Tag Archives: ecole polytechnique massacre

Let Us Never Forget Their Names

Content Note: This post deals with the École Polytechnique massacre and violence against women.

24 years ago today, 14 women were killed in an act of sickening violence at the École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec, Canada. Targeted for being women and for being engineers, we must never forget their names.

  • Geneviève Bergeron (born 1968), civil engineering student
  • Hélène Colgan (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Nathalie Croteau (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Barbara Daigneault (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Edward (born 1968), chemical engineering student
  • Maud Haviernick (born 1960), materials engineering student
  • Maryse Laganière (born 1964), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique’s finance department
  • Maryse Leclair (born 1966), materials engineering student
  • Anne-Marie Lemay (born 1967), mechanical engineering student
  • Sonia Pelletier (born 1961), mechanical engineering student
  • Michèle Richard (born 1968), materials engineering student
  • Annie St-Arneault (born 1966), mechanical engineering student
  • Annie Turcotte (born 1969), materials engineering student
  • Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (born 1958), nursing student

For those of us who grew up in Canada, the white ribbons of December were a reminder not just of the work left to do in stopping gender violence, but of the links between that violence, deeply held notions of gender roles and “women’s place”, and the importance of pioneering women’s work in science and engineering. While Montreal stands out in our timeline as one of the few acts of outright violence documented there, we must remember that the “tits or GTFO”s of the world exist on a spectrum of micro- and macro-aggressions, oppression, and violence that we must be vigilant for in our communities, online and offline.

Fellow blogger Lukas writes:

This event was a catalyst for action in Canada, spawning a monument for the deceased, a national Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women in Canada, and a White Ribbon Campaign (started by and targeted at men in order to address and confront male violence against women). For me, Dec 6th marked the beginning of my independent feminist organizing. It happened when I was just starting high school and shortly afterward a few classmates and I started a feminist club at our school. We attended local vigils for women who died at the hands of their male partners. We educated ourselves about issues facing women beyond just our small city and we organized gatherings to share this information with others. In the years that followed Dec 6th was a touchstone for doing actions that both drew attention to women and domestic violence but in recent years since moving into the tech world it’s developed a whole other layer of relevance to me.

 

When this date rolls around I am reminded that the outreach I do in the tech community matters, to be proud of being feminist, taking space in engineering, and also being someone who works diligently to make space for more women and underrepresented groups to join me. It may not always be through a directly violent act but there are many ways women and minority groups are being told they do not belong here and there are some of us are proving ‘them’ wrong. We are designers, engineers, problem solvers, big thinkers, dreamers, creators, makers, and people who can help make worlds both big and small better for others. We can be a pipeline for new arrivals, be mentors, be allies. On this day I am grateful for my allies both within the geek feminism community and without who work side by side with me to work on improving equality, seeking justice, and calling for the end of violence and discrimination in the technology space.

Never forget their names.

The Fourteen Not Forgotten and Sexist Posters at Waterloo

This is a guest post from Christine Cheng. She is a research fellow in politics at Exeter College, University of Oxford. In a previous life, she studied systems design engineering and was student government president at the University of Waterloo. This post was originally published at her blog.

(Trigger Warning for survivors of the École Polytechnique Massacre and survivors of campus threats against women)

A photograph of Marie Curie has an image of a mushroom cloud next to it. It is titled 'The Truth'. The caption at the bottom of the poster says, ''The brightest Woman this Earth ever created was Marie Curie. The Mother of the Nuclear Bomb. You tell me if the plan of Women leading Men is still a good idea !'

Photo source: Canadian University Press

This post is in honour of International Women’s Day (March 8th).

Recent events at my alma mater, the University of Waterloo, have left a bad taste in my mouth. In mid-February, in the middle of student government elections, someone covered up the posters of female candidates with an image of Marie Curie, a nuclear explosion and the following slogan “The brightest woman this Earth ever created was Marie Curie, The mother of the nuclear bomb. You tell me if the plan of women leading men is still a good idea!” A poster with the same image was also put up with similarly alarming text: Kill 250 000 innocent Japanese in WW2 and is given 2 Nobel Prizes. Expose the defective Moral Intelligence of Womankind and it is called Sexism. It had the caption: “Marie Curie = evil”.

Later on, this person sent out a fake email purporting to be Feridun Hamdullahpur, the University of Waterloo’s President. In this mass email, the message railed against “against women in leadership and women attending university“.

This was followed up by a Facebook profile, presumably from the same person:

When a bad idea comes to this Earth it always hides behind The Shield of Vulnerability. This way it is immune from being attacked in the open. Radioactive Technology was hiding behind the vulnerable looking mask of Marie Curie and this is why no one caught it in advance. They figured that if a female was pushing it then it was harmless. They figured wrong. The truth is that overeducated women are truly dangerous. If they don’t know right from wrong they will nuke the whole Planet and call it the latest fashion from Holt Renfrew. This is the truth. The world is in trouble today because the higher moral intelligence of men is not in charge anymore. How long will you let this continue? The choice is in your hands. I didn’t leave posters on your campus because I am a fool. I left them because I am your father who is concerned about where your education is ultimately going. You are being taught the virtues of gender equality when gender equality is nowhere in the Orginial Plan of Creation. Queen Elizabeth is leading you astray and charging you big money for this evil favour. When you graduate from here you will have a degree but no real intelligence. This is the truth.

There have been at least two stories in the Kitchener-Waterloo Record on the case, an article posted on the Maclean’s website, and now, an article on Jezebel. The UW campus police are investigating: “forensic analysis of the posters; review of closed-circuit television footage; and collaboration with computer specialists to track the identity of the individual who sent [the] impersonating email fraudulently.”

These are the facts that I have been able to cobble together. While I am loathe to give any legitimacy to the person who has done all of this, I felt that it was more important to post these comments so that readers can get a better sense of why I was alarmed. It may be the case that this person was just trolling and stirring up trouble. But if you take these sentiments at face value, this person comes across as off-balance and in need of counselling.

Obviously, this is not representative of how the larger UW community feels about female scientists, female students, and female leaders. The University of Waterloo as an institution, in my experience, has been quite sensitive to gender issues on campus (though Prof Shannon Dea eloquently disagrees with me in her post on this issue). Having assertive and capable female leaders at all levels of the institution has helped.

Yet this is not just about the misogynistic acts that have been committed, but it is also about how the larger community chooses to respond to these acts. Sadly, in addition to the many constructive conversations that have taken place as a result of these incidents, other comments have been less than helpful, to say the least. For example, Bill Li, a current UW computer science student had this to say in response to a female student who was extremely upset about the events:

Really Sherlock? UW is a male dominated campus, I wonder why… oh, let’s see, UW is in the top for Engineering, Math, and CS, given that most girls doesn’t want to give the effort and sacrifice needed to go through the Engineering or Math program at UW, you are going to bitch and cry that the university is male dominated? Really? So if you want a female dominated campus, try “Bryn Mawr College”.

You have no right to bitch that the campus is too male dominated, when there are literally no girls in the Engineer or Math faculty, even though there are scholarships and extra benefits given to females that are in the Math faculty.

I have seen similarly insensitive posts on other sites. Bill seems to agree that these incidents were wrong, but he fails to grasp that his comments contribute to making women in his program feel unwelcome. Women like me graduated from computer science and engineering despite sentiments like these, which thankfully, were extremely rare in my corner of UW.

Part of the reason that I’m posting about this is because it feels like I could just as easily have been the target of these incidents. I studied systems design engineering at Waterloo in the late 1990s. I was surrounded by amazing, accomplished female classmates. One third of my class was female (and none of us dropped out). I also ran for and became president of my student government at Waterloo. Those posters could just as easily have been mine.

There is also a larger social and historical context to this story that should not be forgotten. Twenty-two years ago, on December 6th, 1989, Marc Lépine, walked into the École Polytechnique (part of the engineering school at the Université de Montréal), then shot and killed fourteen female students, and wounded ten other women and four men. If you read the coroner’s report about how the men and women were systematically separated before the women were all shot in the name of feminism, or watch Denis Villeneuve’s film Polytechnique about the Montreal Massacre, a chill will run down your spine. This event casts a long shadow over incidents like those at UW.

In 1998, during my last year as an engineering student at Waterloo, I organized the Fourteen Not Forgotten Memorial. I exchanged emails with Chris Redmond, the editor of UW’s daily newsletter, about why the memorial was important in spite of the fact that gender didn’t seem to be much of an issue with my cohort. He posted part of our exchange online. I don’t completely agree with everything that was said by my 23 year-old self anymore, but I do think the issues I raised back then are still relevant thirteen years later. Here is an excerpt:

I understood [when I was 14] that the gunman was a sociopathic killer, but I had no explanation as to how this could have possibly happened in the world that I had grown up in. His irrational behaviour didn’t fit into my model of how things worked and I had no reason to think of him as anything other than an extremist, someone who would not and could not listen to reason. My solution was to exclude him from my world, to cast him out. I guess this also meant that, to some extent, I ignored the impact of what he had done and the hatred that he represented. There was nothing in my social conditioning that allowed me to understand his deep-seated despisal of women, and in particular, of feminists.

Now, nine years later, I have a slightly better sense of the methodically rational side of his actions. After all, it was not in a rage of passionate fury that he committed these murders. A virtual hit list was found on his body consisting of fifteen high-profile women: these included the first woman firefighter in Québec, the first woman police captain in Québec, a sportscaster, a bank manager and a president of a teachers’ union.

Society recognizes that he was a psychopath — but to what extent was he a product of social influences, and how much of it was sheer and utter isolated madness? [Chris and I] talked about the continuum and where this event would sit on this continuum. I don’t have an answer for this. What I do know is that it was and still is, to a greater or lesser extent, a reflection of society’s attitudes towards women.

So we must ask ourselves: How do these attitudes filter down through the rest of society? When a male classmate jokingly says to me that I won my scholarship because I am female, how am I supposed to interpret that? How does that relate to the fact that the killer felt that these women got into engineering because they were female? He certainly felt that they were taking up his “rightful” place in the program. Am I taking up the “rightful” place of another disgruntled male in systems design engineering?

[Marc Lépine] committed an extreme act, but society is at a crossroads right now — we value women’s equality, but the lingering effects of centuries of discrimination [are] not going to disappear overnight and we have to recognize that together. [Women] are valued [equally] in the eyes of the law. But in practice, systematic discrimination still goes on, even if it isn’t as obvious as it used to be.

I know that these recent events were “isolated incidents”, but I think that they still raise broader issues of gender equality that are worth discussing. Comments on other sites also suggest that while gender was never an issue for me at UW, it has been an issue for other women.

While I hope that this is just a trolling incident that has gotten out of hand, there is a distinct possibility that there is worse to come. In light of the Montreal Massacre and my previous comments on the Gabrielle Giffords shooting and the power of political rhetoric, this conversation about women’s equality is clearly one that needs to continue.

* * *
For more constructive commentary on these incidents, E. Cain suggests some concrete measures for improving campus safety, Maclean’s discussed the importance of hate crime legislation, and UW campus leaders gathered to discuss the problem. Shannon Dea has a thought-provoking piece in Hook and Eye.  Also check out the commentary following the Jezebel article.

Sidenote: On the accuracy of the claims about Marie Curie, see Luke Bovard’s piece: the honest truth: Marie Curie.

Update: Bill Xin Li took down his post on this topic but before he did so, he decided to troll someone who sent him an unfavourable response. Preferring not to do further damage to this person’s reputation by providing another link to what was written, suffice it to say that it was rude and inappropriate. Let’s keep this clean and constructive.

Marking the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women

This post was originally written for my local Women in Science and Engineering chapter’s blog. I’m afraid it’s not my best writing, as I found the experience somewhat upsetting, but I think the day we were marking is of particular interest to readers of Geek Feminism, so I’m cross-posting it here.

TRIGGER WARNING: this post discusses actual violence against women, specifically the story of the École Polytechnique Massacre. There’s little graphic detail here, but several of the links in this post contain fairly disturbing information.

In Canada, December 6th is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. The day was chosen as a memorial to those killed in the École Polytechnique Massacre, which happened on December 6, 1989. On that day, a lone gunman walked into the school and killed 14 people, injuring more, before turning the gun on himself. He claimed that feminists had ruined his life and that the young women engineers he targeted must be feminists because of their non-traditional career choice.

Members of CU-WISE, GSA, IEEE WIE, Womyn’s Center, Foot Patrol, and MEN were out in the unicentre on Dec 3rd to raise awareness of the issues, and to raise money for a pair of women’s shelters in the area which burned down. At 1pm, we held a candlelight ceremony in the unicentre:

After the ceremony, we showed the new film, Polytechnique. I made the mistake of staying to watch part of it. Not that it is a poorly done film, but I found it quite deeply disturbing. Mark Lepine’s suicide note actually sounds too much like the death threats I, and many other women involved in the open source community, have received from another deranged individual (trigger warning: the link is to a post which discusses some of the vile stuff he says). And after watching part of the film, I then had to walk through Carleton’s halls, which share some of the same institutional feel to the hallways of École Polytechnique. I will caution that this film can be highly disturbing, and note that I will likely never watch the rest of it.

However, despite my misgivings with the film, and the unpleasant feelings that come with marking the date of the Montréal Massacre, I think it was a great opportunity to talk to some of our wider university community about the history and the issues.