In Canada, today is the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. It was established in 1991, in part to commemorate the anniversary of the École Polytechnique de Montréal shooting of 1989.
On that awful day, a man entered the school armed with a rifle and a hunting knife. During his rampage, he deliberately targeted women, killing 14 and injuring 10 more women and 4 men. His suicide note stated that feminists had ruined his life and he intended to “send them to their Maker.”
(This CBC feature is an excellent commemoration of each of the victims.)
In addition to remembering these women, today is also an opportunity to reflect on how to combat societal violence against women. As the Status of Women in Canada’s web-page states:
“As well as commemorating the 14 young women whose lives ended in an act of gender-based violence that shocked the nation, December 6 represents an opportunity for Canadians to reflect on the phenomenon of violence against women in our society. It is also an opportunity to consider the women and girls for whom violence is a daily reality, and to remember those who have died as a result of gender-based violence. And finally, it is a day on which communities can consider concrete actions to eliminate all forms of violence against women and girls.”
The web-page also includes a link to “action” being taking to reduce violence against women in Canada. A quick glance suggests that some valuable programs and initiatives have been established, though how effective they have been is less clear. Lobbying the government for increased action to end violence against women is certainly necessary, but it is equally important to reflect on violence against women at the societal level.
In the 25 years since the École Polytechnique de Montréal massacre, there are still huge problems with violence against women in Canada and elsewhere. What’s more, discussing violence against women is still extremely difficult. Take the partisan squabbling that occurred in Parliament when discussing the anniversary of the Polytechnique shooting, as reported by The National Post. Minister Peter MacKay was sharply rebuked by the opposition for saying that “we may never understand what occurred, why this happened, why these women were singled out for this horrific act of violence.” Leader of the Opposition Thomas Mulcair responded “We know why this happened, we know whey they were singled out — it’s because they were women.”
The conflict between MacKay and Mulcair is indicative of an uncomfortable debate surrounding the relationship between misogyny and violence. One perspective clearly sees misogyny, in and of itself, as a motivation for violence. Which is not to say that all misogyny manifests as violent action but that it can. The other perspective suggests that violent misogyny is more typically part of an otherwise delusional, murderous mindset.
The latter perspective is intellectually tempting because it corresponds with our understanding of people like the Polytechnique murderer as madmen. While it is clear that he was disturbed, there is a the danger of leaning too heavily on this explanation for his behaviour. It makes it easy to undervalue the harmful nature of misogyny. It makes it easy to respond to violence by saying “well that person was just crazy” and ignore the broader context in which their ideology is situated. The fact that not all misogynists kill people does not make their misogyny acceptable. It does not make misogyny less destructive.
Taking action against gender-based violence means recognizing the role misogyny played in destroying so many lives on December 6, 1989. It means holding harmful ideologies accountable. It means acknowledging that those responsible for violence against women are not “just crazy.” It means standing up to sexism be it subtle or extreme.
Unpacking the motivations for violence of any kind is a complex endeavour that can be deeply uncomfortable. But to claim that “we may never understand it” is too easy. For the sake of the 14 women murdered 25 years ago, we can do better.