The Mass Shooting That Reshaped the Canadian Debate About Guns and Political Identity

The 1989 Montreal Massacre set the stage for discussions about insane killers and targeting women

Demonstrators hold portraits of some of the victims of the Montréal Massacre during the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women rally on Parliament Hill in Ottawa December 6, 2011. (Reuters/Alamy Stock Photo)
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Taking place in a city of 500,000 that reported just two murders in all of 2015, this weekend’s mass shooting at a mosque came as an enormous shock to residents of Quebec City—and the entire nation of Canada. But the rampage, which left six dead and 19 injured, is reminiscent of another politically motivated attack that occurred nearly 30 years ago: the Montréal Massacre.

On December 6, 1989, halfway through a drizzly afternoon, 25-year-old Marc Lépine entered the École Polytechnique campus wearing blue jeans and carrying several plastic bags that contained a Mini-14 rifle and a 6-inch-long hunting knife. Lépine made his way to a classroom on the second floor, where he interrupted a student presentation and ordered the male and female students to line up on opposite sides of the room. When the students failed to comply, thinking it was some kind of prank, he fired twice into the ceiling. After the two groups had formed, Lépine dismissed the men, who made up the bulk of the class. He proceeded to shout at the nine remaining women, “You’re all feminists!” Nathalie Provost, one of the young women in the line, tried to reason with him, saying they were only students trying to live their lives and study engineering. But Provost’s attempt at mollification was futile: Lépine opened fire, shooting about 30 rounds at the women.

From there Lépine continued through the university for another 15 minutes, shooting women and several men in the cafeteria, the school corridors, and another classroom, as well as stabbing one woman to death. He concluded his spree by shooting himself in the head. After barely 20 minutes, 14 women had been killed and another 14 were injured. The victims included 12 engineering students, one nursing student, and one clerk in the financial department. Four men were injured in the rampage, none died. Nearly all were under the age of 25.

In addition to the vitriol Lépine spewed during his massacre, his suicide note detailed his hatred for feminists. “If I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons… but for political reasons, because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker.” As if anticipating the world’s response at the conclusion of his massacre, Lépine also added, “Even if the Mad Killer epithet will be attributed to me by the media, I consider myself a rational erudite that only the arrival of the Grim Reaper has forced to take extreme acts.”

In the immediate aftermath, local newspapers reported differently on Lépine’s rampage. Some delved into his childhood, his personality, and the people he befriended, while others focused solely on the victims and their families. His suicide note wouldn’t be released to the public for another year, and only then did it become clear that his rants against feminists were more deeply rooted.

A decade before the Columbine massacre, and the subsequent shootings at Virginia Tech, and other school shootings committed by young men, Lépine’s articulation of what motivated him, and how he expected the media to react, was a prescient guidebook for how Canadians would discuss the aftermath. On one side were those who labeled him as mentally unstable and sought evidence of his insanity while ignoring his ideological statements. On the other side were those who looked at the societal changes at hand and tried to understand if he represented a flashpoint in the long continuum of anti-women violence at a time when women were finally accessing more power in the world after years of subjugation. It was, after all, a pivotal moment in Canadian women’s rights. Just six months earlier, in the Canadian Supreme Court, 21-year-old Chantale Daigle of Quebec managed to overturn an injunction that would've prevented her having abortion for a pregnancy that resulted from an abusive relationship.

“Why do we understand pornography, women earning less money than men, beer advertisements, and men hitting their wives, but not [the killer]? [He] is part of a continuum, not removed from society, but part and parcel of our woman-hating,” wrote Jennifer Scanlon, a women’s studies scholar, in 1994. “Feminists were accused of taking advantage of the situation by talking about misogyny. The killer was crazy, many argued; his actions had nothing to do with women and everything to do with his psychosis.”

Sociologists Peter Eglin and Stephen Hester agreed that dismissing the massacre as the act of a madman oversimplified the attack. “The danger of the insanity ascription for the would-be rational actor is that it removes the agency from the actor’s acts,” Eglin and Hester wrote in a 1999 study of the attack. “Lépine may have been ‘extreme,’ but he carved his actions out of the same materials—of oppositional, political categories—as did his respondents.”

Even decades after the massacre itself, the controversy over how to understand continues. In 2007, a professor of computer sciences at the University of Toronto denounced a memorial event, writing, “It is obvious that the point of this is not to remember anyone. The point is to use the death of these people as an excuse to promote the feminist/extreme left-wing agenda.” The professor was protected by the university’s free speech policy and wasn’t punished—though other administrators criticized his comments.  

Despite the difficulty in making sense of the massacre, the survivors have managed to forge a path for themselves and their identity as women. “The wounds to your body, you see right away,” said Nathalie Provost, the victim who attempted to reason with Lépine and was shot in the leg, foot, and forehead, to the Montreal Gazette. “For the wounds to your soul, it takes longer. It took me years to grasp what I had lived through.” And while she may not have identified as a feminist then, Provost does now. To her, that label means “fighting for a more civilized world.”  

Heidi Rathjen, who was at the college on the day of the shooting and sat terrified in one of the classrooms Lépine passed by, organized a petition to ban the sale of military assault weapons. (Lépine’s Ruger Mini-14 semi-automatic rifle was purchased legally from a hunting store.) Rathjen’s petition over gun control garnered 560,000 signatures, the most of any petition in the country’s history at the time. Rathjen and the parents of victims banded together to lobby for the passage of Bill C-68, which required screening of firearms applicants, training of gun owners, and a centralized database that linked all firearms with their owners. The bill was approved in 1995.

But the successes Rathjen saw with gun control have started falling apart in recent years. In 2012, Public Safety Minister Vic Toews, a member of Stephen Harper’s Conservative government, argued that the long-gun registry “criminalized hard-working and law-abiding citizens” and did “nothing to help put an end to gun crimes. Although the province of Quebec won a short injunction to keep their registry, they were forced to delete its entire contents in 2015 (months later, the regional Quebec government proposed its own registry for the province).

As for the memory of Lépine’s victims, they’re commemorated annually on the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. But his name is far from being totally reviled; in certain “men’s rights” circles, Lépine is actually held up as a hero who fought the evils of feminism.

“Sometimes I feel sad. Sometimes I feel anxious. It’s not always the same,” Provost said to Yahoo News of her emotions when the shooting’s anniversary approaches each year. But despite everything, Provost said she’s proud of her work as a gun control advocate and a feminist. “The more we can live together, being equal, giving chances to kids, believing in them—I think we should be feminists in order to build a better world.” 

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