Sunday, 6 December 2009

The End of the Innocence

All nations have them: the dates when one can say exactly what they were doing. Some have international significance. Most people over fifty can remember even tiny events of November 22nd, 1963, because John Fitgerald Kennedy was assassinated that day and the minutiae of that November afternoon are preserved like insects in amber. Those over sixteen can probably remember the day Diana died in the tunnel in Paris, and I venture to say that the majority of people living today can remember September 11th, 2001.

Until December 6th, 1989, the Canadian "where-were-you day" seemed to be September 28th, 1972. It's a damned hockey date, of course, but geez, there have been films made about this in Canada. It was rather nice, though that Canadians shared a euphoric memory. Until December 6th, 1989. Most Canadians over the age of twenty-five can tell you where they were that day. If they can't, simply say: "Ecole Polytechnique, Montreal."

I had invited my mother to supper. She was grieving over the recent death of her fifteen-year-old cat, and I sought to distract her. I made the mistake of turning on CBC Newsworld which was then a brand-new channel. I saw the body language and heard the urgent tones of the broadcasters and knew something horrific had happened, but not where. The details narrowed it down, agonizingly slowly: It had happened in eastern Qué the Ecole Polytechnique...

A man had entered an engineering classroom, brandishing a rifle and ordered all the male students out. He yelled something about feminists ruining his life and opened fire. He made his way through the building, shooting people and in the grand tradition of such things, finally shot himself. Fourteen women died. Ten women and four men were injured.

All thoughts of providing comforting companionship to my mother vanished from my mind. I was a sessional instructor in ESL at my local university. In the summer sessions, the great majority of my students were Québecois. Many of them were from Montreal and quite a few attended the Ecole Polytechnique. To make matters worse, the news reported that one of the dead was a staff member and one of my students the previous summer had been a professor at the Ecole. I had to wait more than a day before the names of the dead were released and the names of the injured were never released, so I fired off anxious letters to those students for whom I had addresses. (This was in the days before email and IM, children.) The responses I got were reassuring. They were in shock, but comforted to know that English Canada cared. The professor's husband attended the next summer session of our ESL programme, sought me out at registration and told me that his wife was all right.

But it became evident in the weeks following the tragedy that a deep trauma had occurred. I found myself wandering through my day with Don Henley's "The End of the Innocence" running through my head:
. . . somewhere back there in the dust
That same small town in each of us
I need to remember this
So baby give me just one kiss
And let me take a long last look
Before we say goodbye

Just lay your head back on the ground
And let your hair fall all around me
Offer up your best defense
But this is the end
This is the end of the innocence

The song was about America in the time of Reagan, but Canada, in the wake of this tragedy, had lost some illusions too. We could no longer say smugly, that we were immune from American-style violence. Furthermore, female students seemed terrified. I was taking my Master's at the time, in a couple of classrooms that faced out to a quadrant darkening in early December dusk, and one of my classmates begged tearfully for the door to be bolted. The incident seemed to bring to the surface the dark fears that most women contend with: the suggestion of violence, of death for the crime of being smart, ambitious, pretty, female.

It's hard to believe this happened twenty years ago. This evening, many women will walk out to the memorials that can be found on campuses and in parks across Canada. They will leave flowers and notes, and light candles, even twenty years later.

I don't like to say the name of the murderer. He got his recognition. Instead, I will draw your attention above to the names of fourteen women who will never reach fifty.


Nimble said...

Thank you for reminding me of the women who died that day.

Lisa Rullsenberg said...

It says a lot about our narrow knowledge of other countries that I suspect i am not alone in scarcely knowing of this tragic event in the UK. you write very eloquently of the impact of these deaths and the context; the crime of being female is sadly still one that can lead to death.

Sonya said...

At the time I was a female engineering student at the University of Waterloo. It was the first time I truly understood that women could be hated for being smart.

Each year I remember.