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December 6, 2006 remembering the lost, honouring the living

by Patricia Enborg | November 21, 2000

Heidi Rathjen remembers December 6, 1989 like it was yesterday. She was an engineering student at the École Polytechnique, the University of Montreal’s engineering school. She was in the student lounge when a friend burst in and said there was a guy with a gun.

Not sure what to do, she closed the doors and turned off the lights. Then, there were loud noises, “It didn’t sound at all like gun shots because every kind of noise you hear in the movies, it’s not the same thing. It sounded like planks of wood falling down.”

Just over half an hour later, it was all over. Fourteen young women were dead, murdered by Marc Lepine, who then turned the gun on himself.

Thirteen others were wounded.

Lepine went out of his way to target women. Heavily armed with a semi-automatic assault rifle, knives and extra ammunition, he had prowled the classrooms and the cafeterias of the school, separating men from women, allowing the men to flee.

He then shot women.

He left behind a three-page suicide note blaming women for his troubles. In it he wrote, “... I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker.”

Rathjen and the others in the lounge were finally escorted out by police. They didn’t realize the extent of the horror until they watched the news on television.

Not surprisingly, Rathjen had a sleepless night.

The next day, she felt the need to do something – anything – to help.

She knew two of the people who were killed, and one of the injured. “It’s unreal. It’s parents and families for which the tragedy is the worst. You could feel it when you were around them, the horror of what had happened and their suffering.”

Rathjen decided to channel her feelings of shock and sadness. She and Wendy Cukier formed the Coalition for Gun Control to press the federal government to enact gun control legislation.

It took six years, but for Heidi it was all worth it when the families involved celebrated Bill C-68’s passage in the Senate.

She remembers one of the mothers telling her, “More lives will be saved with this bill than the 14 women who were taken on December sixth and they didn’t die in vain, thank you.”

Says Heidi, “That allowed me to turn the page, and whatever feelings of guilt and helplessness were there, I could set aside.”

It was the work of one disturbed man. But he was only one such murderer: 17 years later, violence against women remains a prominent social problem.

Each year, on December 6, Canadians remember that horrible event with candlelight vigils and marches. They remember the 14. And they remember others.

Statistics Canada recently released a comprehensive look at the prevalence and severity of the problem in a new report called Measuring Violence Against Women: Statistical Trends. It found that the rates of spousal violence and spousal homicide are highest for Aboriginal women. The same holds true for the severity and the impact of spousal violence.

The World Health Organization has also looked closely at domestic violence, producing a landmark study showing that intimate-partner violence is the most common form of violence in women’s lives.

More than 24,000 women from rural and urban areas around the world were interviewed. The study found that one-quarter to one-half of those who had been physically assaulted suffered physical injuries.

From the study:

  • “He got this gun, I don’t know from who ... And he would tell the girls: ‘I’m going to kill your mother ... The day will break and your mother will be dead right here ...’” — woman interviewed in Brazil
  • “He hit me in the belly and made me miscarry two babies - identical or fraternal twins, I don’t know. I went to Loayza hospital with heavy bleeding and they cleaned me up.” — woman interviewed in Peru

The WHO cited the need to take a global view of domestic violence and to treat it as a major public health issue.

In fact, that’s already beginning to happen. Just recently, representatives of more than 40 countries met in Montreal for the first international conference on the subject, organized by the Interdisciplinary Research Centre on Family Violence and Violence Against Women.

Attendees reached a consensus on five conditions considered necessary to eliminate violence against women:

  • reaffirm that violence exists,
  • that it no longer be considered an individual but a social problem,
  • the need for consistent social responses (from police, courts, health services etc.),
  • start an international awareness campaign and
  • the need for new funding.

As well, a Canadian group is building an online presence to remember those women who have been murdered, and those who are missing. The site will also be a place to exchange ideas about how to prevent such violence. The Global Women’s Memorial Web Project began as a partnership between the National Film Board of Canada and the Global Women’s Memorial Society. It is now looking to expand, taking steps to gain new supporters.

The site’s goal, one to which we could all aspire to, is summed up this way, “The way we remember those we have lost to violence mirrors the depths to which we value the living, inspiring us to prevent further violence.”

Want to know what you can do? Take a look at the links below, especially 16 DAYS of activism to end gender violence and the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women Calendar of Activities.

This feature was first published on section15.ca’s predecessor site CoolWomen.

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