Thursday, 6th December 2018
29 years ago today. I remember. 14 women dead, 15 injured, plus suicides reported after the massacre, directly tied to the stress of these events. I was teaching at Trent, in Peterborough, and the news of the murders in Montreal absolutely crushed everyone I knew, and me too. It’s hard to imagine today, when there are so many massacres in the US and there’s a clear public script for reactions, and they are forgotten almost as fast as they happen. We had no script back then. “Thoughts and prayers” were more like “obsessive black nightmares and crying”. We didn’t package and market the killers with brands like “incel”, which this killer surely was. Today, when this sort of thing happens, it’s almost like a TV movie – those directly affected are devastated, but the rest of the country watches it like another episode of a dystopian futurist anthology show. Like citizen-coroners, we have to learn to put it all in its place, to observe the slaughter with detached objectivity, if for no other reason than to keep our sanity intact, but also so that we could analyze the latest case and compare it to others, make them all into statistics illustrated with catchy graphics.
None of this was available in Canada in December of 1989. We had no script, we weren’t prepared. We were children. It left scars, even on those of us who only viewed it from a distance – I can only imagine what effect it had on those in Montreal that day, or those at École Polytechnique.
This was, in some sense, a turning point in the Canadian discussion about gun rights, although a contested one to this day. There is not a gun registry in Canada today – it almost happened, but a Conservative government quashed it. Canada does not have a Second Amendment, or anything like it, so the discussion over guns isn’t a discussion over fundamental rights to bear arms. Instead, it is a discussion about effectiveness of measures, and procedures, and government surveillance. And, registration and restriction of various forms of firearms had a long history in Canada, long before 1989. There are those in Canada who try to make guns into a symbol of something, but for most they continue to be viewed more like a car, that is, a tool that has its uses but can also be dangerous, and therefore needs to be controlled.
As a result, in the aftermath of the Montreal Massacre, the discussion was less about abolishing guns, and more about gender violence. The male killer made it easy for this to be the focus by explicitly separating out women, murdering only women, and making the claim that women had ruined his life. Today is National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, also known informally as White Ribbon Day. This was inaugurated by an act of Parliament in 1991. Can you imagine in the US having memorial days like this for massacres? Every day would be a memorial day. Can you imagine, further, a day of remembrance not just of this horrendous event but to think about violence against women of any sort, including domestic violence, partner violence, and all of it? To have such a remembrance would be to admit that the millions of acts of violence are not just all individual, isolated, one-off acts that have nothing to do with structure or power on larger scale, and don’t implicate all of us. What a concept.
I always remember this day, maybe because I saw the effects not far away from Montreal, at Trent. I went into the class the next morning, not sure how to handle it. It was a philosophy of religion class, 8:30 in the morning. I hardly said anything and half the room burst into tears. This was an open, raw wound, not just something that happened to someone else but not me thank God. This was something like PTSD. I didn’t turn it into a teaching moment – it was closer to something like pastoral care, without using those terms.
I think of that time every time there’s a new episode of this dystopian futurist anthology show here in the US. Every time people minimize questions of violence against women, and these days I add to that violence against blacks (yes, black lives really do matter, except not in our public discourse, and not enough to see that the constant murders are anything other than isolated events by bad apples), and violence against Muslims, and all the other sorts of violence that just don’t matter like those women’s lives mattered to everyone around me on the days after that horrible event. They mattered. It’s why we say their names, not the name of the murderer.