On Dec. 6, for the 31st year in a row, Canada will pause and remember one of the most horrifying tragedies in our modern history, when a misogynist killer took the lives of 14 young women at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. He took their lives because they were women.
Because They Were Women is the title of a compelling new book about the Montreal Massacre, written by journalist Josée Boileau and newly translated into English. As well as being a touching portrait of the 14 women who were murdered, Ms. Boileau’s book illuminates the social and political upheaval in Quebec after the shooting, specifically around the question of whether it was the work of a madman, or the manifestation of a belief system that held women and girl’s lives to be of little value.
Even though the killer explicitly told his victims that he hated feminists, and a letter outlining other feminists he wished to kill was found after his death, people bent over backwards to deny any broader implication in his murderous actions. As Ms. Boileau writes, “Experts, commentators, the vast majority of elected officials and many members of the public – not just men – plead for [Marc] Lépine’s act not to be overinvested with meaning.”
Thirty years later, this desire to look away from the root causes of gendered violence is still killing women. Not metaphorically, but literally. As I write this, an inquiry is set to start into the April mass murders around Portapique, N.S. – a bloody rampage that began with an act of domestic violence, committed by a man whose previous acts of domestic violence had reportedly been ignored by police. (For background: A Bloomberg investigation earlier this year revealed that 60 per cent of U.S. mass shootings between 2014 and 2019 either were domestic violence attacks or were perpetrated by men with a history of domestic violence.)
In Toronto, where I live, a courtroom is hearing evidence in the case of Alek Minassian, who has pleaded not guilty to 10 charges of first-degree murder and 16 of attempted murder in a 2018 van attack. Mr. Minassian, in his early interviews with police, talked about being influenced by the online world of incels, a woman-hating subgroup that has been known to celebrate misogynist killers such as Marc Lépine. At his trial, there’s been conflicting evidence about the extent to which the incel ideology controlled his thinking – but it also heard that Mr. Minassian would “target women between the ages of 18 and 30” if he were to do it again.
I see these connections. Scholars who study violence against women and the advocates in the field who work with victims of physical and psychological abuse see these connections. They also know that there are solutions to the epidemic of gendered violence in this country, if we had the will and fortitude to act on them.
What if we treated this epidemic of violence like the public health crisis it is, recognizing that the difficult work of implementing solutions in the short run will reap incredible rewards in the future? The country’s response to COVID-19, shaky and fractured as it has sometimes been, shows us the way.
But first it involves recognizing a crisis, as we did with COVID-19. As it stands now, we treat acts of violence against women as discrete incidents, unconnected to each other, rather than as part of a belief system that still treats some lives as less valuable than others. This is nowhere more evident than in the infuriating declaration of various police forces across the country that there is “no risk to the public” after a man takes the life of his partner and then kills himself. The mindset that drove that man to believe he had a right to take another human life did not die with him. Of course there’s still a risk to the public – or the half that are women and girls, anyway.
If we did have the guts to get serious about gendered violence, solutions are out there. The federal government could implement a National Action Plan on Violence Against Women as a way of building fair, equitable and universal protections to women across the country. It could actually do something about the recommendations of the Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, long after advocacy groups have thrown up their hands in exasperation. It could bring forward the gun-control legislation that PolySeSouvient, a coalition of Polytechnique survivors, is asking for.
More broadly, our schools could begin to take seriously the need to teach children about consent and healthy relationships from a very young age, and de-politicize this aspect of curriculum. Public-education campaigns in workplaces and schools could list the red flags of domestic violence, in order to protect vulnerable colleagues. We could broaden our antiquated ideas about gendered violence away from broken bones and black eyes to include psychological abuse, coercion and the use of technology to control partners.
Not that we should forget about broken bones: A newly released report from Women’s Shelters Canada reveals the toll that COVID-19 has taken. At the beginning of the lockdowns, women found it difficult to flee their abusers; as lockdowns eased and they returned to shelters, workers noticed an escalation in the severity of violence they were reporting – more broken bones, more strangulation, more sexual violence.
Even if these stories don’t make headlines, the violence is still there. If this year has taught us anything, it’s our ability to work collectively to end a public health crisis. But we have to open our eyes first.
Keep your Opinions sharp and informed. Get the Opinion newsletter. Sign up today.