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  • Demonstrators hold portraits of victims of the Montreal Massacre during the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Ottawa, December 2011.

    Demonstrators hold portraits of victims of the Montreal Massacre during the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Ottawa, December 2011. | Photo: Reuters

According to an Abacus poll published this year, 53 percent of all women and 82 percent of young women have experienced sexual harassment.

Twenty-eight years ago, on December 6, 1989, Canada experienced one of the greatest national tragedies in its history. As students were finishing their final day of classes at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec, a man walked in wielding a Ruger Mini-14 submachine rifle.

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After separating the male professor and students from the women, Marc Lepine went on a killing spree that claimed the lives of 14 females while wounding 10 other women and four men. He killed himself shortly afterward.

Lepine's words made his intentions in what remains Canada's worst mass shooting all too clear: "You're all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists."

It was soon discovered that the killer was intent on murdering women – any women – including those whom he had never met. His hit list cited a range of notable Quebec women, all of whom were described as private targets in his misogynistic campaign of mass murder.

December 6 henceforth became the National Day of Commemoration and Action against Violence Against Women. The 1989 massacre was cited by feminists as an extreme example of the violence women are forced to deal with daily, becoming a rallying cry against gender-based brutality.

The Rape Law was strengthened, while the Parliamentary Committee on the Status of Women issued a report blasting male intimate partner violence and macho attacks on women's rights, entitled "War on Women."

Speaking from Guangzhou in China, Canadian Prime Minister John Trudeau took part in a candle-lighting ceremony Wednesday at the Canadian Consulate to honor the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

Trudeau noted how such a "senseless and hateful act of violence" was a "devastating reminder of what can happen when hatred and misogyny prevail," stressing the need for more to be done to prevent gender-based violence.

"That means valuing the voices of women and girls, fighting the injustices and inequalities that put the most vulnerable women at the greatest risk of violence, and breaking down a culture that dismisses women's worth – from Hollywood studios to the halls of Parliament," he said.

But such problems still loom large in Canada, and beyond. According to an Abacus poll published this year, 53 percent of all women and 82 percent of young women have experienced sexual harassment. Among Indigenous women, women of color and disabled women, those citing sexual harassment polled much higher. In Ontario alone, 32 women have been murdered by their intimate partners so far this year.

"After almost 50 years of feminism, patriarchy and its most powerful tools – misogyny and gender-based violence – are still alive and well," said notable feminist and author Judy Rebick in a blog published on Rabble. 

"If we had any doubt, a look south of the border (at the U.S.) will confirm that, but there is a massive uprising against powerful men abusing women, and that is something new and important."

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Canada's leaders in the fight for women's rights are becoming increasingly assertive, evidenced by the platform of the Quebec Federation of Women. Encompassing 300 feminist groups, it hopes to "deconstruct and eliminate patriarchy and all the other systems of oppression or domination with which it is intertwined, such as capitalism, racism, imperialism, heterosexism, colonialism."

In Montreal, about two dozen people held a somber reflection on the events of 1989 early Wednesday near a plaque at the Polytechnique commemorating the victims of the massacre.

"It's with the presence of those women and all the women who were in engineering before us that we're able to study," said industrial engineering student Blanche Mageau-Beland after the ceremony, The Canadian Press reported. "They're the women who cleared the path."

The morning commemoration kicked off a day of events marking the somber 28-year-anniversary, which advocates hope can bring increased attention to pervasive attitudes against women.

The school's very first female civil engineering graduate, Michele Thibodeau-Deguire, witnessed the aftermath of the shooting, when the scene was spontaneously flooded with white roses.

"It was something that came out; people just wanted to show how they felt," Thibodeau-Deguire, now head of the school's board of directors, said. "And every year, white roses were brought here at the door of Polytechnique."

Ongoing memorials include awarding an annual scholarship to a female engineering student, and selling white roses to help fund a science camp for girls from underprivileged neighborhoods. "From something horrible, something beautiful came out," said Thibodeau-Deguire.


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