The initial accounts were horrifying. A lone gunman had stalked and killed 14 students in the halls, cafeteria and classrooms of the engineering building at the University of Montreal. But the national revulsion increased dramatically when it became clear that the 25year-old killer, Marc Lépine, had deliberately singled out women as his victims and spared the men. “You’re all a bunch of feminists,” Lépine shouted before opening fire on the first half-dozen of his victims. Last week, women who gathered at vigils across the country found a grim significance in those words.
From St. John’s to Vancouver, hundreds of men and women shared their grief and fear, and voiced their outrage over what many described as simply an extreme expression of a violence-prone male hostility towards women that they found to be tragically commonplace. Declared Maria Eriksen, a professor of women’s studies at the University of Calgary, to the 200 people assembled for a vigil on that campus: “It is not accidental in this misogynist society that men kill women.” But other observers refused to accept the rampage of a lone madman as any kind of symbol of male antagonism towards women.
Unusual: Helen Morrison was one. Said the Chicagobased psychiatrist, who has studied serial and mass murderers for nearly 20 years:
“This incident is very unusual. If people are going to use -
this as a political issue, they are missing the point.” Still, women do face violence with a frequency that commands attention and alarm. One study, conducted by Ottawa-based researcher Linda MacLeod for the federal secretary of state’s department and released in October, asserted that one woman in four can
expect to be sexually assaulted at some time in her life—half of them before they are 17. One million Canadian women, MacLeod reported, are abused by their husbands or live-in partners every year. And in Edmonton, Herbert Pascoe, a forensic psychiatrist at Alberta Hos-
pital, claimed that Lépine’s apparent resentment of successful women is widely shared. Said Pascoe: “The fact is that many, many men feel inadequate and inferior in their relations with the opposite sex. And this can show up in some very unpleasant activities.”
That view seemed to prevail among many of
the hundreds of women who huddled together at emotional vigils last week. On Thursday night, 400 people ignored persistent rain to gather at Vancouver’s downtown Robson Square. There, Erin Graham, a counsellor at Vancouver Rape Relief said that Lépine’s carnage was “not an individual act. It is not just one man hating women. It is the social and political reality we live in.” In Winnipeg, more than 450 people braved -20°C temperatures that same evening to attend a service at the Manitoba legislature where Rev. Linda Murray, a United Church minister, told the assembly: “I am here tonight as a woman who is terrified.”
For her part, Anne McGrath, an Alberta representative on the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (NAC), broke into tears at the Calgary vigil as she related how, 14 years ago, she and her classmates at St. Pius X Roman Catholic high school in Ottawa were terrorized by another lone gunman. In that incident, 18-year-old Robert Poulin raped and killed one girl at a youth home before wounding six students—one of whom died later—at the high school. Recalled McGrath: “He kicked open the door to the classroom, sprayed a round of bullets and then shot his own head off. It was a turning point in my life—it has a lot to do with my political involvement in feminism.”
Confrontations: Some of the services provoked confrontations between men and women. In Montreal, where nearly 5,000 people gathered on the slopes of Mount Royal near the site of the shootings, there was a brief scuffle as some women tried to prevent a man from addressing the crowd. In Thunder Bay, organizers of a Saturday-night vigil asked men to stay away. Explained Anna Demetrakopoulos of the Northern Women’s Centre: “It is because of the depth of emotional scarring among women who have experienced male violence that they need to be alone.” Bfit the exclusion of men from the Thunder Bay vigil angered city Aid. Johannes Vanderwees, who described the decision as “crazy, extreme, even some kind of mind terrorism.”
Meanwhile, security was tightened for a vigil at Halifax’s Mount Saint Vincent University— where about 85 per cent of 4,000 students are female—after police received several anonymous calls threatening violence against women at the university. At a rally held at the University of Toronto campus, men and women alike listened in shock as NAC spokesman Alice de Wolff described how that organization’s office in Ottawa had received a call from an angry man who said that “Marc is not alone.”
There was further evidence that at least some men share Lépine’s misogyny when a team of psychologists in Montreal opened their phone lines to the public to offer free counselling for people shaken by the tragedy. A handful of the men who called said that the killings had stirred their own anger towards women. One of them, said psychologist Luc Granger, commented: “I am very happy Lépine did it. You psychologists are just like those women, and I am coming to your office to kill you all.” In fact, no further violence followed.
Backlash: A number of committed feminists have spoken and written recently about what they claim is a sexist backlash among some young, male university students who consider the success of women to be a threat to their own progress. At Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont., last month, some male students took offence at a campaign against date rape, saying that it painted all men as rapists. In response to the campaign’s slogan that “No means no,” some posted other signs stating, among other things, “No means kick her in the teeth” and “On your knees bitch. No more Mr. Nice Guy.”
In addition, one study under way in Ontario suggests that there was a disturbing echo of other patterns of violence against women in Lépine’s actions. Rosemary Gartner, a professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, has examined homicides of women in 18 industrialized nations, including Canada and the United States, between 1950 and 1980. Gartner says she has discovered that, as women move into nontraditional roles, they run a significantly higher risk of being killed. One reason, she says, is that women’s penetration into higher-paid occupations once reserved for men “may be perceived consciously or unconsciously as a threat to the traditional male dominance in society.” The increase in murders that she has recorded, Gartner adds, “may be a sort of backlash violence.” Indeed, the engineering students who were Lépine’s victims fit that pattern so well that when Gartner first learned of the shootings, she said: “It just sent shivers down my spine. It’s not the sort of confirmation of your research that you’d like to see.”
Horror: But other experts, including Chicago’s Morrison, said that it is misleading to draw broad conclusions from one incident. “I don’t feel this is a continuum of persecution or unequal treatment,” she said. Added Morrison: “Violence is increasing against both men and women. I see violence as an equal-opportunity behavior.” And this month, at least, most Canadians of both sexes are united in sympathy and sorrow as they look for an explanation for the horror of last week’s events.
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