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An opportunity lost: Remembering the École Polytechnique massacre

Violence against women on campus is a prevalent issue that the U of A needs to address

For an institution that claims to be a supporter of women in science, technology, engineering, and mathematics (STEM), you’d think the University of Alberta would do more to commemorate one of the worst mass crimes against women in Canadian history. As other universities are planning their vigils and remembrance ceremonies for the victims of the École Polytechnique massacre 34 years ago, the U of A is joining in, but tangible action is still lacking. 

On December 6, 1989, Marc Lépine killed 14 women at École Polytechnique in Montréal, before killing himself. The majority of the 14 victims were engineering students — proud women in STEM. Lépine’s actions stemmed from his belief that women shouldn’t be in engineering. In his suicide note, Lépine stated that his motives were anti-feminist, as feminists had always enraged him. This crime still remains one of the worst shootings in Canadian history.

Every year since then, École Polytechnique, as well as other universities across the country, have organized events in honour of the victims. Additionally, many post-secondary institutions have taken this opportunity to recommit to protecting women in STEM. The Government of Canada has even gone so far as to declare December 6 as National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. 

Even here in Alberta, we are feeling the effects of this tragedy. Other Albertan universities have chosen to host events in recognition. MacEwan University set out commemorative displays in memory of the women. Every year, the University of Calgary hosts a candle-making event.

At the U of A, President and Vice-chancellor Bill Flanagan tweeted on his own X account, and a statement was released on November 30.

In the statement, the university invited people to wear white ribbons in honour of the victims. As well, white roses were placed at the memorial plaque in the Engineering Teaching & Learning Complex and events were held at Campus Saint-Jean and Augustana.

However, little promotion was done in advance of these events. If a student wanted to participate, the only resource they had beforehand was Flanagan’s tweet reposting the statement. Information about these events were nowhere to be found on the U of A’s official social media accounts. Even the posts commemorating the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women had nothing to say about the events taking place on campus. If someone wanted to participate, this information was hard to find and inaccessible.

It’s not like crimes like these aren’t still happening, either. Earlier this year, the University of Waterloo was shaken by an attack on a professor and two students in a philosophy class relating to gender issues. Officials believe that the crime was “hate-motivated, relating to gender expression and identity.” At the time, the U of A released a statement condemning the attack, but did little else beyond promising reform and support. We might be 34 years removed from the École Polytechnique massacre, but violence against women is still as prevalent as ever. The U of A needs to ensure that similar crimes don’t happen here. The best way to do this is by remembering the victims through tangible action that supports our women on campus.

The problem with letting a crime like this fade away over time is that it poses a bigger question about gender equality and violence against women. We cannot accept violence on campus, and we cannot forget horrendous crimes such as these. If we forget over time, we’re ultimately becoming desensitized to violence, and that is not okay.

Gender-based violence is a conversation that needs to keep happening in order to keep our women safe on campus. Though the U of A does have a sexual and gender-based violence (SGBV) policy, it isn’t really enough. SGBV remains such a persistent issue across campus. We can’t just accept words on a piece of paper, or those in a social media post. This conversation needs to keep happening, and the consequent actions need to keep evolving.

December 6 presented an opportunity to continue the conversation on SGBV. Unfortunately, the U of A chose not to act. In a time when we should be honouring the 14 victims, the U of A is giving them a moment of the wrong kind of silence.

Anna Bajwa-Zschocke

Anna is the 2023-24 Opinion Editor and is in media studies. Usually she can be found amongst colour coded sticky notes, nerding out about European history, bad reality TV, or some new book

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