Tag Archives: ecole polytechnique massacre

December 6th, 2016

Every December 6th I sit down and work, and reflect on the voices missing from the scientific community. I generally work in public, and this is the first year I’ve worked in public in an non-academic space. I have no academic space in this city, and soon will have no academic space at all; I have still not quite adjusted to that. Somehow sitting in a coffee shop with a laptop and half a dozen terminal windows open is a poor substitute for sitting in my office, or the library, or the table at the end of the fourth floor hallway where I started this ritual over a decade ago.

In 1989, it was nearly unthinkable that someone would walk into a school and start murdering people in cold blood. But 27 years and hundreds of school shootings later (largely in the US), it’s still heartbreaking but somehow no-one’s really surprised anymore. Violence aimed at women has always, always been a thread running through society, but in the nearly three decades since the École Polytechnique massacre, that violence is increasingly in public eye. Much of this is due to the tireless and brave work of women and feminists to hold abusers to account, to speak up when they are harrassed in the work place, and to work towards a society where violence against women is not accepted or acceptable. I cannot emphasize how grateful I am to the women who came before me, and how important that work continues to be.

The other reason violence against women is more visible is because the perpetrators are increasingly public about their actions. One glance at the Twitter mentions of any prominent, outspoken woman will likely turn up rape threats, death threats, and a stream of harassment. Being a woman in public on the internet is to be subject to a steady grind of violence. And when the American president-elect is publicly gloating about sexually assaulting women, suddenly all those men forming the Greek chorus of harassment and violence feel like they have permission to act with impunity.

Violence isn’t always as stark and overwhelming as the École Polytechnique massacre, but mass murder sits at the very end of a long continuum of violence against women, and that violence is far from eradicated from the scientific community. In the past year, multiple cases of sexual harassment and abuse have surfaced from science departments, and there are surely dozens and dozens more cases that haven’t made it to national media. Scientific departments are still male dominated and still operate in sexist ways, even if there isn’t a serial abuser or three operating with few repercussions to their actions. That low-level hum of violence and the constant resistance to push back against it just to stay in the same place is draining, disheartening, and ultimately leads to a lot of women and other underrepresented people to leave science. Sometimes this is voluntary, sometimes it’s not, and blessedly rarely it’s at the end of a gun.

I have mostly accepted my decision to leave academia as being the right choice for me. I didn’t leave because of harassment or violence, I left because I realized I would be happy doing other things, and the notion of hopping from contract to contract around the world filled me with dread rather than excitement. I am not leaving science, just the academy. I have the capacity to fight, the bandwidth to push for inclusion and acceptance, the strength to pull people up the ladder behind me, and the conviction to follow through on that. I continue to fight, but outside the academy rather than from within, and I worry that that’s not enough. I know I don’t carry The Weight Of All Women in Science alone, and I know that burning out helps precisely no-one. But on days like today, the weight is heavy.

As a closing note for this admittedly scattered post, this piece from two years ago reflecting on how the women murdered in the École Polytechnique massacre were portrayed remains a very important read.

December 6th

December 6th is National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women here, and this year it’s the 23rd anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre. In the past year, the long gun registry, which was put in place in 1995 after considerable debate (and pressure from women’s groups and gun control advocates), has been unceremoniously scrapped. One of the perceived front-runners in the Liberal leadership race now contends that it was a failure, even though he previously voted for keeping it. Each year there’s fewer and smaller memorial services and recognition of the day, as it fades out of the collective memory and into a shadowy box labelled “History.” I’m not an advocate of dwelling on the past, but I think the massacre’s anniversary is an important touchstone in Canadian women’s history, and I’m concerned that that seems to be a minority opinion. There’s not a lot of touchstones in Canadian women’s history.

I am a woman, a physicist, and a feminist. I am exactly the sort of person that Lépine was trying to silence, so it’s important to me to take a moment to reflect both on how fortunate I am to live in a time and place where I can pursue a scientific career and an advanced degree, and on how much more work there is to be done to reduce gender inequality and drive out the ignorant attitudes and outright misogyny that allows attitudes like Lépine’s to flourish. Each year around this time there’s usually some dreck written (almost invariably by a man) about how Lépine was a lone madman, and there’s no cultural significance to the fact that he actively sought out women to murder and explicitly said that he was killing them because they were women (and assumed feminists), and right on cue, there’s an article that can only in the more generous of worlds be called drivel published in the National Post yesterday that does just that. I’m not linking to it (google it if you feel like spiking your blood pressure in anger), but the (male) author posits that the real victims are men, Conservatives, and anyone who is against the long gun registry. Apparently all three groups are “bitterly attacked” every year around the anniversary, and that’s totally more important than the fact that women face vastly disproportionate amounts of violence (domestic, sexual, physical, institutional, economic,…) every single day. If we ladies realized that we’ve bruised a few men’s egos and just stopped acknowledging that one of the most public acts of violence against women in Canadian history occurred, then everything would be peaches and sunshine!

Absolutely not. We need to drag misogyny out into the light, call it what it is, and work to dismantle it, not wring our collective hands about the dented egos of men who make every issue primarily about themselves. Dented egos do not trump institutionalized violence, and the fact that this sort of dreck can still be published in a national newspaper is indication enough that there is still considerable work to be done.

So every December 6th, regardless of how much work I have on my desk or have managed to clear off my desk, I sit down and do science. Thankfully, actions like Lépine’s are rare, but the attitude and cultural narrative that informed his actions is still pervasive, and women are still woefully underrepresented in STEM fields at all levels. It’s a small action, but it’s important to me that on a day where women were silenced for pursuing what was perceived by Lépine (and plenty of others) to be men’s rightful work, I continue to contribute my voice and my work to a similarly male-dominated field. I’m currently working on writing a paper for publication, and it’s the first paper I’m working on in my PhD. I don’t expect that scores of people will read it, but I’m proud that I can contribute to academic literature, and I’m proud to put my female name on my work. I’m fortunate that I can be a part of normalizing the presence of women and their contributions to science, so that hopefully, women and girls who follow me will have an easier path.

Memorial plaque commemorating the 14 murdered women: 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, and Barbara Klucznik Widajewicz.