Thirty-two years after a gunman motivated by a hatred of feminists opened fire on campus, killing 14 women and injuring others, the list of women killed by male violence in Quebec continues to grow.
As Quebecers plan moments of silence and solemn ceremonies to mark the tragedy that occurred on Dec. 6, 1989 at Montreal’s Polytechnique engineering school, advocates point out that the events of the last year show misogynistic violence is not a thing of the past.
Quebec has experienced a spate of femicides since the beginning of 2021, with an unofficial count putting the number at 18.
Nathalie Provost, who was shot four times during the Polytechnique attack, is painfully aware that each death is a tragedy. While Polytechnique is remembered as one of Canada’s worst mass shootings, for her it’s about more than numbers.
“For me, they weren’t strangers, they weren’t photos, they were people that I knew, eyes I saw, shining, voices I listened to,” she said in a phone interview Friday.
Provost said she’s concerned about the recent killings of women, especially because she draws some parallels between the difficult economic climate and job market in 1989 and the more recent uncertainty brought on by the COVID-19 pandemic.
“From my point of view, in times of crisis, the first to pay are women and children,” she said. “I’m absolutely convinced of that.”
Louise Riendeau, a spokeswoman for a Quebec group that helps domestic violence victims, said 2021 was a particularly deadly year for violence against women — and she believes the COVID-19 pandemic is partially to blame. In an interview, she said lockdowns meant to limit the spread of the virus also meant some women were trapped at home under the full control of their abusers.
“At the moment when women regained a bit of normal life, were able to see loved ones, return to work, we saw certain partners had the feeling of losing control over their partner and unfortunately passed to action, at the level of femicide,” said Riendeau, who works with the Regroupement des maisons pour femmes victimes de violence conjugale.
Riendeau says when she thinks about the women who died at Polytechnique, she’s saddened they were killed because they wanted to access the same jobs as men. “They wanted to be engineers and someone wanted to stop that,” she said. “When we look at violence now, it’s still a way to slow down the full blossoming of women.”
But despite the historical echoes, Riendeau points out that the greatest danger women face is usually not from an unknown gunman but from someone close to them. Of the 18 femicides in Quebec this year, she says, 17 were allegedly committed by a current or former intimate partner.
“It’s not in the street that women are most in danger, but it’s unfortunately in their homes where they should be safe,” she said.
Riendeau said the clearest warning signs include a past history of domestic violence and a partner with controlling tendencies. Often, domestic violence killings happen during or after a breakup that a partner refuses to accept, she said.
Quebec announced in April it was investing an additional $223 million in the fight against domestic violence in response to the high number of femicides. In recent days, the government has taken other action, including passing a bill to create a specialized tribunal for cases of sexual violence and announcing a project to introduce ankle monitors for some domestic violence offenders.
Riendeau believes some things have improved in Quebec when it comes to domestic violence, particularly how victims are treated by police and prosecutors. There’s also more awareness, especially among the younger generation, she said.
But she thinks the only thing that will truly end the violence is more education and a society in which men and women are fully equal, and she doesn’t believe we’re there yet.
Polytechnique is commemorating the 1989 tragedy with a week of events that culminate Monday evening, when fourteen beams of light representing the shooting victims will be projected into the sky from Mount Royal. Due to the pandemic, organizers are asking crowds not to gather.
But although the crowd will be smaller, Provost says that this year she’ll be feeling less alone — and more hopeful — than she’s been in a while. She said the growing public concern over femicides and shootings in Montreal has led her to hope that, after so many years, people are readier than ever to have serious conversations about the causes of violence.
A longtime advocate for gun control, she said she’s also encouraged by the promises the federal Liberals made during the last election campaign, including a mandatory buyback of banned assault-style weapons.
As Dec. 6 approaches, she wants the memory of her slain colleagues to prompt more people to fight for change, whether that means gender equality, LGBTQ rights or gun control.
“I hope we’ll be able to fight for a better world, and each of us will be able to be part of those discussions,” she said. “They deserve that.”
Morgan Lowrie, The Canadian Press