Tue, Apr

Gender Terror.  Remembering the 1989 Montreal Massacre


ACCORDING TO LIZ - One of the worst mass shootings of the 20th century in North America didn’t happen in the United States. 

It happened in Montréal on December 6, 1989 when 25-year old Marc Lépine, abused as a child, a drop-out and army reject, marched into the École Polytechnique with a semi-automatic rifle purportedly purchased to hunt small game. 

First he went into a mechanical engineering class, separated out the fifty or so men from the nine women and told them to leave. Claiming he was fighting feminism, Lépine then used his rifle to mow down the women, killing six and severely wounding the others. 

He then took to the halls, again targeting female students. Eight more women were murdered that evening and ten injured, along with four men, before Lépine killed himself. 

The gender issue was overlooked in the media and political furor that followed. Talking heads deemed Lépine “fou” and his action the isolated act of a madman. 

Subsequently this massacre has come to be seen, instead, as a hate crime targeting women, and as a pivotal point for activists advocating for women’s rights and gun control in Canada, as the start of an ongoing movement to stop tolerating any violence against women. 

In 1991, the Canadian government designated December 6th as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. People are encouraged to wear a white ribbon in memory of those who died and as a commitment to end gender-based violence. Last month, from the top of Montreal's Mount Royal, 14 beams of light were projected into the night sky representing the women who died on that day 33 years ago. Valérie Plante, Mayor of Montréal, acknowledged the anniversary as an opportunity to reflect on what society and individuals can do to fight violence against women and girls.  

From the beginning this was a movement of ordinary people in Canada, of women and men living ordinary lives, who are stepping up and advocating for change. They don’t see themselves as activists or rebels although at times they have marched in the streets. 

Early on they joined forces with others who have suffered similar traumatic loss. Most visibly, with the survivors of missing and murdered indigenous women across Canada. 

Hidden in plain sight, the statistics are shocking – not so much for the numbers although there are over 2,300 women missing – but because they have been ignored for so long. 

And last year Canada confronted its historical complicity in the overall abuse and marginalization of its indigenous peoples. Much work and atonement remains to be done but the country is taking steps to move forward starting with a new holiday, the National Day of Truth and Reconciliation on September 30th of each year. 

In the United States, the 21st century ushered in a plethora of bloodier days. Twenty-three years and eight days after the Polytechnique shootings, Newtown, Connecticut saw twelve little girls, eight small boys and six female teachers mowed down at Sandy Hook elementary school. 

Earlier this year, the small town of Uvalde hit the headlines when a former student murdered two female teachers, thirteen girls, six boys and wounded seventeen others. The survivors’ physical wounds may heal but their psychological ones remain. 

The preponderance of women in the above shootings runs contrary to the total American statistics where the vast majority of gun victims are male. 

The World Health Organization identifies violence against women and children as a major public health problem, and a violation of women's human rights. It estimates that 30% of women globally have been victims of physical and/or sexual intimate violence in their lifetime. Violence negatively impacts women’s and families’ physical, mental, sexual, and reproductive health. 

This violence against women would be preventable if our governments would have the guts to take action. Health systems must play their part, not only in providing care to victims, but in ramped-up social services and more comprehensive referrals to social support of all kinds, and by advocating for change to punish the guilty, educate people across the board, and to finally eradicate the cycles of domestic violence. 

The lifelong impact of household violence on children – seeing mothers and sisters being abused as well as being abused themselves – not only destroys their full potential as human beings, but also leads them to abuse or suffer abuse in turn. 

A government with guts means a government with the will to take real action. 

Even with significant changes in recent decades, we live in a world dominated by male authority figures, and too many continue to blame women for their own abuse. Which is, in and of itself, a shaming and transfer of such blame and a further extension of gender abuse. 

And far too often we hear of those in the medical profession and people working in homes for the profoundly handicapped and the elderly taking advantage of their patients. How are sedated or unconscious women responsible for their molestation and rapes? 

Tracking of missing and dead indigenous women in the United States is inconsistent and underreported for a variety of reasons, but the numbers are very significant. 

And they are probably much higher percentage-wise here than in Canada due to the differences in violence norms between the countries. 

Many churches have been centers for abuse over the centuries, and for the empowerment of the rights of men, especially white authority figures, over women and children, over those with different beliefs and skin color, and over the poor. 

Poverty is another factor, whether a parent sells a girl into sexual slavery or prostitutes themself to provide food and shelter, governments must be compelled to follow the tenets of Gandhi, FDR and Martin Luther King, Jr. and ensure that even the poorest among us has sustenance and a roof over their heads. 

People who have not experienced such challenges can have trouble understanding how incredibly hard it can be for women, especially those of color and with less education, to stand up for themselves against a white, wealthy patriarchy. Particularly when too often it’s those from whom they are seeking help who are either part of that patriarchy or dependent on it for their own livelihoods. 

And our ongoing lack of gender equality is reflected in that resources exist primarily to help corporations and the wealthy keep more of their money, not to help women and dependents who are the victims of violence. 

Almost one third of the homeless in Los Angeles County are women but as recently as 2017 only 17% of shelter beds were available to them, often in mixed-gender settings where many feel unsafe. A survey of homeless women on the streets of our city in 2019 revealed that 60% had suffered violence in the previous year and 38% had been sexually assaulted. 

This has got to change. And the long game must be ending violence against women, not managing it. 

Around the world, but starting here at home in Los Angeles and California, we need enhanced social services so women can escape violent relationships. We need to prioritize their complaints. 

We need courts held accountable to protect the innocent and incarcerate the guilty. And to obey kids’ desires not to see an abusive parent. Too many children are abducted, violated, or killed during court-mandated visits to their biological fathers. 

In the first of Sacramento’s three mass shootings last year, a man killed his three daughters and their chaperone with an AR-15 during a court-mandated visitation at a church before taking his own life. 

“Men’s Rights” groups have succeeded in reclaiming access to children for some of the not-so-fair sex but, too often, this is an excuse to continue abuse and throttle complaints. 

Churches, courts and all levels of government must stop support for the perpetrators and the normalization of violence.

Los Angeles and California must urgently enact legislation recognizing domestic violence as a crime, not a family matter. And provide programs to rehabilitate the victims, make them whole, and make examples of the offenders. 

Or there will be more Uvaldes, more Polytechniques, more dead and missing women.

(Liz Amsden is a contributor to CityWatch and an activist from Northeast Los Angeles with opinions on much of what goes on in our lives. She has written extensively on the City's budget and services as well as her many other interests and passions. In her real life she works on budgets for film and television where fiction can rarely be as strange as the truth of living in today's world.)