Nathalie Provost searches in English for the words to describe how she deals with the memory of that day, 25 years ago, and falls back on her mother tongue: "J'ai planté des fleurs." I planted flowers.
On Dec. 6, her memories are with the 14 classmates who died in the slaughter at the École Polytechnique, women who were murdered for the crime of being women. Ms. Provost was 23 years old, an eager engineering student, when the gunman burst into her school, separated the men from the women, and, screaming about feminists, began to shoot. She tried to reason with him, and he shot her.
Every Dec. 6, the country stops to remember, but for her, the day is personal. So she's planted flowers – metaphorical flowers, to grow over a metaphorical wound. One year, she waited until that day to take her pregnancy test. (It was positive.) Another of her children learned to walk on Dec. 6.
Ms. Provost is a patron of the new Order of the White Rose scholarship, a $30,000 grant for female engineering students. She herself became a successful engineer, an executive, a manager of men and women. "It was my way of saying 'Ha ha' to Marc Lépine. You didn't get me."
She's a critic of the Conservative government's gun-control policies, and a supporter of Quebec's fight to keep its data from the long-gun registry. On the day we speak, La Presse has just reported that the Ruger Mini-14, the gun used to murder her classmates, is easily available in the province. Over the phone from Montreal, she sucks in a deep breath and says, "I am so angry."
But, a moment later, she is philosophical, a woman trying to improve the future, and not be overwhelmed by the past. "We cannot stay always in darkness. Life is already tough. If we stay in guilt, if we stay with sadness, if we remain angry, we cannot realize our dream. In order to realize our dream, to go forward, we have to grow flowers, even in dirty lands."
This is an oddly difficult message to hear when the land still seems so dirty. It's not just only on Dec. 6 that I feel a simmering rage about the violence that continues to rain down on women and children in this country. She's right, though: Many flowers have been planted in the name of the Montreal Massacre. You just have to look for them.
Or listen for them. "The day he was supposed to move out was the day he tried to take my life," says Phyllis John, emotion colouring her voice nearly a year after her abusive partner tried to hack her to death with a knife in their Toronto apartment. She was getting an egg from the fridge when he attacked her. The thought of her two sons, 15 and 18, who had just left for school, gave her strength to fight. She managed to flee to a neighbour's; her partner threw himself off the balcony from the 21st floor.
Her struggles should have ended there, but didn't. "It's one thing to survive such an experience but it hurts in a different place, the battle I fight right now to survive," says Ms. John. She hasn't had a job since the attack. She can't make her rent. Like many women who flee abuse, she found herself financially strapped, unable to support herself and her sons. The landlord wrote threatening letters.
That's when she found out about the YWCA of Toronto's December 6 Fund. It provides microloans to women who, like Ms. John, have suffered abuse and are trying to get back on their feet. The $750 loan, which she intends to repay, helped her with November's rent.
She's not sure what she'll do this month. She finds herself thinking endlessly about Zahra Abdille, the Toronto nurse who was killed last week in an apartment along with her two sons, and who was also in an abusive relationship. (Ms. Abdille's husband's body was found shortly after those of his family members, at the bottom of a bridge.) "That could have been me," says Ms. John. "That's why I have to keep telling my story."
She's frustrated by the lack of support for women like her, who manage to escape. Having worked her whole life, she's now reliant on social assistance, and the one-time help of the YWCA fund.
"No woman wants to sit in her house being pounded, having her self-esteem pulled down bit by bit. Why would she choose to stay? You have to give her an option [to leave] that is viable and tangible, where she doesn't have to beg and borrow and go from food bank to food bank, feeling more disempowered even than when she was with the abuser. If these things don't change, then we will continue to have people like me, and that unfortunate sister who didn't even get to tell her story."
This week, the YWCA's fund was bolstered by a $1-million donation from the Ruby family, in honour of their mother Julia, a long-time advocate of women's issues. They'll be matching all donations made until the end of January. It's just one of the flowers; there are many others to look for today, while we remember.