Early last week, on November 29th, the Free Speech Club at UBC placed a giant Mars symbol at the very top of the UBC Engineering cairn. The Mars symbol was selected as it is often used to represent men and masculinity, and was intended to allow the Free Speech Club to display their support for the official funding of a men’s rights group by the school’s student union.
It remains unclear whether or not the Free Speech Club was aware of this, but the cairn was intended to be the location for the annual 14 Not Forgotten Memorial Ceremony, to be held on November 30th. The ceremony is in honour of the 14 women who died in the Montreal Massacre and in honour of December 6th, the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. The cairn is part of the engineering building’s Memorial Courtyard.
When three prominent student leaders, Veronica Knott, Jeanie Malone, and Carly Jones (all of whom are also current engineering students) spoke out against this, they were met with support, debate, and accusations of “overreacting.” The symbol has since been taken down and the cairn redecorated, as you can see in the photos above.
So on this December 6th, I want to take a moment to address the place that this day of remembrance and action holds in Canada and what it says about how we see ourselves as a nation. In this blog post, I’m going to talk about how we remember and how we forget, and the relationship between memory and history.
*And thank you to Elise Chenier for suggesting this topic!
*Trigger warning for violence against women, family violence, gun violence, sexual assault, missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls.
The Montreal Massacre
On the evening December 6th, 1989, a twenty-five year old man named Marc Lépine walked into École Polytechnique in Montreal. Once inside the school, he shot and killed 14 women, injuring 9 more and 4 men, all within the span of about twenty minutes. He then killed himself. The names of his victims are as follows:
- Geneviève Bergeron
- Hélène Colgan
- Nathalie Croteau
- Barbara Daigneault
- Anne-Marie Edward
- Maud Haviernick
- Maryse Laganière
- Maryse Leclair
- Anne-Marie Lemay
- Sonia Pelletier
- Michèle Richard
- Annie St-Arneault
- Annie Turcotte
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz
Nearly all of these women were engineering students at the school. In the days and years after the shooting, an unknown number of students also committed suicide.
Inside of Lépine’s pocket was a suicide note that explained his actions. It contained a list of 19 women whom he wished to kill, explaining:
“Vous êtes des femmes, vous allez devenir des ingénieures. Vous n’êtes toutes qu’un tas de féministes, je hais les féministes.” | “You are women, you are going to become engineers. You’re nothing but a pile of feminists. I hate feminists.”
Collective Memories, Collective Consciousness
Where I grew up, in the suburbs of Montreal, you only had to say the words “École Polytechnique,” and everyone knew what you were talking about. Of course, it’s difficult to forget about the shooting when it is so ingrained in the consciousness of a city. Outside of Montreal, the events of December 6th, 1989 have become something of a distant memory for most people.
This is significant because our personal and collective memories provide a framework through we understand ourselves, and our place within a larger society. Common narratives provide ways of holding communities and families together, providing a sense of belonging. In a very real sense, we are who we remember ourselves to be.
It’s important here to make a distinction between history and what David Lowenthal refers to as “heritage.” We like to think of the humanities and sciences as being fundamentally opposed areas of study, but the study of history is a discipline; indeed, there are established procedures that historians use in their study of the past. Heritage, on the other hand, is a “collective symbol [that is] widely accepted by insiders yet inaccessible to outsiders.” It is inherently unknowable in the sense that it is not based on historical analysis, but on “fantasy, invention, mystery, error.” These are “the myths which shape the identity of a group,” establishing ever-shifting boundaries about who does and doesn’t belong. Another helpful way to understand this is by thinking of our national identity as a dance: “If you know the steps, you belong to the group.”
Commemorations, Memorials, and National Identity.
Commemorations and memorials are an important part of this process, as they are physical symbols of common narratives created to remind viewers of past events. They help the public make sense of past events, to find meaning behind seemingly incomprehensible actions. And unfortunately, they are also tangible markers about who belongs and who doesn’t, and about the kinds of people that are remembered. For example, consider the many memorials devoted to the two World Wars. While in theory these memorials are devoted to all of those who served in wartime, many of them feature only the names of dead soldiers who were male and often white, and inscriptions to “never forget their sacrifice.” It is rare to see mentions of nurses, doctors, and ambulance drivers, whether or not they were killed in action, unless you are looking at a memorial specifically devoted to them. And when they do appear, they are presented as the exception to the rule. The same is true for soldiers from racialized groups. Though these oversights are likely due in large part to earlier discriminatory practices, it is rare to see these memorials updated to reflect our current values. It is not an accident that the Japanese-Canadian community of Vancouver needed to establish its own memorial to WW1 soldiers or that the tomb of a Sikh soldier was lost until relatively recently.
So why is this important? Because it has created an image of the two World Wars that is uniformly male, white, and military, an image that is purely fantasy and has no basis in reality. There are many people today who have no idea that that civilians, women, and members of racialized groups served during the wars, because that services has been forgotten. It also reinforces the idea, as I discussed in a previous post, that the traditional narrative of this nation, and by extension its “real” inhabitants, “is so White, it’s blinding.”
(Re)Membering the Montreal Massacre
If the World War memorials that I mentioned above communicate the idea that these wars were exclusively engagements that involved white military men, then what do our commemorations and memorials of the Montreal Massacre say?
Here’s what I think they say:
- Violence against women in Canada was, and is, a problem, but it was, and is, the exception rather than the rule.
- Some lives matter more than others.
- The horrors of our society are firmly fixed in the past, and have nothing to do with “me.”
It’s important to state here that this reaction is not what the creators of these commemorations were intending. but that is what we do, implicitly, when we fail to learn and then act each year when we read about, attend, or even ignore commemorations of the Montreal Massacre. When we view this event as something that is, simply, an historical moment, we ignore its lessons for today. I don’t think that we do this actively or maliciously; however, our collective failure to address issues of systematic an institutionalized violence against women suggests that we need to re-engage with commemorations like that of the Montreal Massacre and rediscover the message they have for our lives today.
I’m going to break these messages down one by one and explain what I mean.
The Normalization of Violence Against Women
A very common perception in Western cultures and in Canada specifically is that we, as a civilization, are on a path towards progress. I cannot count the number of times that I have been told that feminism isn’t needed anymore because women have full equality. Commemorations and memorials of the Montreal Massacre often play into this. We only need to show up to remember the Massacre once a year. Our remembrance is all neat and tidy, and doesn’t really involve much effort. I’m willing to bet that a significant proportion of you didn’t even know that it was an actual national day of action and remembrance. Or that there is an official campaign — “16 Days of Activism Against Gender-Based Violence” — complete with its own website and resources for educators. This certainly has been covered in the news media. Even commemorations and memorials on university and college campuses tend to be under-advertised and sparsely attended. When memorials become habits, days to be observed not out of an active desire to remember, but out of habit, they cease to serve their purpose. What happened recently on the cairn at UBC is just one example.
Because sure, one guy went nuts and killed a bunch of women, and that’s horrible, but that doesn’t mean anything about the wider society, does it? Only, it does. Violence against women has become normalized in our society; we accept on a regular basis.
Consider these statistics for a moment.
In 2015, CBC related that more than 700 sexual assaults were reported to both Canadian universities and colleges from 2009 and 2013. (You can read about the methodology here.) This data was based on a survey of 87 institutions across the country, of which 77 schools sent a reply. The proportion of sexual assaults by student population varied widely, and this could be attributed to either differing rates of sexual assault, better support systems, and even the ways in which sexual assaults are recorded. But regardless, this data is acknowledged to be on the low side, as is so often the case for sexual assaults and domestic violence. It is also unclear whether these are just sexual assaults that took place on campus or included off campus assaults, since policies on this vary from school to school. At the same time, CBC did not include cases that did not fit the definition of sexual assault as it appears in the Canadian criminal code. Complicating the matter still further are the low rates of sexual assault reports in general. Some estimates put the Canadian reporting rate for sexual assaults at less than 6%, while one UK study put it at 4% and a US study while put it at 5%.
If we do the math on this, and estimate that the reporting rate is 5%, then that gives us a total of 14,000 cases of sexual assault over five years, or 2,800 per year. Just in the Canadian post-secondary education system. And that is still likely low, since an estimated 15 to 25% of North American women experience sexual assault while a university of college student. That means if you are a professor, one out of every four female students you encounter has been or will be a victim of sexual assault. Think about how many of those women are in your classroom, right now.
|Number of Students|
|Average Number of Sexual Assaults Reported to Universities, per year (2009-2013)||140|
|Estimated total number of sexual assaults of university students, assuming a 5% reporting rate, per year||2,800|
|Total Canadian Postsecondary Student Population (2014-2015)||2,054,943|
|Estimated Female Canadian Postsecondary Student Population||1,027,471.5|
|Estimated Percentage of North American women who experience sexual assault while a postsecondary student||15% to 25%|
|Projected true number of current female Canadian postsecondary students who have experienced or will experience sexual assault at some point in their academic career||154,120 to 256,868|
It is likely that the number of estimated total number of sexual assaults of university students is actually even higher. These figures also don’t tell us how many male students experienced sexual assault, nor do they tell us anything about the violence experienced by trans, non-binary, gay, lesbian, or gender queer students.
And despite this, many universities have extremely poor systems for reporting instances of sexual assault, have contradictory policies with respect to their handling, and uneven punishments for offenders. Overall, less than 10% of reports are even resolved through a formal investigation and/or process. And that’s when they exist at all, since in November 2014, only 9 out of 102 schools even had policies for handling sexual assaults.
Of course, these are just statistics for sexual assault on campus. Half of all Canadian women will experience physical or sexual violence at least once after the age of sixteen. When we consider violent and non-violent hate crimes, roughly ¼ of victims in 2010 were female. Information on hate crimes against trans people is not even collected. In 2011 alone in Canada, 159 women and 45 men were victims of intimate partner homicides or attempted murder. And we must absolutely not forget about the at least 582 documented cases of missing and murdered Indigenous women and girls, from across this country, though the number is believed to be much higher. Between 1978 and 2006, nearly 70 women went missing from Vancouver’s Downtown East Side, the majority of whom were Indigenous. Robert Pickton would eventually be charged with the murder of 27 women. Trace DNA evidence of several other women was also found, but there wasn’t enough to press charges. So where did the rest of these women go? While you might say that we didn’t know this at the time, that’s not actually true. Indigenous communities and families have been raising the alarm for decades, but no one seemed to care. The federal government only opened an official investigation in 2015.
Victims, Representation, and Inclusion
In the years since 1984, the fourteen women who died at École Polytechnique that day have come to represent all Canadian women who are victims of violence against women. Perhaps the clearest evidence of this is that the anniversary of their death was established as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. But why do we remember these women and this instance of violence against women? There’s a very simple reason: because they were ideal victims.
Memorials often choose particular victims to remember because they are seen as representative of a certain group of people. However, as McNeill notes,  “only some subjects are suitable representatives for a community and nation to mourn, to champion, to remember. It’s a question of whose memory, whose story, whose community is being imposed, institutionalized, made officially worthy, through memorial rituals.” But in doing so, these memorials “reiterate the status quo of exclusivity and therefore highlight the inequities and gaps in and the impossibility of commemorating ‘all women murdered by men.'”
Those who are selected as victims worthy of memorials often fit within the mould of the “perfect victim,” wherein only certain individuals are deserving of being remembered and/or have their suffering validated. You can see this concept most often, and not unrelatedly, in court cases of sexual assault where the sexual history of the victim is often brought up as evidence against her credibility. It’s easy to relate to young, white, middle-class female students, to see them as deserving of remembrance (“a life cut short too soon”). But the same is not true for Indigenous women or women of colour who might have been prostitutes or drug addicts, who are not seen as true victims but whose abuse/deaths are, at best, rationalized, and, at worst, seen as “consequences of their actions.” The end result is not pretty: the lives of some women matter more than those of others.
Let us not forget, too, that memorials are dedicated to victims of suffering, reducing the identity of individuals to what was done to them rather than who they were while also ignoring the “complexity and fluidity of identities.” There is reason that we know so much about the shooter from the Montreal Massacre, and that so many people remember his name, but little is known about the lives of his victims besides that they were students and they were killed.
Why Doesn’t Anyone Care?
If you’re anything like me, then you’ve found yourself wondering why so many people just don’t seem to care about violence against women, or even believe factual evidence these days. In a recent video titled “Why Don’t Some People Believe in Science,” DNews (from the Discovery Channel), explored this very topic, and while host Trace Dominguez was speaking specifically about science, many of its insights apply equally to the study of history. In essence, humans have difficulty separating their emotions from their decision-making. These emotions, whether due to political ideology or even the weather, colour everything that we see, which means that many people pre-judge evidence with their emotions. This pre-judgement can be pre-empted by teaching critical thinking skills. But critical thinking takes effort and needs to be valued, because humans tend to resist any kind of change. As Dominguez argues, “we like the status quo, and our inherent opinion, because we value the groups we belong to now; change means inviting discomfort into our social reality.” I think he hit the nail on the head. And I think this gets to the heart of the problem that historians face; our national histories are so tied up with our national identities, and since we (in general) value our national and social identities, we are reluctant to believe in anything that might disrupt our beliefs. And everyone knows that Canadians are nice! We don’t hurt people, right?
So What Now?
As I noted earlier, commemorations and memorials are not neutral markers, but always communicate a story or a message that reinforces certain aspects of our common narrative. Or, as Christiane Wilke puts it, “identities shape memories and memorials as well. Memorials acquire their meanings in conversation with visitors and their identities. Thus, memorial practices ultimately reflect not only past suffering but also present identities, claims and relationships to the past”
But simply remembering isn’t enough; we must look for more.
Of course, this is often the point where some writers call for change without actually providing any suggestions about what to do, besides some vague pronouncements. But I’m not going to leave you like that.
So what needs to change? First of all, I think we need to recognize that the present has no meaning without the past, and the past has no meaning without the present. Many scholars have discussed the declining interest in history, and I agree that this is a fundamental problem. But while I think that the critical thinking skills that historians teach are necessary, one of the most important aspects of history is its ability to elicit empathy.
In the video above ( “Why Don’t Some People Believe in Science,”), Dominguez argues that we can only change people’s opinions by appealing to their curiosity rather than their emotions. I disagree, because I think you need both. Memorials are only as good as their ability to make people stop and think. How often do we pass them by without even noticing? When memorials become habits, days to be observed, or simply part of the everyday landscape they cease to serve their purpose. Without emotion, there can be no discomfort, without any discomfort, there cannot be any empathy, and without any empathy, there cannot be any change. I think this is where social history should come in, to help us break down the barriers between “us” and “them,” whether the comparison is between two groups or people in the past versus people in the present. I often find myself thinking back to one of the first survey classes that I ever taught. I tend to teach the surveys as social histories rather than the traditional narratives. Near the end of the semester, a male student approached me after class. He said that he wanted to thank me for how I had taught the class. Beforehand, he had been anti-feminist and thought that sexism was just a myth. But, he said that listening to me describe what it was like to be a nineteenth-century working-class woman, and then talking with his girlfriend, it showed him how little has changed. And the unfairness of it touched him to such an extent that he decided to become a feminist and speak out against sexism. That, for me, is the real value of history – the ability to elicit empathy.
By combining the lessons of social history with commemorations and memorials, we can create much more inclusive and complex national narratives that elicit empathy rather than invisibility. I’m going to briefly mention three of these. First are the famous stolperstein, or stumbling stones. Throughout Germany, artist Guenther Demnig has been installing these stumbling stones, or brass bricks, in locations where Jewish individuals used to live before the Nazis. These stones each contain a name, birth and death dates, and a short biography of the person. The stones are installed in the streets in such a way that they stick out just a bit. That’s why they are called “stumbling stones.” The idea is that people will literally stumble over them, read the inscription, and feel empathy for the person.
Another great memorial also developed in Germany is the “Radio Geister” or radio ghosts. In certain locations where fatal car accidents have occurred, small wooden crosses with radio transmitters were placed across the country. Once you drive within range of one of these transmitters, you will hear a message from the victim who died in that location. Go here to listen to one, just grab some tissues first.
Finally, there are the efforts of the members of the Displaced by War, Genocide, and Other Human Rights Violation working group, part of the Life Stories of Montrealers project. Community members, along with academics, transformed an old bus into a traveling memorial. The bus would travel from school to school, and students would be invited to board the bus. Once onboard, they listened to the stories of survivors of genocide from all over the world, including Rwanda, Congo, Zimbabwe, Syria, and Palestine. Students were then able to speak with the survivors themselves and to ask questions, before being given the option share their own stories. The goal was to create an environment of sharing, where individuals are seen not only as victims, but as survivors, and more importantly, as human beings. 
Where I think each of these projects succeeds is in tapping into the natural curiosity of human beings in order to allow them to connect with other people on an emotional level. It’s easy to dismiss a block of stone; it’s much harder to dismiss a survivor standing in front of you, telling you her story.
So do I think that the victims of the Montreal Massacre don’t deserve a memorial, or that we are all racist/sexist/etc… jerks? Absolutely not. That isn’t the point here. My point is that we need to start having these uncomfortable conversations, to do the meaningful work of memory, and to “engage with the complexity of the suffering, resistance and identities that the memorials can be made to speak to.” We need to make new dance steps and new dances, because the old ones just aren’t good enough anymore.
That’s it for this week. We’ll be back as usual on Sunday for another new Canadian history roundup. Maybe try to hug someone today. 😉
- Steven High, Oral History at the Crossroads: Sharing Life Stories of Survival and Displacement, (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2014).
- Sarah Hunt, “Decolonizing the Roots of Rape Culture,” Podcast Episode, EMMA Talks Podcast, December 5, 2016.
- Lisa Taylor, Umwali Sollange, Marie-Jolie Rwigema, “The Ethics of Learning from Rwandan Survivor Communities: Critical Reflexivity and the Politics of Knowledge Production in Genocide Education,” in Beyond Testimony and Trauma: Oral History in the Aftermath of Mass Violence, edited by Steven High, 88-118 (Vancouver: UBC Press, 2015).
 David Lowenthal, “Identity, Heritage, and History,” in Commemorations: The Politics of National Identity, John R. Gillis, ed. (Princeton, NJ: Princeton University Press, 1996): 49.
 Alessandro Portelli, The Death of Luigi Trastulli, and Other Stories: Form and Meaning in Oral History (Albany: SUNY Press, 1991), 59.
 Laurie McNeill, “Death and the Maidens: Vancouver’s Missing Women, the Montreal Massacre, and Commemoration’s Bling Spots,” Canadian Review of American Studies 38, no. 3 (2008): 376- 398.
 McNeill, “Death and the Maidens: Vancouver’s Missing Women, the Montreal Massacre, and Commemoration’s Bling Spots,” 385
 McNeill, “Death and the Maidens: Vancouver’s Missing Women, the Montreal Massacre, and Commemoration’s Bling Spots,” 385
 Christiane Wilke, “Remembering Complexity? Memorials for Nazi Victims in Berlin,” The International Journal of Transnational Justice, 7, no. 1 (2013): 139.
 Wilke, “Remembering Complexity? Memorials for Nazi Victims in Berlin,” 156.
 Michele Luchs and Elizabeth Miller, “On Tour with Mapping Memories: Sharing Refugee Youth Stories in Montreal Classrooms,” in Remembering Mass Violence: Oral History, New Media, and Performance, eds. Steven High, Edward Little, The Ry Duong, 235-253 (Toronto: University of Toronto Press, 2014).
 Wilke, “Remembering Complexity? Memorials for Nazi Victims in Berlin,” 156.