy receiving your newsletters…..keep them coming.
    What a way with words and thoughts.

  6. #6
    Jim Hill 


    I happened on your site quite accidentally while searching for something completly unrelated.

    Your account of walking in on a burglary at your home was facinating. While I was still a policeman I could only wish for
    a witness/victim that was able to remain as calm and have the presence of mind to think like a future witness.

    Regarding the “Montreal massacre” you mentioned a comment made by someone at a Tim Hortons. A suitable response would be “obviously your sister was not a student there.”

    I think more should be made of the fact that the killer’s name was originally Gamil Garbi and that his mother, a former Catholic nun, was regularly beaten by her Algerian businessman husband, a Muslim who believed that women were chattel and nothing more. These beatings also extended to Marc Lepine as he is now known.

    For over 20 years now there have been annual memorials for these victims. I find it strange that the Bluebird fire and its victims are never mentioned. We lost three Maritime girls in that arson along with the multitude of others killed or horribly burned and scarred in numbers far beyond the 14 killed by Gamil Garbi. The Canada/Russia hockey series of 72 pushed the fire off the front pages in a hurry.

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