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The Montreal Massacre and The Status of Women

Seventeen years later, what's changed?

By Gina Whitfield 5 Dec 2006 | TheTyee.ca

Gina Whitfield is a feminist activist, writer and photographer living in Vancouver.

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If I Did It, Here's How is the working title. It's retired football star O.J. Simpson's "hypothetical" account of the killing of his ex-wife and her friend, and it's the Juice's crass attempt to squeeze more money out of his infamy.

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Well into the 21st century, men are still "doing it," as in killing or abusing women. And how they get away with it has something to do with the continuing structural inequality and sexism prevalent in society. The massacre, rather than being just a random attack by a madman, was an expression of attitudes toward women that are still latent today and continue to hold women back.

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It has now been 17 years since the Montreal Massacre of Dec. 6, 1989, when Marc Lepine entered an engineering class at L'Ecole Polytechnique, separated the women from the men, then murdered 14 women with a semi-automatic rifle. In addition to killing the young engineering students, Lepine had a "hit list" of an additional 19 women he identified as feminists, including the first female firefighter in Quebec, the first female police captain, a president of a trade union, a sports radio host, the immigration minister at the time and a transition house worker.

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Lepine's mother spoke publicly this year about her son's actions for the first time. She recalled the violence she experienced at the hands of her son's father, and how Lepine blamed her both for that violence and for leaving her batterer.

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Fortunately, my generation of young women has not lived through an attack as traumatic as this one, but many still experience what Lepine's mother did, as rates of violence against women in this country have remained essentially the same.

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Status(less) of Women

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And taking only the sensational cases of violence from the past few months (most violence against women is never reported), we have seen the murder of five girls at a one-room Amish schoolhouse in Pennsylvania, where a gunman again let the male students go. And closer to home, we have seen the high profile murders of Manjit Panghali and Navrett Kaur Waraich. The often implicitly racist discourses we hear in some media are misleading, as evidence shows that male violence is present across all ethnic groups. And the Pickton case, indeed, serves as a constant reminder of the seriousness of violence against women. There are, furthermore, still over 60 women missing from the Downtown Eastside and over 500 missing aboriginal women across Canada.

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On the political level, especially with the current federal government, we can see the need not just to remember the dead, but to fight for equality for the living as well. Harper's Conservative government is brazenly attacking Canadian women's fight for equality. In fact, the mandate for Status of Women has been drastically changed, with the word "equality" being taken out and replaced with "participation." Harper and his cabinet minister, Bev Oda, are brazenly maintaining that fighting for women's equality is no longer necessary in this era.

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Funding to Status of Women will also be cut by 40 per cent by April 2007, with the terms and conditions once used by equality-seeking women's groups changed to prevent funding going to lobbying, advocacy and research. Of course, nationally, most feminist groups are working on issues of women's poverty, violence and health and will no longer receive Status of Women money to fight for women's equality. These new changes to the terms and conditions of funding will not only force the closure of feminist organizations across Canada, but will also allow private corporations to apply for funding, as long as they claim to be committed to women's "participation" in society. Meanwhile, it is expected that the cuts and changes in language will likely mean a shut down of the British Columbia/Yukon office of Status of Women.

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There is still a need for these organizations. Although women make up slightly more than half of the voters in Canada, women are far from equally represented in Parliament. Not to mention that when women do gain access to these male-dominated spaces, they are openly called dogs in the House of Commons and bitches on talk radio -- by the likes of Peter MacKay and Norman Spector -- seemingly without repercussions.

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With the spectre of male violence still hanging over us in Canada, women across the country are fighting back. On Dec. 10, International Human Rights Day, a new campaign will be launched to save Status of Women Canada. And on Dec. 6, the anniversary of the Montreal massacre, women's groups across the country will be holding a rally to remember and to demand equality in our generation.

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The Dec. 6 memorial rally in Vancouver gets underway at 6:30p.m, outside the Vancouver Public Library Central Branch, 350 West Georgia.

The Dec. 6 memorial in Golden, BC gets underway at noon in front of the post office. They will be lighting candles, reading the names of the victims, and leaving empty shoes as a reminder of the women still missing from the Downtown Eastside and lost on the Trans Canada highway.

The Kelowna Women's Resource Centre, Central Okanagan Elizabeth Fry Society, and the Ki-Low-Na Friendship Society are co-hosting a December 6th candlelight vigil to remember women victims of violence in Canada, including local women who have been killed by male violence. The event begins at 6:30 pm at Springvalley Elementary School, 740 Ziprick Rd. There will be a candlelight march to the Mindy Tran memorial, a rose dedication ceremony, speakers, and a special honor song and drumming for the women who are missing or murdered on the Highway of Tears in northern BC. We welcome everyone to this important event in Kelowna.

If you know of other events around the province, please list them in the comments section below.

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A version of this piece first appeared in Seven Oaks Magazine.  [Tyee]

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