Manhandling Montreal: WHO were the victims?
by Dolores Fong
December 6th marks the day 33 years ago when Marc Lépine, 25, walked into the École Polytechnique, which is affiliated with the University of Montreal. In a plastic bag he was carrying not only a hunting knife but a semi-automatic rifle. He made his way, with purpose, to a mechanical engineering classroom of more than sixty students and told the men and women to separate into opposite sides of the room. When they were slow to do so, he shot twice into the air. Once separated, in French, he told the men to leave and proceeded to ask the remaining nine women if they knew why they remained. They didn’t know, so he proceeded to tell them he was fighting feminism. When one student, Nathalie Provost, tried to dissuade him, he retorted : ”You’re women, you’re going to be engineers. You’re all a bunch of feminists” and proceeded to open fire on the female students, killing most while the rest played dead as best they could. He proceeded to roam around the school, shooting people and even killing one student, Maryse Leclair, with his hunting knife after shooting then stabbing her three times. By the end of about 20 minutes, he had murdered 14 women as well as injured 10 women and 4 men. Lépine then killed himself as his last act. This abhorrent day was known as the Montreal Massacre.
This is a notable day infamously imprinted in Canadian history. December 6th has become designated our National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women. Despite the killer’s words as he slaughtered these women, it wasn’t until 2019, thirty years afterwards and 10 years after this was proposed by feminists, that city officials officially dubbed this an anti-feminist terrorist attack. While this has been understood to be a clear instance of femicide and sex-based violence, in recent years it has been inaccurately represented as gender-based violence. Sex, in sexually dimorphic humans, is separated into females and males; gender is traditionally a linguistic denotation that represents masculine and feminine. Because in society, it has been used interchangeably with sex to be more polite, it has of late been used to replace to sex. As a result, on days meant to memorialize this tragic brutalization of women, trans-identified males have been asked to represent our pain publicly in Canada.
Last year on December 6th, trans-identified male Anastasia Preston was asked to speak at a memorial service arranged by the P.E.I. Advisory Council on the Status of Women. At the time, he was a Trans Community Outreach Coordinator who appropriated the grief of women to instead speak of hardships transwomen go through, even going so far to try and empathize by commiserating about the time he got groped at a bar while wearing a red dress. It was also unveiled that a few months earlier, he had retweeted an illustration of a person holding a gun-like toy calling themselves a NERF. This term is a play on the derogatory slur many TRAs (trans rights activists) use, adding “non” to the term and is a nod to the brand of the gun-like toy depicted, Nerf by Hasbro. Many people took offense to the callous comparison and the slight threat of gun violence the illustration implied, especially considering this person was insensitively selected to memorialize victims of gun violence. The public backlash was so intense that the national media outlet, CBC, decided to turn off the comment section of both their articles and tweets reporting the event. I sent a complaint to the P.E.I. Advisory Council, and they responded that they would share the feedback they receive with their organization’s leadership.
A retweet from Anatasia Preston Photo of Anatasia Preston
Despite the public backlash of this mishandling of a sensitive topic, the insult was repeated again this year when Durham College, in Oshawa, invited Fae Johnstone, trans-identified male, to give a keynote address for their National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women / Montreal Massacre memorialization. This seems deliberate as Johnstone had commented that Preston was his hero during the former controversy. Johnstone is a Canadian-based executive director and co-owner of Wisdom2Action. He also serves on the board of directors of Canada’s YWCA. He identifies himself as a non-binary trans femme person and on his personal website, a white settler from a middle-class family.
News of his keynote speech rubbed some critics the wrong way. Jennifer Anne was one of those skeptical of this arrangement. She is an activist who has been working to get the GBA (gender based analysis) released for bills like Bill C-16 from the Canadian government, to show the effects on women’s rights for full transparency. On the day Johnstone gave his speech, she attempted to question him about the conflation of sex- based violence with gender-based, letting males speak on behalf of women and on how women can stay safe in this environment of self-identification. She asked her question during the appropriate question time and was even recording the interaction, which can be heard through her personal Twitter account. In the recording, after the question is asked, Johnstone is heard dismissively saying “Thank you. Next question please.” When Jennifer Anne inquires further why her question is being ignored, one of the administrative hosts offers to facilitate a private conversation. One of the administrative hosts admonishes that though she believes in open forum, she feels this "needs a more intimate conversation." One wonders why a public forum about violence against women isn’t the correct place to ask about violence against women.
When asked to comment on the event for Gender Dissent, Jennifer Anne maintained, “I was shut down for asking about how to keep women safe against male violence all because I made a man uncomfortable. A man who profits off of calling himself a woman. A man who demands we affirm his ‘identity’. A man named Fae.” Her complete interaction at the Durham talk is here and here.
After negative reactions appeared online from this interaction, Johnstone took to Twitter to rationalize that if he had been there that day, the massacrist Lépine would have certainly killed him as well, either because he was trans or because he resembles a woman enough. I agree with Johnstone that he potentially could have been killed as the other men injured that day almost were. What Johnstone seems to fail to understand, is if he had been killed, it would have been because he was a “civilian casualty” not because he was the target. Lépine was very clear who and why he was executing as we know from the suicide note he left behind. The note details his deranged reasoning and lists 19 women that he wanted to assassinate if given the chance. Essentially he insinuates that if he had the means and time to do so, he would be going after the 19 women and was settling for the death of these 14 students.
(Backlash from Johnstone’s keynote address Tweets.)
One of the 19, named Francine Pelletier, actually worked for the newspaper La Presse, which published the suicide note. She told the Toronto Star in an interview in 2014 “It broke my heart. It didn’t change who I was. But many of his victims probably weren’t even feminists (and) I felt they died in my name. For me, Polytechnique sounded the death knell of the glory days of feminism. Those days were gone when he started shooting. Feminism wouldn’t be easy anymore. He was our first terrorist and nobody was treating it that way. Those (engineering) students dared to take the place of men. They represented our future and he was targeting our future — how we imagined ourselves to be.”
The suicide note clearly stated who his perceived target was. Lépine wrote ‘...Sorry for this too brief letter. [List of 19 women he wanted to kill] nearly died today. The lack of time (because I started too late) has allowed those radical feminists to survive…”. Even when one of the victims, Provost, tries to dissuade him by saying "Look, we are just women studying engineering, not necessarily feminists ready to march on the streets to shout we are against men, just students intent on leading a normal life." That did not change his mind and it didn’t matter that what was perceived wasn’t necessarily the accurate case. A hate crime isn’t about who the person is, it’s based on who the attacker perceives the person to be. Yes, trans-identified males may get caught up in the crossfire like the injured men were that day. Though the same could be said of passing trans-racial people and trans-ableists who encounter a person who is looking to harm people of colour or disabled people. That doesn’t change the premise of the hate crime being committed.
Lépine was targeting feminists who didn’t believe that gendered expectations should limit them. While “gender critical” musings, such as from the Transsexual Empire by Janice Raymond, did exist at the time, the term was not common. In his suicide note, he wrote that “it is an obvious truth that if the Olympic Games removed the Men-Women distinction, there would be Women only in the graceful events. So the feminists are not fighting to remove that barrier.” Was he criticizing women for wanting to remove only some sex-segregating barriers?
Radical feminists, then as now, were opposed to the social and cultural expectations
of women, which can simply be described as gender. Johnstone himself does not shy away from vilifying feminists who oppose gender, which is part of why it’s such an especially peculiar decision that Durham College asked him to do a keynote address at an event that mourns violence against such feminists. He also took to Twitter not a day later to continue the vilification. In the Tweet, he refers to gender critical feminists as “...so-called feminists (i.e., anti-trans bigots)...” The irony seems to be lost on him that he perpetrates the animosity these women died for.
(From the Twitter account of Fae Johnstone)
Severely inappropriate emulation during this day of mourning was likewise carried out by a Twitter account, FXTrava, that seems to be linked to convicted murderer Synthia China-Blast, also known and Luis Morales. He was one of two men who was arrested for the rape, torture and murder of 13-year-old Ebony Nicole Williams whose body was stuffed in a box and was set on fire to the point that only her dental records could identify her. Accounts also show he bragged about killing her to his friends, some of whom later testified against him in court. He is a staunch advocate of trans identified males being placed in women’s prisons and was even sympathetically spot lit by trans actor, Laverne Cox in 2014 as a way to aid the Sylvia Rivera Law Project, much to the detriment of both feminist and black activists. Cox has since intentionally kept distance from China-Blast. He is known to have multiple Twitter accounts where he spouts violent rhetoric to women, especially gender-critical ones. J.K. Rowling also called out one of his tweets earlier this year. The account in question that commented on the Montreal Massacre comments “Great job. Wish I could of helped” to a tweet that notes the 33rd death anniversary.
(Images from accounts of Synthia China-Blast, also known as Luis Morales.)
My mother, pregnant with me at the time, recalls the fear that swept through Canadians, especially female ones. She describes anxiety and horror. My older cousin was actually a student at the University of Montreal, and my parents’ first thought was to rush to the phone to assure themselves that she wasn’t one of the many unfortunate victims. Every year femicide occurs in Canada, especially in indigenous communities that have a disproportionately large female murder rate. Rates of domestic abuse have shot up in Canada during the recent pandemic. If we can’t define or talk about our unique sex-based oppression, then we can’t properly address it.
(Plaque for the 14 women killed in the Montreal Massacre located at École Polytechnique)
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