On the evening of December 6, 1989, a man with a rifle entered the engineering school at the University of Montreal. In the end, after separating men from women, fourteen women were killed, others were wounded, and the gunman lay dead by his own hand. His stated motive was revenge on the so-called feminists who had ruined his life. He also carried with him a list of prominent feminists who he planned to target with more time.
Over the last few days, a number of essays addressing the legacy of the massacre have been published, reflecting on its meaning for the present and what thirty years of hindsight might teach us. Journalist Francine Pelletier, who was named on the list of women found on the gunman, published one such essay (also heard on CBC’s Sunday Edition) exploring the relationship between feminist activism and the violence in Montreal. Situating the massacre in relation to other recent mass acts of violence, as well as the #metoo movement, her essay examines the backlash that has followed—then as now—when women have organized to take control over their bodies and lives
The gathering on International Women’s Day 1990 honours each of the fourteen women killed on December 6th, 1989 in Montreal.
It is not a coincidence that the massacre occurred at a time that women were organizing for bodily autonomy, succeeding more than ever before. It was in 1989 that thousands of people took to the streets, including those of Montreal, to protest the Quebec Court of Appeal’s decision to uphold an injunction filed by a man that would prevent Chantal Daigle, his ex-partner, from getting an abortion (page 1). It was in October 1989 that women mobilized against legislation to control abortion in the aftermath of its decriminalization. It also occurred as feminists were rallying against posters at a university residence that violently appropriated and misused the language of a “No Means No” campaign (page 6).The violence in Montreal came at a time when feminists were visibly and loudly making unprecedented change.
It has been a struggle to have the Montreal massacre understood and memorialized as a violent act of backlash against feminism, but this view is critical to the present. The rise of populism and the far-right, combined with the potential for radicalization online, are occurring at a time when women are again extremely visible in fighting for their rights. Calls for women to embrace their anger have emerged as the momentum of the #metoo movement continues, and as plans are being made for the fourth year of Women’s Marches. And mass acts of violence against women persist; while misogynists organize to silence feminists, we speak up louder, take up space to which many have long felt entitled, and assert autonomy over our bodies, and they in turn, are enraged.
In the wake of the Montreal massacre, feminists sought to understand the motives of the gunman in relation to the broader social context. In a speech at the University of Toronto’s Engineering School (page 2) just days after the Montreal Massacre, Mary Gellatly explained that the gunman “sought out women in a society that legitimates and reproduces the oppression of women” and in a “context in which we are experiencing an incredible backlash against the gains that the women’s movement has made.”
Her words could have been written yesterday.