Sunday, December 06, 2009

We Remember

We Remember

Twenty years ago, on the afternoon of December 6, 1989, a man walked into the École Polytechnique in Montreal with a legally-purchased semi-automatic rifle, and killed 14 female students and staff members.

At the time I was working on Polytechnique's first annual fund-raising campaign, running a massive mass mailing to 10,000 alumni on what even then was truly pathetic equipment. I had one 286 laptop and one laser printer that churned out 4 pages per minute and occasionally triggered the fire alarm when it got too hot. The fund-raising campaign was housed in the offices of the Polytechnique Foundation on Decelles Avenue, down the hill from the Polytechnique building on the Université de Montréal campus.

December 6 was a Friday and the first really nasty snowstorm of the season in Montreal. I had a shoebox full of donation cheques in a desk drawer, worth more than $35,000, and I really needed to drop them off at Finance up the hill before going home for the weekend. That was a daunting prospect; the Finance folks took a very dim view of us Foundation yahoos and our little tin-can operation on Decelles, to say nothing of our accounting methods.

Rush hour traffic was a mess in the snowstorm. The cab driver was chatting a mile a minute; I was dead tired and really wished he would shut up. It took us more than 40 minutes to crawl our way up what was normally a 10-minute drive up the hill. The cab was finally pulling into the Polytechnique parking lot when suddenly the thought of explaining my shoebox-filing system to the people in Finance was too much for me. It was a little after 4:00, and suddenly I wanted to be as far away from there as I could possibly get. Home wasn't far, but it would do. The shoebox would have to keep for the weekend. I leaned over and told the cab driver to take me to Édouard-Montpetit on the other side of the hill.

I got home, kicked off my boots, fed the cat, turned on the radio, and that's when I heard the news about a madman shooting an automatic weapon at Polytechnique. I didn't have a TV set; all my news that evening were from the radio and the frantic phone calls from friends and family as they heard the increasingly strident reports from Poly. At one point there was a rumour of more than one shooter, then one radio station reported that the gunman was loose in the Côte-des-Neiges neighbourhood, shooting random people on the streets. It wasn't until very late at night that the full story emerged, including the fact that the shooter went through the Finance Department right about the time I should have been there with my shoebox.

In twenty years there have been books and films about the massacre. Scholars have commented, activists have reacted, survivors and families of the victims have lobbied for tighter firearm control in Canada. Various groups have used the events to support wildly divergent positions on feminism and gender equality; others have argued that the shooter was a lone madman and it would be pointless to see any political significance in the events. That the tragedy at least provoked people to think is, I suppose, a good thing; but personally I still can't make any sense of it. Twenty years ago, it's still too close to home.

The CBC archives have a section on the massacre here.