The wake

Yesterday, December 6, 2014, was the 25th anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre. Much has been written about that horrible event but much less about the memorial march on the day after. Below is a piece I penned on the second anniversary of the march, 23 years ago today. This is its first publication.

December 7, 1991

Two years ago this morning, I rolled out of bed, shuffled over to the window and raised the blinds. There on the ridge of the mountain stood the snow-covered, art deco pile of the Université de Montréal, its fleur de lisée at half staff.

The École Polytechnique massacre hit me – perhaps still hits me – harder and more immediately than it did many others. My apartment is a one-minute walk from the campus. I’ve taken courses at the UdeM. For years I played volleyball at the university sports centre. I know a number of students enroled at “Poly,” including two who were trapped in the building when Marc Lépine went on his rampage. The Monday before the shooting I had spent several hours in the engineering library doing research for a job and, in fact, I was headed back there at 5 p.m. on Thursday, December 6, when a policeman stopped me from going on campus. Something was happening at the engineering school, he explained.

I went to the grocery store instead, surprised and finally worried by the number of ambulance and police car sirens. “This is what it must’ve been like during the London Blitz,” I remember thinking. “I wonder if there’s been an accident in one of the labs.”

An hour later, back in my apartment, I could still see plenty of cars with flashing lights. I switched on the radio – As It Happens, ironically. Eventually an announcer broke in. Gunmen were on the loose at the Université de Montréal, he said. At least two people had been shot. Police were combing the campus.

When I’d moved into this flat, the in-your-face view of the UdeM’s main building was one of the things that delighted me about it. That evening, however, I lowered the blinds and felt like a sitting duck.

Friday morning, the news reports were clearer. Not the university but Polytechnique. Not gunmen but gunman. Not two dead but fifteen. And not random victims but women.

Late Friday afternoon, a couple of friends and I met and walked over to the Université de Montréal metro station for the memorial march. Night was falling and it was freezing cold and windy. At the station several hundred people huddled together. Before long the crowd grew to 2,000 by my reckoning – mostly university age, two-thirds French, one-third English, equal numbers of men and women. Someone passed out candles but they wouldn’t stay lit in the wind.

Oddly, the march organizers all seemed to be men. One of them, an engineering student with a megaphone, instructed us to start walking up the long, steep road to the engineering building. We passed a young couple standing near the metro, the guy wearing a perturbed expression as he patted his sobbing girlfriend’s head and repeated “c’est correct, c’est correct.”

As we climbed the hill, the lights of the city spread out before us, glittering in the cold crystalline air. The going wasn’t easy. Rivers of slush coursed down the road and occasionally over the tops of our boots. The wind was vicious. Still, I saw “grandmothers” determined to make it to the top and a man with cerebral palsy, struggling on crutches, who nearly toppled with every step and yet refused another marcher’s offer of assistance – he was going to do it on his own.

I can’t claim it’s a universal truth, but in my experience engineering faculties are the ugliest buildings on campus, places where aesthetics has no place. It’s true of the McConnell Engineering building at McGill and it’s certainly true of the École Polytechnique, a nearly windowless, hulking box, disregardful of the natural beauty and lay of its site high on the mountain. Inside is a confusing, jerry-rigged labyrinth of corridors, probably one reason why the police were so slow to enter the building the night of the killings.

My friends and I were in the middle of the procession, so about a thousand people were already crammed around the side entrance to the building when we arrived. Aside from a small platform that had been set up as a speaker’s podium, little had been done to receive the crowd. I found a foothold on top of a snow bank but my friends were forced to stand on the far side of the bank and could see nothing. After a cold eternity, a young man, an engineering student, mounted the platform and began speaking into a megaphone. What with the wind and the crush of people, the speaker was hard to understand. I did however hear him claim that Marc Lépine’s act was not a crime against women but against all mankind. This prompted howls from several people and the young man quickly stepped down. Next up was a young woman student who made a short impassioned speech. She then explained in French that since numerous contingents from universities in Canada and the States – as well as Canadian and U.S. media – were present, she was going to say a few words in English. She was about halfway through the first English sentence when a chorus – mostly male and, from my view, led by a college-age man sitting in a tree above and behind the platform – began chanting “En français, en français, en français, en français” until she, too, stepped down.

Nobody else seemed ready to speak. We stood around waiting for what should have been the point of the exercise: a communal outpouring of our grief. “Chantons, chantons!” a woman standing near us cried but only she and a few others sang, stopping after the third verse. Maybe we were too numbed by the killings. Or the cold. Or the male student’s denial of what the killings meant. Or the realization that, in today’s Quebec, language trumps community, even at a time like this.

There was a commotion to our right. A car driven by an RCMP officer with an out-of-my-way-buster sneer on his face pushed its way aggressively through the crowd, clearing a path for a black limo with dark tinted windows. The limo stopped at the school entrance and disgorged the prime minister and Mrs. Mulroney. “Gucci two shoes!” cried an older woman we had pulled up onto our snow bank so she wouldn’t get run over by the limo.

Finally, another person with a megaphone mounted the platform and told us to walk to St. Joseph’s Oratory for a memorial gathering. Many did. But I and many others wandered dejectedly down the hill, back to our homes.

The people I talked with who did go to the Oratory said it was as aimless as the march. One of them mentioned how he had seen Jean Doré repeatedly, exaggeratedly, photogenically wiping tears from his eyes. Sure enough, all the Saturday papers featured pictures of the mayor brushing away a tear. The Gazette also carried a report from, I believe, Albert Nerenberg who wrote that when he asked the prime minister if he had anything to say to the women of Canada, Mulroney answered “No.”

One of the astounding things about the days that followed was the denial by so many men that Marc Lépine’s act was an act against women.

My friend Karin was especially incensed. “If he had killed 14 Blacks or Chinese,” she said, “no one would question whether it was a racist act.” She also described how at the march the male organizers she heard had announced over their megaphones “S’il vous plaît, marchez en silence par respect pour ceux qui ont été abattus” [Please walk in silence out of respect for those who were killed, referring to the victims with the masculine ceux instead of the feminine celles].

Charles, a mild-mannered engineering student, scoffed at this last remark when I repeated it to him, pointing out that in French the masculine is also used for mixed groups of men and women. He also denied that the killings were an act against women. Charles was in his office in the École polytechnique when Marc Lépine walked through the door of the building. He and his office mates heard noises like shots but didn’t think twice about it until another student ran in, slammed the door behind him and screamed that a madman was in the building shooting people. They locked the door, turned out the lights and cowered for two and a half hours before taking a circuitous route out of the building via a fire escape. They didn’t see a single policeman until they were outside.

Last night, the second anniversary of the killings, I walked up to Poly. The school had decided not to hold a memorial service – the memory was still too painful they said – but there were a few people who, like me, brought flowers to place in the snow outside the door.

Standing there, more or less alone, I thought back. The march the day after the massacre was, for me, an epiphany. The dots connected, providing a sudden, awful glimpse at the nature of things. The uncomforting, male-controlled march converged with the baffling denial – mainly by men – that the killings had anything to do with sexism. With the massacre’s having taken place in an overwhelmingly male institution that trains students to work in an overwhelmingly male profession. With its happening in a soulless, unwelcoming building ignorant of its natural setting and the beauty around it, the most unfeminine building imaginable, that churns out so many graduates who can’t look at a river without seeing a dam, who lay waste to vast swaths of the earth in pursuit of power. With the photo-oping politicians, colluders and power brokers of another stripe, members of what Marc Lépine’s father might have called le pouvoir working in the interests of le pouvoir.

Could it be that Marc Lépine was their alter-ego, a protector of their dominion?


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