Each of us remembers exactly where we were the night of Dec. 6, 1989, when we heard that a gunman had killed 14 women at Montreal's L'École Polytechnique. The shooter, 25-year-old Marc Lépine, armed with a semi-automatic rifle, his rage fuelled by a hatred of feminists whom he blamed for his failure to be admitted to the university, then turned his rifle on himself. I heard the news on the radio as I drove home from this newspaper after a day of work; I pulled over in shock and wept. My two daughters were students just like these girls.
The next morning in the newsroom, everyone felt as I did. Men and women. And so did men and women across the country. If there were anything good about this horror, it was that it united a country in grief and forced us to deal with the issue of violence against women.
Dec. 6 is now a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Memorial services will take place across the country in cities, towns and villages, in universities and colleges, in churches and community centres, in hospitals and legislatures, in libraries and parks.
For a long time, we believed these murders, heartbreaking as they were, had changed our country for the better. Men suddenly got it. Many became activists in the struggle to end violence against women. And as a direct result of demands from the public, Parliament passed a law requiring people to register their rifles and shotguns, making it easier to trace the owners and more difficult to obtain the weapons.
But events of the past few years are worrying. Had we really absorbed the lessons of Dec. 6, 1989? Just look at Vancouver's 69 missing women, most of whom lived in Canada's national disgrace, the city's Downtown Eastside. Robert Pickton was charged with killing 27 of them, but a judge saw fit to let him stand trial on only six counts of murder, leaving the families of the rest to lose faith in our justice system. Although Mr. Pickton was found guilty, the Supreme Court will hear his appeal, based on the trial judge's instructions to the jury, in March.
The Pickton case exposed the tragedy of a desperate community that, to this day, still has only six detox beds at the Salvation Army for women trying to kick their habit, with no place to go afterward for rehabilitation. So they leave the building and go back to the street, selling sex to buy another fix.
Getting killed on Mr. Pickton's farm was just the last act of violence these women suffered. As children and adolescents, most endured rape, beatings, a cascade of foster homes, bad boyfriends otherwise known as pimps, vicious dealers, slum housing, indifferent care. Yet, they had survived to create a community of people who loved them, whether they were the pals at the drop-in or the street nurses who mended their ravaged bodies or the church ladies who fed them. Their neat little bedrooms in the slum hotels were papered with pictures of their children. What those of us who worked on this story learned is that everyone cared far too late.
Then there are the 18 women who disappeared or were killed along Highway 16 - "the highway of tears" - between Prince George and Prince Rupert in northern British Columbia. There are other cases of missing and murdered women in Edmonton and Winnipeg. It gets worse. We are now seeing what may be honour killings by Islamic fundamentalists who insist on controlling the lives of their daughters. Aqsa Parvez, a high-school student from a Muslim family in Mississauga, Ont., was strangled three years ago after her father allegedly threatened to kill her for adopting Western tastes. Both her father and brother have been charged with first-degree murder.
And then there is the shameful example of the teenage girls in Bountiful, B.C., who are given to older men who have many wives, men who pick out the cutest girls and take them to their beds. When boys become teenagers, most are pushed out, left on the side of roads to fend for themselves, ensuring there is no competition for these plump, chuckling men who want these girls all for themselves. Prosecutors refused to touch these cases for years; when one finally tried and succeeded, the case was thrown out because a judge said the province's attorney-general had deliberately chosen a prosecutor who would lay charges. Of course he did. Why shouldn't he?
Now, 20 years after the Montreal massacre, our parliamentarians are planning to dismantle a law that was passed - because of the massacre in Montreal - to protect women. Is it such a big deal to register a gun? Is it too much to ask in memory of these women who died in panic and horror? Dec. 6 had taught men that real machismo was ending violence against women, not whining about filling out a form.
Have we forgotten?
Stevie Cameron is a journalist and author.
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