Twenty years ago today…
I was a first-year student in a Quebec university. Early in the evening of December 6, 1989, I had a class in the 7 to 10 pm slot, and that was where I must have heard about the Polytechnique massacre. I don’t remember exactly how I first heard, maybe on the radio, where details were emerging in snippets of panic and disbelief. A man shot a bunch of students, then himself, in a classroom? This was years before classrooms were to become familiar but still outrageous sites of bullets and blood, and the intense shock of the Polytechnique aftermath drove my spirit into hiding, just as I suspect it did for other women students of my age. Anglophone that I was, it took me several days to even piece together that the École Polytechnique was the engineering faculty of the Université de Montréal.
When Polytechnique the movie was released in early 2009, I made a point to see it through in a movie theatre and address the residues of that shock. There were four of us sitting in the seats when it started, and only my friend and I were left by the time it was over. Harrowing, shot in black and white, and not overly graphic, Polytechnique is a sober film that deals with composite characters and documented facts. I’m glad someone had the courage to make it, if only to serve as an archival piece about what happened on December 6, 1989.
The stress, styrofoam coffee cups, typical 80s music and informal group study sessions of university exam periods felt very familiar; there were no cellphones, iPods, laptops, or PowerPoint presentations – just textbooks, course notes and acetates shown on overhead projectors. There may have been a few of those funny convex mirrors posted at blind corners, just so students could avoid head-on collisions. The photocopy machines were always busy. Knowing that this scene would soon be interrupted by multiple shooting deaths was almost unbearable.
One of the most heartbreaking moments was when one girl from the classroom group sequestered by the murderer protested his labelling them as feminists. She shouted “we are not feminists, we’re just living a normal life!” And that was when he sprayed the group with a hail of bullets, and they all fell. But it was true, they’re weren’t really feminists. Even young women engineering students of the time, a very small minority among the young men, didn’t consider themselves feminists, or trailblazers of any kind. The trail had been blazed already, you’d have been crazy to pretend you were a pioneer of women’s rights by entering any professional degree program in 1989. Anyways, we had to study hard; there was no time to learn about feminist history or gender theory. Apparently we didn’t even have time for the basics back then, we were in such a rush to fend off the competition and earn a cherished spot in a professional program or a plum internship – and unless blatant discrimination was being applied, the most serious competition was from the perfectionist drive of the other women students.
I didn’t have the same excuse, however. In the fall of 1989, I was studying literature; this was before I reoriented my study program to focus on sciences, with the goal of studying veterinary or human medicine. And in early December 1989 I was reading The Diviners, a classic novel in Canadian literature that carries a good description of what life was like for women before women’s rights were part of the landscape. One day in class we were discussing the novel, which intrigued me, but I didn’t really know what to make of it, the constant setbacks and impossibly contentious roads chosen by Morag were incomprehensible to me. My sole comment on the novel in class: “Well, she doesn’t seem very happy, does she?” I offered that up with a mix of contempt for this woman who couldn’t find her way in life, who had difficult relationships with the people closest to her, and self-satisfaction because I wasn’t a feminist, and thus rejected struggle and wilfull unhappiness.
After the class, Charles, a senior student, came straight over to where I was sitting. From his severely receded hairline and grayish temples it was obvious that Charles was older than most of us; his contributions to class discussions put the rest of ours to shame because he had the authority of personal experience to back up his opinions. He looked me square in the eyes and said “you don’t know much about the history of women, do you?” I’m not sure what I said in reply to that, perhaps I didn’t say anything at all and just looked at him with my best deer-in-the-headlights face. He gave me a very brief but pointed description of what life had been like for women in Quebec prior to the Quiet Revolution, that Canadian women had been severely limited in their personal and professional choices until something like the mid-1970s, and ended his speech by suggesting that I open my eyes and ears for the stories I wouldn’t hear from my contemporaries.
I was mildly insulted, but his words worked on me, and in the years ahead, I did pay attention to history, to what older women said when they talked about about their lives, and to the experiences of older generations. I learned about how women in Quebec had been valued for their ability to bear vast numbers of children, and that as soon as they were no longer obliged to do so, they threw off the yoke of the Church of Perpetual Childbearing and mobilised an entire society to sweeping changes – changes that were enacted while I was a child and which my generation accepted as our birthright by the time we entered university. Did we imagine that if things hadn’t always been that easy, they couldn’t have been all that different?
Last year during a symposium at the Ontario Veterinary College on women in veterinary medicine, I learned that in 1972, Title IX legislation in the United States led to a massive inpouring of women students in veterinary medicine and other professional programs. It was such a vast and sweeping change that from one year to the next somewhere in the mid-1970s, there were more graduating women veterinarians in a single year than there had been in all the years taken together since veterinary programs were first created in the late 19th century. I don’t know if Canada had to enact similar legislation, but the same sweeping changes occurred here and in other countries on the heels of that major piece of feminist-inspired legislation.
By the time I entered vet college in 1995, 75% of my classmates were girls, in a profession that had once seen women excluded on the basis that we were too delicate and sensitive to study anatomy and perform many of the tasks vets had to perform. I still have a hard time imagining which ones, because I’ve done most of them, a few times with men standing helpless at my side. I’ve seen men turn a whiter shade of pale at the sight of blood and smell of pus; sights and smells that to me signal nothing more than a problem to solve.
Animal medicine has sometimes been a disappointment to me, as I’ve seen how often we use the bodies of animals as means to our own ends, with perfect callousness – as a kind of mirror to the way women were treated for so long. On the other hand, I wake up most days excited about the knowledge and skills I was allowed to learn, and couldn’t imagine my life without them.
For me, that’s been the experience of living a normal life. Too many women in different times and places have been prevented from living anything I’d consider resembling a normal life, and 14 women engineering students in 1989 were prevented from living their lives at all. It’s not ideological to observe that it was due to a young man’s anger and frustration at feminism (plus the easy availability of an automatic weapon) that women were slaughtered on December 6, 1989. It’s not the fault of feminist “ideology” that other women have pointed out that violence against women is almost uniquely carried out by angry and frustrated men; it’s not ideological to draw incredibly obvious parallels between December 6 and violence against women in homes and around the world.
Sometimes it just takes several years of personal and collective experience, while paying attention to history, to accept these hard facts.
As for myself, I finally learned to credit feminism with allowing me to live a normal life. And yes, I am a feminist, for as long as it will take.