December 6, 1989 – Hope Out of Horror

by julia.hanigsberg | December 13th, 2011

Each December 6th, the Ryerson University community pauses to remember the 14 women who perished at the École Polytechnique de Montréal on a frigid late-fall day in 1989.

This year, I was honoured to be invited to speak at the ceremony marking that horrifying event. As I collected my thoughts, I remembered very clearly where I was on that evening and felt  sorrow and anger that all these many years later we are still confronting gender-based violence against women. But, as I reminded the audience at Ryerson,  kindled out of our memories of that great tragedy, there are also small flames of  hope.

Sorrow and Anger

Twenty-two years ago I was a third-year law student at McGill quietly studying for an exam the next day. I still vividly recall the sense of numb confusion I experienced when I heard on the news what had happened just on the other side ofMont Royal. Women my age or younger – women, like me, pursuing a professional education viciously murdered. At the time we were confused as we tried to interpret the event. Were the killings random, we half-hoped? It became clear that they were not, that the victims were separated out because they were women and because they were students at l’ École Polytechnique.

It seemed impossible to believe that in my country such a violent act of misogyny could occur. Yet, one of the things we learned from the Montreal Massacre is that while on the surface it may appear that society accepts women’s right to pursue their dreams and to carve out their own futures, there is a lingering and often deeply entrenched distaste for women who speak up and go their own way. So it was then, so it is even today.

“Global Pandemic”

Across the globe, women who exhibit independence of body and mind are often severely punished. The United Nations reports that up to 70% of women experience gender-based violence in their lifetimes:

  • Up to 6 in 10 women suffer physical or sexual abuse.
  • Women aged 15-44 are more at risk from rape and domestic violence than from cancer, car accidents, war and malaria.
  • Here inCanadabetween 1994 and 2008, an average of 178 women were killed, including, in 2008, 45 women murdered by their spouses.

No wonder that just a few weeks ago Ban Ki-moon, the UN secretary-general, labelled violence against women a “global pandemic.”


So, are there signs of hope?

1)     Since that shocking event 22 years ago, December 6th has transformed into the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women in Canada. On this day, thousands of us both remember the dead and commit to take action to put an end to the psychological, physical and financial oppression and abuse of girls and women.

2)     Twenty years ago, Jack Layton co-founded the White Ribbon Campaign (WRC). Now in over 60 countries, the WRC is spreading a message of peace, respect and diversity. Here at our University, I am proud that we have a vibrant Ryerson White Ribbon Campaign. Led by Jeff Perera, this coalition of students, faculty and staff engages men across Ryerson to become part of the solution to ending violence against women.

3)     While I am saddened that the federal government has introduced legislation to repeal of the long-gun registry, I am thankful for the many Canadian voices that continue to advocate for gun control. These include Ryerson’s Vice-President of Research & Innovation Wendy Cukier, one of the co-founders – in the wake of the Montreal Massacre – of the Coalition for Gun Control and still a champion of licensing firearms and curbing their proliferation as well as recently the Canadian Association of University Teachers.

4)     I recently moderated a panel of seven outstanding women leaders at a student-led event: TEDxRyersonUWomen. The panel was comprised of inspiring women, including current students, recent alumnae and practising professionals. Based on the panellists’ remarks and the questions that were posed, it’s clear that gender-based biases are still major obstacles. But these types of events give me hope. Championed by our White Ribbon and TEDx student groups, I am confident that a new generation of leaders will continue to push forward the social, employment and political horizons for all Canadians regardless of their gender.

Sincere Thanks

Our University’s moving December 6th Memorial – which included a candlelit procession and a specially choreographed number by Ryerson Dance students – was the result of the dedication of an organizing committee led by Ann Whiteside. My sincere thanks go out to Ann and her fellow committee members from Discrimination and Harassment Prevention Services; Campus Facilities and Sustainability; Security and Emergency Services; Ryerson Women’s Centre; Office of Admissions; the (acting) Assistant Vice President/Vice Provost, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion; student representatives from the Ryerson Student Union; and the groups Ryerson Engineering Students’ Society and Women in Engineering.

I am grateful, too, for all those who took the time to remember with us on December 6th. They not only help keep alive the memory of the women who perished in 1989, but also to stoke our collective belief that a better, safer, more equitable world is possible.

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