Every year, students at the University of Guelph mark the anniversary of the terrorist attack at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal with a vigil at the campus’ Albert Thornbrough building, which houses the school of engineering. The memorial hasn’t gotten any easier after 30 years, but the message remains clear: we need to encourage and support women in engineering and other science and technology fields.
The setting was the Adams Atrium, which is in the back corner of the Thornbrough building. Some students were there studying as the time neared for the memorial, and slowly the space filled up with a couple of hundred students, staff, and faculty members.
As you walked to the atrium down the back hallway, the wall was adorned with pictures and information about the 14 young women who were killed on December 6, 1989: Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. It was like a kind of yearbook with their various hobbies, interests, and ambitions all there to read in black and white.
“These women were not victims of gun violence for any other reason than their gender, and the program they chose to pursue,” said Hannah Bennett, one of the student speakers who started the memorial.
“The field of engineering was, and still today remains, a male-dominated space,” Bennett continued. “For these women, they did not choose to be a part of this program because they wanted to frontier a movement for equality. They chose to be at school, and in class every day, for the same reason we all choose our degree programs and studies, they were interested and they wanted to learn.”
Another student, Loreta Chan, made the point that it took years for the memorial to the attack in Montreal to recognize the anti-women motives of the massacre.
“We can never fully overcome a problem that we’re not willing to stand up and truthfully acknowledge,” Chan said. “We need to be able to honestly examine the attack of December 6, as well as look inward at our own communities, in order to honour these fierce woman in STEM who just by being in a class of predominantly men exemplified their stance on gender equality.”
“The first step towards change is the courage for everybody to lean into the discomfort,” she added. “Discomfort pushes us to engage with our deeper moral beliefs and make us confront that reality does not yet fully match what we want to see. It makes us realize that there’s still work to be done.”
Many of the women taking part in the memorial weren’t born until years after the attack, but across time, they still felt a connection to those that died.
“I’m only 21 so the thought of 30 years feels like a lot of time, but then I think about it, and it really isn’t,” said Catherine Dang. “What made me realize this is the fact that I share the same dreams and interests as the victims. In reading through their individual stories, i could have turned around in a computer lab and easily shared a conversation with any one of them. It really left my heartbroken to realize like.”
“I’m blessed to be part of an environment that works to support and empowers women in engineering,” Dang added. “The environment is not perfect, but at least it’s willing to ask the questions on why it isn’t; from my peers who I aspire to be like, to my male peers who realize the potential and support me every day, it’s our responsibility to continue to weave this community fabric because it still needs work.”
For the students, the December 6 attack is history, but the last speaker lived through it and remembers it vividly.
“Just after this tragic event, I remember estimating that 17 per cent of female metallurgical engineering students died that day,” said Mary Wells, dean of the College of Engineering and Physical Sciences. She graduated from McGill with a degree in metallurgical engineering two years before the attack.
“At that moment in history, every female engineering student was a pioneer,” she added. “Many of them entered engineering in spite of being told that they would not get admitted, or that they would fail.”
Wells mentioned the new national project “30 Years Later,” which highlights the accomplishments of 30 women in STEM fields who were at school in the fall and winter of 1989. One of them is Nathalie Provost, who was injured at L’École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989, and has gone on to have an impressive career in Quebec’s public service for over 20 years.
“This is a very personal story for me,” she added. “These women were my peers and colleagues, and they would be about my age today had they lived.”
The memorial then illustrated the tragedy quite vividly. As Wells read the names of the victims, 14 female students took a single white rose to represent each of the victims. After a moment of silence, Associate Director of Undergraduate Studies Dr. John Runicman lead a procession to the second floor where a cactus garden stands a permanent memorial to the events of December 6. The 14 white roses were laid there to finish the ceremony.