This week marks the 29th anniversary of the Montreal massacre, where 14 female students, the majority of whom were in engineering, were shot to death by gunman Marc Lepine at L’école Polytechnique. Considered Canada’s most deadly mass shooting in history, the massacre prompted Parliament to designate Dec. 6 as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
While universities across Canada routinely remember the 14 female students killed by Lepine, the memorials don’t necessarily register as easily for a generation of women who weren’t alive when the tragedy occurred.
An engineer and mother reflects
Elizabeth Cannon, current president at the University of Calgary and a former dean of engineering, remembers the day with crystal clarity.
Cannon, speaking at a gathering of about 100 people in the Schulich School of Engineering Thursday afternoon, recalled her daughter being born months before the shootings.
“With my husband and I both being engineers, there was much speculation, and perhaps hope, that Sara would also grow up to be an engineer … so you can imagine the horror to me, my colleagues, both male and female, as well as the engineering profession, when the events on December 6th transpired.”
The audience sat still, listening intently. Cannon continues, “It literally shook the world that we thought we knew and questioned all that we had taken for granted, in particular, the engineering profession, which was working hard even at that time to unwind the stereotypes that had isolated it for many young women. It took a blow.”
The majority of the audience members were female and most appeared old enough to recall that day’s events. As Cannon spoke to the crowd in one end of the large atrium, many students could be seen in another area of the atrium, sitting on their laptops, headphones in, doing their homework, including Hanne Scotvold, 18, and her twin sister, Jessica.
Both Scotvold sisters are working on obtaining degrees in computer science.
The two say they didn’t have a good understanding of the Montreal massacre prior to Thursday. But both were pleased the nearby event was raising awareness, not just about the events in Montreal, but also in addressing gender inequities in science-based education where they see mostly male professors and peers.
“More women would be better because it’s kind of like a men’s area, so I think it would equalize the field more if there was more women,” says Hanne Scotvold.
Back at the memorial, Cannon says it’s important to look at the Montreal massacre memorial as a way to shine light on issues like gender-based violence against women.
“[It’s] relevant today at any age … and unfortunately still current. I think it’s important to do as well because that is how young people can really relate to what we are really talking about today and how it is still relevant for them to be engaged with.”
A look at the numbers
According to a Stats Canada report published in 2011, younger women are at a much higher risk of violent victimization, based off police-reported and self-reported data. In the same report, the rates of violent crimes against women aged 15 to 24 were 42 per cent higher than those for women aged 25 to 34 and nearly double that of women aged 35 to 44.
Nanako Furuyama, the coordinator for the Women’s Resource Centre at the U of C, acknowledges, “Many students are born after this incident, but unfortunately we have to continue talking about it. So I think it’s really important to raise awareness.”
Furuyama explains that the Centre participates in a yearly activism campaign that starts on Nov. 25, the International Day for Elimination of Violence Against Women, and ends on Dec. 10, which is International Human Rights Day.
Cannon, meanwhile, says she is hopeful for the future, concluding her speech by explaining that her daughter, Sara, now 30, has completed her undergraduate and masters program in engineering.
“She, like so many female students, has stood on the shoulders of true pioneers. These students reap the rewards of such leaders when they go on to continue building a world of equality, understanding and most importantly, a world without violence.”