Poly – Julianne Pidduck

photo par Jules Pidduck

poly- pol’i, pol-i’-, in composition, many: several: much: … affecting more than one part (med)

Polytechnique- an engineering school in Montréal

In the early evening of December 6, 1989 my brother Steve called from Saskatoon to tell me there was a gunman on a rampage at a Montréal university. I rushed to switch on the TV, tuning into a torrent of live coverage from journalists posted just outside the École Polytechnique at the Université de Montréal. At first, the information was vague and intermittent, but sometime well into the evening the chilling news began to filter out that the gunman had systematically targeted female students before taking his own life.

In the days and weeks following the shooting at the Polytechnique, I recall a climate of palpable fear and distrust between women and men on the street, on the metro, in cafés and restaurants. Fraught discussions broke out in private among lovers, friends and families – and in public with a series of highly mediated, emotionally-charged debates. For a fleeting and difficult time, the question of women’s changing roles in Québec society took the centre of public debate. An uneasy consensus gained ground that Lépine could be dismissed as an isolated madman; the killer’s hatred of women was explained away as the effect of an abusive childhood, the legacy of an Algerian father. Based on dubious pop psychology, this account comfortably located the source of the killer’s misogyny elsewhere. Challenging this view, feminists argued that the attack on female engineering students represented a systematic and home-grown misogyny – that this public violence was the tip of the iceberg of an endemic pattern of violence against women.

As a young feminist, I was profoundly affected by the events of December 6, 1989, and by the heated debates that followed. Outraged by the widespread disavowal of the political significance of Lépine’s act by political leaders and the mainstream media, I felt a loyalty to a feminist position that this act could only be understood within a framework of gender relations. Yet, I was troubled by the dominant radical feminist position. I sensed that Lépine’s actions were related to, but not fully comprehensible within a conceptual framework of systematic male violence against women. Further, I was skeptical of this radical feminist worldview that perceives a universal and transhistorical male violence against women as the central structuring dynamic in gender relations. Although I did not dare to say so publicly in the feminist column “Female Persuasions” that I wrote for The Montreal Mirror at the time, I found this to be a static and deeply pessimistic view that reifies women’s position as victims of male violence – a perspective that denies the historical and cultural complexities of gender power relations and refuses the possibility of social change.

In short, in 1989 the battle lines were too clearly drawn in the sand. Twenty years later, after a near decade absence from Montréal, I have followed recent public debates about the Polytechnique massacre with deep interest. Released in February 2009, Denis Villeneuve’s film Polytechnique renewed public discussion after almost two decades of uneasy silence. Most recently, I followed the commemorative events and media coverage surrounding the 20th anniversary of the Polytechnique shootings. In the spirit of “poly,” I sift through this material, seeking the multiple, composite and polyvalent meanings of this symbolically-charged event.

Polemic po-lem’ik, adj. given to disputing: controversial. n. a controversialist: a controversial writing or argument

What, then, is the legacy of December 6, 1989? The heated debates that followed the shootings at the Polytechnique were fertile ground for division and blame: Men present at the École Polytechnique that day were accused of being cowards. Feminists accused politicians and media opinion leaders of denying the political, misogynist and anti-feminist nature of Lépine’s crime. Feminists in turn were accused of appropriating a tragic but isolated incident for their own ideological ends.

Aside from a hard-fought system of gun control (now about to be dismantled by the Harper government), the greatest legacy of the Polytechnique shootings was a deep-rooted gendered malaise and mépris that gave way to a resounding silence in mainstream Québec society. Aside from a yearly flurry of white ribbons and solemn memorials, this silence has amounted to an effective moratorium on public debate about the difficult questions raised by the Polytechnique shootings. In many ways, feminists have been the keepers of the flame of the memories of December 6, 1989, an event that in these circles has come to represent a frontal attack on the struggle for gender equality and a potent symbol of the endemic nature of violence against women. It wasn’t until the release of the film Polytechnique in February 2009 that some of the more difficult aspects of the 1989 attack have made their way back into public debate.

Just before the film’s release, director Villeneuve appeared on the popular talk show Tout le monde en parle along with Karine Vanasse, the film’s producer and one of its leading actors.[1] This was one of a series of interviews where Villeneuve and Vanasse explain the conciliatory spirit of the film – what I would call, without irony, its profound humanism. A dramatization of the events of December 6, 1989, Polytechnique puts the spectator in the shoes of three students who were present at the engineering school that day: Stéphanie (Evelyne Brochu) who will die under fire from the unnamed gunman; Valérie (Karine Vanasse) who will be wounded in the attack but will survive and struggle to carry on with her life; and Jean-François (Sébastien Huberdeau) who, emotionally shattered by the violence he witnesses, will go on to commit suicide some months later.

Carefully drawn to present different points of view on the shootings, these composite characters do not directly represent actual individuals – although Valérie shares some traits with the survivor Nathalie Provost who courageously tried to reason with the killer, and Jean-François’s fate evokes the story of Sarto Blais, a witness to the Polytechnique shootings who committed suicide some time afterward. Produced in consultation with the families of the victims, and drawing upon extensive interviews with witnesses and survivors, Polytechnique was for the most part lauded as a respectful, considered and compassionate dramatisation of these horrific events.

The bombastic Richard Martineau, columnist at the Journal de Montréal, joined Villeneuve and Vanasse on Tout le monde en parle that evening. Interrupting Villeneuve, and Vanasse’s protest that Polytechnique was not a feminist film, Martineau went on an apoplectic anti-feminist rant, claiming that feminists had appropriated this event for their own purposes. This episode marked a disturbing public clash between Vanasse’s and Villeneuve’s avowedly non-feminist humanism and Martineau’s polemical anti-feminism. Blasting through what could have been a more nuanced discussion about the legacy of the Polytechnique shootings, Martineau, voiced a virulent anti-feminism that is still alive and well in Québec.

While Martineau managed to steal the show that evening, I would argue that it is the retrospective humanist reading on the Polytechique put forward by the film that is beginning to shape a new consensus two decades later. This humanism deliberately distances itself from feminism and foregrounds men’s experience of the event alongside that of women. Louise-Maude Rioux Soucy clearly enunciated this position in the front page story of Le Devoir on December 5, 2009: “Les feminists en ont fait un porte-étendard, les masculinistes, un catalyseur. Vingt ans plus tard, les discours enfiévrés d’hier semblent s’effacer au profit d’une lecture qui, sans nier le caractère misogyne de cet acte barbare, laisse place à une mémoire apaisée. Maturité sociale ou détournement de sens?“[2]

Soucy’s headline, “Cibla des femmes, toucha des hommes?“, recognizes the fundamental misogyny of Lépine’s gesture, while acknowledging that men were also affected by the tragedy. Even so, the question mark in the headline suggests that there is something tentative about this humanist reading. Indeed, this emerging humanism has not gone unchallenged. UQAM doctoral student Mélissa Blais, who has recently published a book analyzing 20 years of media reactions to the Polytechnique shootings, critiques the increasing attention given to men’s suffering in the wake of this event. Discussing the film Polytechnique, Blais objects strenuously to the equal weight given to Valérie and to Jean-François, lambasting the sympathy for male suffering evoked by the young man’s tragic end. For Blais, this dramatization “s’inscrit dans un contexte où les médias et les discours publics … sont traversés par les thèmes de ‘l’homme en désarroi,’ de ‘la crise des hommes,’ de l’échec scolaire des garcons et même du suicide des hommes, un des axes principaux du discours masculiniste.“[3]

Part of Blais’ critique is on target, given that Villeneuve and Vanasse consistently distance themselves from any form of feminism. This gesture by the filmmakers operates, once again, to effectively dismiss feminism as too radical, as having “gone too far.” Gabriel Chagnon makes a related, but much more nuanced argument in his piece in the trespassing 2 issue of NMP, suggesting that the filmmakers were far too cautious in their choice to focus so much on Jean-François. Significantly, though, Chagnon attributes this caution to the risks taken by the filmmakers in breaking the troubled 20-year silence surrounding the Polytechnique shootings.

Yet by collapsing the film’s treatment of male suffering into a sympathy for the masculinist movement – a radical fringe group who have recently celebrated Marc Lépine as a hero on the internet – Blais leaves no space for a nuanced understanding of men’s roles as victims and witnesses of violence. For Blais, the filmmakers’ choice to open the dramatic scope of suffering to the experience of men somehow takes something away from the female victims, and from feminism. But is suffering a zero sum game? Does the inclusion of male perceptions of the Polytechnique shootings mean that something is lost for feminism, and if so, what?

Part of what is at stake here are the sharply drawn lines of polemical public debate. By placing male experience at the heart of the public memory of the Polytechnique massacre, filmmakers and journalists mark this tragic event as a common legacy that need not necessarily divide us neatly along gender lines. At the same time, this shift, in some ways problematic, challenges a persistent radical feminist line about male violence against women by rescripting and nuancing the set roles of male aggressor and female victim.

pol’yseme a word with more than one meaning

December 4-6, 2009 marked “La tuerie de l’École Polytechnique 20 ans plus tard : les violences masculines contre les femmes et les feminists,” a major feminist conference at the Université de Québec à Montréal. I attended the conference hoping to understand how Québec feminists perceive the Polytechnique shootings 20 years later. I also wondered whether, with the benefit of hindsight, this event might be seen by feminists as polysemic, as having multiple meanings.

The conference marked a gathering of the clans, a unique meeting for intellectuals, artists and feminist activists, including many women who work in front-line services for women who are victims of male violence. Very few men and a large number of women of different ages from different parts of Québec were in attendance. The audience was large and diverse, yet intensely present—one could hear a pin drop in the plenary sessions, appropriately held in the UQAM auditorium named in honour of pioneering Québec feminist Marie Gérin-Lajoie. I sensed a deep desire to listen, to exchange, and to work through the implications of the Polytechnique violence. Generally speaking, the viewpoints expressed at the conference tended to confirm a radical feminist analysis of violence against women, and divergent viewpoints were rare.

At the core of the agenda were the ways that the collective memories of the Polytechnique shootings are closely intertwined with the story of Québec feminism. It was as if, by some demonic slight of hand, the feminist movement was put on trial after December 6, 1989. French feminist Florence Montreynaud (author of Le XXe Siècle des femmes) made the timely comment that “le féminisme n’a jamais tué personne.”[4] Meanwhile, eminent feminist historian Micheline Dumont presented a portrait of 20th century anti-feminism in Québec, as a reminder that backlash did not begin with Lépine.[5] This was one of many references to how feminism has been set back by the anti-feminist backlash that followed Lépine’s act. Yet the very success of this conference was a reminder of the resilience of feminist thought, of its power to move people, and to create the possibility for alternative knowledges that contest comfortable public consensus. A vivid example is the tireless work by feminists to make visible the connections between social inequality and gender violence. On December 6, this conviction was enacted at an event organized by the Fédération des femmes du Québec, where some 500 participants enacted a human chain commemorating the 14 victims of the Polytechnique shootings in the Parc Émilie Gamelin.

If feminism represents the power of critical thought, its resilience lies in a capacity to renew itself through divergent opinions. One this note, one of the most interesting conference presentations was by Francine Pelletier, former editor-in-chief of the feminist magazine La Vie en rose.[6] Evoking the lingering silence around this event, Pelletier asked why the “first explicit sexist crime in history” has proven so painful for Québécois society. She went on to argue that the 1989 shootings represented a “loss of innocence” for Québec society – “qu’il a cassé quelque chose de profound dans notre proper perception de nous-même.” Pelletier described a central Québécois mythology, where the Révolution tranquille of the 1960s represents a break with a past marked by English oppression and control by the Catholic Church. Since that time, she suggested, all of the misery and backwardness of the Québécois people is seen to give way to a new era of progress, where Québec emerges a modern, social democratic society. Within this popular narrative, feminism was embraced as a struggle for gender equality equated with progressive social change. The symbolic weight of Lépine’s crime, then, was to target “the most visible sign of progress, women in public positions of authority.” For Pelletier, Lépine set out to stop progress itself in its tracks.

Pelletier also made the controversial point that the radical feminist framing of this event as part of a continuum of violence against women overshadowed the specificity of Lépine’s crime. As a public and explicitly political crime, the Polytechnique shootings stand apart from other forms of violence against women that take place most often in private (in the family), most often involving people who know one another. Stressing that it was crucial in 1989 for feminists to make the link between Lépine’s public violence and other forms of violence against women, Pelletier proposes two decades later that we might also distinguish this crime as an explicitly political anti-feminist act with wide repercussions not only for feminism, but for Québec society in general.

pol’yglot (Gr. polyglottos–glotto, tongue) in, of, speaking, or writing, many languages

Twenty years after the shootings at the Polytechnique, I find myself, perhaps by some accident of fate, teaching at the Université de Montréal. Every time I see the silhouette of great tower of the pavillon Roger-Gaudry just in front of the old Polytechnique building and its shiny new “green” building incarnation, I am reminded of the horrific events of December 1989, and of the bitter controversies that followed. Yet this monument on the Montréal skyline also attests to the historical significance of the Université de Montréal as a francophone institution of higher learning. Along with Laval, Université de Montréal is one of the oldest and most prestigious institutions where Québec’s sons and daughters learn to take their place as leaders of this society as lawyers, doctors and engineers. Now as I set out to introduce feminist and queer thought into the Communication department curriculum, I feel an everyday affinity with the events of December 6, 1989. Despite the flurry of white ribbons dutifully worn on each anniversary, I am confronted daily with the sluggish and uneven rhythm of change in this conservative and rigid institution – and indeed in a broader Québec society that we can celebrate for its many progressive qualities.

Twenty years ago I might have been more critical of the film Polytechnique, and of the creeping humanism that it has helped to usher into public discourse about the Polytechnique shootings. But after discussing the film with 50 undergraduate students who, like the participants of the recent feminist conference, were burning to come to grips with what had happened that cold day in December 1989, I can also attest to the power of this humanist discourse to open up different identifications, different ways to remember and to understand otherwise the Polytechnique shootings. In order to commemorate, understand and move on, what we need is polyvalent public discussion and careful analysis to renew our understandings of the significance of the cruel events of December 6, 1989.


[1] Tout le monde en parle, 2/02/09, Radio-Canada.

[2] Louise-Maude Rioux Soucy, “Cibla des femmes toucha des hommes?”. Le Devoir 5/12/09, A1.

[3] Mélissa Blais, « J’haïs les féministes! » : le 6 décembre 1989 et ses suites. Montréal : les éditions du remue-ménage, 2009, p. 142.

[4] Florence Montreynaud, « Paris, place du Québec : la France se souvient », Colloque international « La tuerie de l’École Polytechnique 20 ans plus tard », UQAM, 4/12/09.

[5] Micheline Dumont, « Cent ans d’antiféminisme », Colloque international « La tuerie de l’École Polytechnique 20 ans plus tard », UQAM, 4/12/09.

[6] Francine Pelletier, « Une des femmes sur la ‘liste’ de Marc Lépine témoigne », Colloque international « La tuerie de l’École Polytechnique 20 ans plus tard », UQAM, 4/12/09.

Julianne Pidduck is professor in the Communication Department at the Université de Montréal. Her research focuses on gender and sexuality (notably queer theory) in in the context of moving image studies. Her research focuses on the power of cinema as a cultural form, notably the articulation of difference in genre and narrative and cinematic theories of space and time. She has written extensively about Anglo-American and French costume film, and about lesbian, gay and queer representation in popular and experimental film and video.