From 1989: Railing against feminists, a gunman kills 14 women on a Montreal campus, then shoots himself

BARRY CAME December 18 1989


From 1989: Railing against feminists, a gunman kills 14 women on a Montreal campus, then shoots himself

BARRY CAME December 18 1989

At first, they viewed it as a prank, some kind of collegiate farce in keeping with the festive spirit that marked the second-last day of classes at the University of Montreal’s Ecole polytechnique. The man was young, about the same age as most of the roughly 60 engineering students gathered in Room 303 on the second floor of the yellow-brick building sprawled across the north slope of the mountain in the heart of the city. He entered the classroom slowly a few minutes past 5 on a bitterly cold afternoon. There was a shy smile on his face as he interrupted a dissertation on the mechanics of heat transfer. In clear, unaccented French, he asked the women to move to one side of the room and ordered the men to leave. The request was greeted with titters of laughter. “Nobody moved,” recalled Prof. Yvan Bouchard. “We thought it was a joke.” An instant later, Bouchard and his students discovered that what they were confronting was no joke.

Shots: The young man, who would later be identified as a 25-year-old semirecluse named Marc Lépine, lifted a light, semiautomatic rifle and fired two quick shots into the ceiling. “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists,” Lépine shouted at the suddenly terrified occupants of Room 303. He told the men to leave—they did so without protest—and, as one of the young women attempted to reason with him, the gun-toting man opened fire in earnest. Six of the women were shot dead. Over the course of the next 20 minutes, the young man methodically stalked the cafeteria, the classrooms and the corridors of the school, leaving a trail of death and injury in his wake. In four separate locations scattered around three floors of the six-storey structure, he gunned down a total of 27 people, leaving 14 of them dead. Finally, he turned his weapon against himself, blowing off the top of his skull. Most of the injured and all of the dead—except for the gunman himself—were women. This week, the city and the nation will mourn again for the victims as a funeral service is held for 11 of the victims at Montreal’s Notre Dame Roman Catholic church.

It was the worst single-day massacre in Canadian history. And the very senselessness of the act prompted an outpouring of grief, indignation and outright rage. The City of Montreal and the Province of Quebec declared three days of mourning. Vigils were mounted in cities and towns from coast to coast. Churches held memorial services. Prime Minister Brian Mulroney and his wife, Mila, travelled to the school to offer their condolences on behalf of the rest of Canada. “It is indeed a national tragedy,” he said. Earlier, with the flag atop Parliament fluttering at half-staff, the Prime Minister had asked a hushed House of Commons: “Why such violence in a society that considers itself civilized and compassionate?”

Rampage: The question was not the only one that Marc Lépine’s rampage raised. His actions and a three-page suicide note in which, police said, he blamed feminists for spoiling his life, threw into sharp relief a number of equally unsettling issues. They included: the extent to which the act reflected a society in which many women suffer violence at the hands of men (page 18); how he had reached the conclusion that simply to be female was sufficient cause to justify his victims’ deaths; how a clearly disturbed man was able to obtain a lethal weapon with apparent ease; and how it was possible for a man with a gun to terrorize single-handedly so many people for so long without anyone lifting a hand to stop him. The tragedy also brought to light details of the killer’s own troubled childhood, during which his violent father beat him, his mother and his younger sister, according to testimony in a divorce hearing.

But no matter how pressing the unanswered questions were, it was simply a time for mourning last week for those close to the 14 women whose lives were snuffed out on the brink of what, for most, had promised to be a bright future. They were intelligent, talented, skilled young people. By definition, they were out of the ordinary. They were women training to be engineers, a profession that is dominated by men. And they were enrolled in a school that is ranked as among the best in Quebec.

Interview: One of them, Anne-Marie Edward, was 21 years old, studying to become a chemical engineer. “She was the kind of kid that a father never doubted would do well,” her father, James Edward, told Maclean’s last week during an interview in the family’s comfortable home in suburban Pierrefonds. “She was proudest of the fact that she had just been named to the university’s alpine ski team. She did everything and still found time for her studies.” Edward was wracked with anxiety when, driving home from work last Wednesday, his wife called him on his car phone to tell him that a gunman had gone berserk at the engineering school. When he eventually learned that his daughter had been found dead, slumped in a chair in the school’s cafeteria, he was devastated. Struggling to control his emotions, he said, “Anne-Marie was a super kid.”

Rifle: It was around 5:10 p.m. on Wednesday when Marc Lépine walked through one of the seven lightly controlled entrances into the engineering school. He was dressed in blue jeans, work boots, a dark jacket and peaked cap. He carried a green, polyethylene garbage bag holding two 30-clip magazines and a rifle. It was a .223-calibre Sturm, Ruger semiautomatic. He headed directly for the second floor, where he encountered his first victim in the corridor 15 m from the office of the school’s finance director. Lépine shot and killed Maryse Laganière, 25, a recently married finance department employee.

From that point, Lépine made his way along the second floor to Room 303, where he sent the male students out and opened fire, killing six of the 10 women who remained. Then, Lépine went down to the first floor. Firing at diving, ducking students as he went, he entered the cafeteria, where he killed Edward and two of her classmates.

Still on the hunt, Lépine climbed back up to the third floor, where he strode into Room 311. Students, unaware of the unfolding tragedy, were delivering end-of-semester oral presentations. “At first, nobody did anything,” recalled Eric Forget, 21. Then, the gunman opened fire, sending two professors and 26 students scrambling for cover beneath their desks. “We were trapped like rats,” said Forget. “He was shooting all over the place.” Other eyewitnesses said that Lépine leaped onto several desks and shot at women cowering beneath them. Four more women were killed. Then, roughly 20 minutes after embarking on his rampage, Lépine took his own life.

Spree: The toll of Lépine’s rampage placed last week’s tragedy near the top of the list of the worst such mass murders. The most lethal killing spree on recent record in North America occurred when Vietnam veteran James Huberty killed 21 people, including several children, at a McDonald’s restaurant in San Ysidro, Calif., in July, 1984. Sniper Charles Whitman, who opened fire from the top of a tower at the University of Texas in Austin in August, 1966, and Ronald Gene Simmons—a retired air force sergeant who went on a December killing spree in Arkansas in 1987—each took 16 lives. The worst mass killing in Canada before last week was in January, 1975, when 13 people died after being herded into a storage room in Montreal’s Gargantua nightclub—one from gunshot wounds, the others from asphyxiation when the building was set on fire—in what was believed to be an underworld contract murder.

The number of Montrealers touched directly by the massacre swiftly amplified the sadness of the latest tragedy. Minutes after Lépine fired the final bullet, police officer Pierre Leclair, who had been briefing reporters outside the building, wandered in and found the body of his 23-year-old daughter, Maryse, a top student. Montreal city councillor Thérèse Daviau rushed home when she received reports of the shooting during a council meeting. But she had to wait until midnight to learn that her daughter, Geneviève Bergeron, had died. The following day, Mayor Jean Doré wiped tears from his eyes as he told reporters that Bergeron often babysat his three-year-old daughter. Said Doré of the massacre: “You raise a kid and do everything to make the kid a responsible adult. Then, through a sheer act of madness, all this disappears.”

Losses: As the victims’ families took stock of their losses, the full brunt of the slaughter began to hit home. Schoolteacher Noëlla Fecteau told Maclean’s that her niece Hélène Colgan, a 23-year-old mechanical engineering student, was “the pride of our entire family.” Colgan was only one semester away from graduation. Said a tearful Fecteau, who travelled from Quebec City to console Colgan’s parents at their home in Laval: “Hélène brought a lot of joy to the family. There are no words to describe the grief.”

Fernand Croteau beat his fists against the wall of his home in suburban Brossard when he learned that one of his two daughters—23-year-old Nathalie—was a victim. She and her 20-year-old sister, a biochemistry student, were her father’s greatest source of pride. Said Croteau, who works as a laboratory technician: “I had two wonderful daughters. Now I only have one. The whole thing is incomprehensible. I am devastated.”

Family: At the engineering school, the student body itself seemed to be a tightly knit family. Croteau and Colgan were among a group of classmates who had booked a New Year’s holiday to Cancún, Mexico. But Lépine’s brief reign of terror clearly reduced students to near helplessness. The four dozen men in Room 303 all left quickly, despite the clear threat to the women. And although there were more than 2,500 students and administrators in the building, no one made any attempt to stop Lépine.

André Biron, the school’s associate director of advanced studies and research, told Maclean ’s that he and several other administrators locked the door of a second-floor office when told that a gunman was loose. They remained there until police arrived. Added Biron: “No one felt like a Rambo. It did not occur to me to intervene.”

A central figure in another shooting drama in Quebec more than five years ago concluded that someone should have intervened. Lépine’s suicide note, which police described but did not release, referred to the assault on Quebec’s national assembly by Canadian Armed Forces Cpl. Denis Lortie in 1984. Lortie, who burst into the provincial legislature dressed in army fatigues, killed three people before war veteran René Jalbert—then employed as the assembly’s sergeant-at-arms—approached him unarmed and talked him into surrendering. From his home in Quebec City last week, Jalbert told Maclean ’s that it might also have been possible to cut short Lépine’s mindless rampage. Declared Jalbert, who has received training in dealing with terrorists: “I would have tried to do something. Somebody should have distracted the little bastard.”

At the same time, Jalbert said ordinary citizens cannot be expected to react heroically in the midst of terror. “When something like that happens, it is like a bomb going off,” he added. “People in those situations panic; they either freeze or go wild.”

Guards: For his part, the University of Montreal’s chief of security guards, Laurent Lemaire, told Maclean’s that Lépine’s massacre was unstoppable. Added Lemaire: “If you can get away from a man who is killing people with a gun, that is what you do. The people around you no longer matter.” Lemaire added that the university’s expansive campus is difficult to secure. Said Lemaire: “You cannot screen the 45,000 people who come and go here every day. It is a city in itself.”

Weapons: Restricting the availability of weapons like the gun that Marc Lépine utilized to such lethal effect is another matter, however. The federal government is currently reviewing existing gun-control legislation, passed in 1978, and is expected to present new legislation soon. Justice Minister Douglas Lewis promised in the House of Commons last week that tougher laws were in the making. He said the main change will seek to thwart the import of semiautomatic weapons that can readily be converted to full, automatic firing. At the same time, while lamenting the massacre at the University of Montreal, he added, “We can’t legislate against insanity.”

Coping with the results of the particular form of insanity that occurred in Montreal last week is no less difficult. In the aftermath of the massacre, those most closely affected struggled to come to grips with what happened. Psychological counselling programs have been established for the victims’ families, for the surviving students and even for the police officers who witnessed the carnage. For the rest, there was little to do but mourn. The closed coffins of nine of the 14 dead women were arranged late last week in the chapel beneath the University of Montreal’s main tower. On Saturday, private viewings were held for immediate family. On Sunday, the general public was admitted. On Monday, the city’s Paul Cardinal Gregoire will celebrate mass at Notre Dame before a congregation that was expected to include Quebec Premier Robert Bourassa and Prime Minister Mulroney. The funeral service will bring an end to the official period of mourning. It will not erase the memory of the horror that fell upon the University of Montreal’s engineering school.