Shock, Grief, and Early Expressions of a Legacy of Loss
Named as the “deadliest single-day mass shooting in Canadian history” (Charles Grandmont, National Post, 5 December 1999), the massacre in Montreal registered widely in the social domain in a manner unprecedented in Canada. These comments, fashioned in the immediate aftermath of the killings, characterize the shock and horror that many expressed:
This week, the unimaginable happened. A 25 year-old man…strode into the University of Montreal and opened fire on innocent students….The shock, horror and grief reverberating throughout the country are all prefaced with the question, “Why?” Why Lepine? Why female victims? Why now? Why Canada? (Lois Sweet, Toronto Star, 9 December 1989)
Now our daughters have been shocked to the core, as we all have, by the violence in Montreal. They hear the women were separated from the men and meticulously slaughtered by a man who blamed feminists for his troubles.. Fourteen of our bright and shining daughters won places in engineering schools, doing things we, their mothers, only dreamed of. That we lost them has broken our hearts; what is worse is that we are not surprised. (Stevie Cameron, Globe and Mail, 6 December 1990)
You’re 30, you’re 43, you’re 50, you’re reading the newspaper or someone calls you, you can’t believe it, you’re numb or you feel angry. You’re a feminist. You’ve spent five, or 10 or 15 years going to meetings, organizing demos, publishing/ writing/fundraising/speaking/marching. Suddenly, you’re tired, or you’re burnt out, or demoralized, and you cry for the deaths of 14 young women you’ve never met. You grieve also for the literal expression of a hatred for feminism that you
know to be embedded in your culture. You feel targeted. Your heart feels cold.
(Marusia Bociurkiw 1990, 7)
In Canada such expressions of grief, shock, and anger provided the impetus and form for a diverse number of what I have come to think of as activist – memorial responses. From anniversary vigils, to the design and production of monuments, to days of education, to the naming of December sixth as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, the Montreal murders were widely marked, narrated, and commemorated in the years following their occurrence. Named in the list of the top twenty-five Canadian news events of the twentieth century (J. L. Granatstein and N. Hillmer, Maclean’s, 1 July 1999), the massacre in Montreal has not been forgotten in the Canadian historical record, nor does this appear to be an immediate risk. This stands in notable contrast to the United States, where an initial attention to the massacre (in its immediate aftermath) has long been replaced by other, more local “school shootings”—most notably, perhaps, those at Columbine, which occurred almost a decade later.3
Indeed, over these ten years in Canada the massacre has continued to be felt as a profound loss for many. In particular, for those close to the women murdered, the deaths linger as a constant reminder of what was and of who no longer is. As Elena Cherney (National Post, 4 December 1999) comments in the introduction to her piece on “the ones…left behind,” “in the decade since the massacre, each family has tried to find its own way of understanding what happened that day. Many of the parents have stopped asking questions, because they know there are no answers. The families have all been marked by the shooting, although each in a different way. Some try to keep their daughter alive by talking about her, while others can hardly bear to speak their child’s name.” While it is not surprising that the family members, friends, and lovers of the women murdered, along with fellow students, continue to grapple with their deaths, what is less known and publicly discussed is how the lives of other people have been profoundly shaken by this mass murder. Among these people are those who, through their professions, came into contact with the slaughter and its wake. For example, Jacques Duchesneau, who was chief inspector of the organized crime division in Montreal at the time of the murders, recalls: “I was 21 years at homicide as a detective. I was used to seeing dead bodies….But 15? No….That was a Wednesday. It was only Saturday that I could sleep” (quoted in Linda Slobodian, London Free Press, 5 December 1999). Others, like the mortician at the morgue where the dead women’s bodies were laid out, never returned to work (“Legacy of Pain,” The Fifth Estate, 1999). Montreal journalists too remember the killings as a deep resonance; Lynne
Moore, the only reporter who managed to enter the Polytechnique on the night of the shootings, notes simply, “the chill still lingers” (Lynn Moore, Montreal Gazette, 6 December 1999). For some, this chill led to the taking of their own lives. At least five people have killed themselves as a result of their connection to the massacre and its devastating effects (“Legacy of Pain,” The Fifth Estate, 1999).
How are we to understand the relationship between such anguish, lived individually and personally, and the memorial legacy of the massacre as a social and public domain? Certainly, there are vague references to these murders as a trauma that extends beyond individuals and that affects a city, a community, and, to some extent, a nation. The following phrases are illustrative: “even now [a decade later], Montrealers recall where they were, what they were doing, when they heard the news” (Peggy Curran, Montreal Gazette, 4 December 1999). “On December 6 th, 1989, Montreal trembled, Montreal was wounded. Nefpour quatorze reines [Nave for 14 Queens, a memorial square and monument to the women murdered, unveiled for the tenth anniversary] allows us to overcome another phase in our mourning. We are offering this place to Montreal’s collective memory: a place to contemplate, a place for reflection” (the mayor of Montreal, quoted in Isabelle Hachey, La Presse, 6 December 1999, translation). Beyond Montreal, the massacre is remembered as a national tragedy that “shattered the innocence of Canadians” (“Legacy of Pain,” The Fifth Estate, 1999) as “a whole nation was plunged into mourning” (Hamilton Spectator [no author], 3 December 1999). While such comments are evocative in that they allude to a traumatic legacy with a wide memorial reach, this is a legacy that, I contend, has been only partially faced. Francince Pelletier has argued that the killings were “so loathsome, so unimaginable, [that] it has taken 10 years to come to terms with [their] sheer brutality” (“Legacy of Pain,” The Fifth Estate, 1999). On a personal level, as individuals who experienced the massacre as a compelling legacy work through its meaning in their/our lives, I expect Pelletier is correct: the tenth anniversary marked a watershed for coming to terms with these murders. However, I argue that such a coming to terms has been, and can only be, partially and insufficiently supported by the formation of a public memory that, over the past decade or more, has sedimented in Canada. While this public memory is considerable, particularly when compared to the sparsity of memorial attention that is sustained for many other acts of violence (raising the ongoing question of what events are produced as “(un)worthy” of remembrance, and with what implications for people’s lives and deaths),41 argue that it has been fraught with ambivalences that circumscribe sustained encounters with the loss(es) of the massacre.
Figure 6 Bench, Marker of Change—indentation from top, Vancouver (with permission of Sharon Rosenberg).