A warning before I go any further: This is a hard post for me to write, not just because I struggled with how to write it out but because of references (albeit as indirect as possible) to details of a brief yet dark and ugly moment in history, a moment where the legacy of those who were lost or affected should be recognized and remembered. It’s because of the references to that moment that you may find this post hard to digest. So, if you want to hit your browser’s “back” button and read some other post, I perfectly understand. But if you wish to read on, proceed with caution after the jump.
Okay, here goes… I’ll start right off by saying it’s good to have empathy toward someone you don’t know if something bad befalls them. You hear someone’s sad story and you reach into your own memory bank and emotional well to conjure up a sense of compassion or even shared feelings toward the hurt and crestfallen. Here in the 21st century, it seems much easier to have at least some sort of empathy or sympathy toward others. I posit this because of the explosion of social media and the relentless news cycle that’s part of our everyday lives. Social media and blogs such as this one have allowed nearly everyone to make their lives an open book, while cable news networks and the internet serve as an amplifier for just about every little detail of and every opinion about a story.
But that’s 2016. For those of you old enough to remember, I ask you this: Think about the era when the internet was just a scientist’s plaything, when Facebook and Twitter were not even a gleam in their inventors’ eyes, when CNN was the only 24/7 news source on television, and cable TV in general wasn’t as commonplace. After someone broke in on radio or TV to deliver a news bulletin about a tragic event that had just occurred, and you had some amount of time to digest the news, how much empathy in your heart and mind did you have toward those directly affected by that sudden, awful event? For sure, the news may have shook you to your core and an emotion surfaced from inside you. But maybe once the TV cameras turned away from that event — even just hours after that awful moment occurred — your life and that of everyone else went back to normal… and as a result, you noticed that your empathy towards those directly affected by the event was subsiding.
I bring up “the past” because I must confess this: When I was growing up, we didn’t have the easy “empathy generators” (internet, social media, round-the-clock news) that we have today. And I think it’s the lack of those generators, combined with my family’s locale at the time (a remote portion of Wisconsin), that didn’t allow me to have strong empathetic feelings when hearing about something bad on the news. Sure, we would watch or hear our share of tragic news, even something that had occurred a short drive away (like, say, this story from way, way back). But by that very evening, the same old TV shows took back the airwaves, and I and my family would be like, “Oh, okay…” and go back to normal. I wasn’t insensitive about the tragedies, let me be clear. But it’s just that… well, my empathy circuits weren’t as well-developed then as they are now.
For sure, we would listen to or watch our share of what would be considered major tragedies when we were growing up. But unlike our aunt and uncle who lived next door to us and had a big satellite TV dish (and I mean a big dish, not the pizza-sized ones you see everywhere today), we only picked up, at best, three over-the-air TV channels on a regular basis and had no direct access to cable or CNN. The channels we did pick up (major network affiliates all) would break in with news bulletins and have their own version of lengthy coverage… but they would stay with the news for a few hours maximum and then it would be back to the same old entertainment that very night.
Still, I think it was the relatively brief coverage of the news that I watched back then that affected my empathy levels. Though I wasn’t alive when John Kennedy died, and though I do vividly recall that certain day in September 15 years ago, I know that literally every TV or radio station or news channel had wall-to-wall coverage, as they were tragedies that truly rocked the world (no showbiz for a grieving world on those days). But for the tragedies or near-tragedies I watched the news of while growing up, whether it was Ronald Reagan getting shot or the Space Shuttle Challenger exploding, it was a few hours of “hey, this happened,” and then we were left on our own to think about what happened and, more than likely, think eh, it didn’t affect me directly or I’m glad it didn’t happen in our town. And then I would move on the next day… having a stirred soul and feeling a bit of shock over the news and even just a little bit of anger over why it happened in the first place… and, for sure, maybe just a bit of empathy towards those who died or were injured, but, sadly, not a great deal of it.
But then came the time I heard the news about a tragedy that occurred 27 years ago this week (December 6, 1989, to be exact) in Montréal, Canada. That evening, a man entered the campus of École Polytechnique de Montréal, an engineering school associated with Université de Montréal. I will spare you the gory details of what that man did, but before he took his own life that evening, he used a shotgun and a knife to end the lives of 14 innocent women (13 students, 1 school employee) and injure 14 others at the school.
If you were around back in December 1989, you probably remember hearing about the incident at École Polytechnique, even if just a little bit. (You can read here for a refresher and watch this news report from that evening; take heed, though, that they do go into some gory detail.) I was back to living in my parents’ house at that time, and I remember hearing about the tragedy in Montréal on that evening’s news and more details about it the next day. Hearing the news, I recall having those aghast, angry feelings about the tragedy akin to God, that’s awful and why did that have to happen? But I also had those feelings of, yes, I’m glad it didn’t happen in our town, because it’s a long drive from Wisconsin to Quebec. And with that, I moved on with my urgent issues of pondering my career/educational mistakes and my next moves in life (a story I’m sure I discussed somewhere else on here).
But there was something about that tragedy in Montréal that I couldn’t shake… and still can’t shake today. If you remember the story from 1989, it was revealed by authorities a day or so later that the perpetrator (and don’t worry, I definitely won’t dignify him by giving out his name here) listed his rationale for what he did in a note that was discovered on his body. Basically, the note said that he had contempt and disdain for anyone he considered feminist. And judging from what he did that night, what he did to 14 innocent women, any woman who dared to seek an education was considered a feminist. And as reports about the note would later reveal, any women in other outspoken fields (academics, journalism, labor, etc.) was in his proverbial sights… because he considered them feminists as well.
I’ll let that sink in for you a moment. The man specifically targeted women… because he was angry for the progress gained by women.
Now, I ask you, when you heard that part of the story, did you feel absolute anger over what that man did and why he did it? I felt anger, too. And frustration over how it could have happened (a big bone of contention in Montréal at that time, but thankfully one that would produce some soul searching and changes in crisis procedures by local officials and law enforcement). And helplessness over why there were still those, even in 1989, who held such misogynistic, anti-feminist views and there was nothing I personally could have done to stop such beliefs.
But then I started getting a feeling that I wasn’t alone in my worries, and it involved (new confession coming up here) doing a little covert sneaking into my aunt and uncle’s house next door. I mentioned above that they had a big satellite TV dish in their yard. They had had it installed there for 6 years or so, and while 1989 wasn’t the zillion-channel universe 2016 is today, their dish could get in some pretty interesting channels. Like, say, channels and networks from Canada. I know this because when our family would come over to share dinner or shoot the breeze, I would freely browse through the satellite listings magazine they would get every other week or so, and it would contain a full roster of which network was at what spot on which transponder when you pointed the dish a certain way.
My interests in things outside of our confines and in others locales (like, say, Canada) were in full flower by this time of my early adulthood. No, I didn’t have enough gumption (or, for that matter, cash) to drop everything and hike all the way to the Canadian border to see how life was like north of the 49th parallel. But at least Canada could be as close as a turn of the satellite TV dish. So, on the Saturday after the tragedy at the École Polytechnique, I crossed the lot line and sneaked into my aunt and uncle’s house (they were away for the weekend). Entering was easy to do since they left us a copy of their house key to use in matters of house upkeep or using their phone (another long story for perhaps another post). At this point, I had already made a few sneaky trips there when Aunt & Uncle were gone and my parents were at work or errands or my little sister was at school, so I had an idea of how Aunt & Uncle’s satellite dish worked: Just turn on the TV, turn on the box that controlled the dish’s aim from one satellite to another, and make sure another box that actually tuned in the channels was also up and running.
Oh, and one more thing, of course: Have the listings at the ready to know which channel is where. With all that set, I turned the dish to the satellite that has many of the Canadian channels, including the CBC and a music channel then called MuchMusic (it’s just plain ol’ Much these days, since, well, they don’t play as much music as they did back then). In between the videos on MuchMusic that day, there was still some talk about the École Polytechnique tragedy from a few days earlier. Two of the veejays on the channel drifted to the topic of the incident, its aftermath, and the issues that it brought up: Gun regulations; images of guns and violence in the media; safety in schools and universities; misogyny towards and respect for women of all types. The hosts, who admitted they were not experts, seemed to have a hard time wrapping their minds over what happened and how everyone could move on from this dark incident. But to their credit, they did acknowledge that not just Montréal and Quebec but Canada as a whole was still reeling from the incident and grappling with the repercussions, and they understood that it would take a long while for everything to come as close to normal as possible.
Seeing those MuchMusic hosts discuss the still-fresh Montréal tragedy, I got a much stronger feeling of empathy. No, I’m not Canadian. No, I’ve never set foot in Quebec. But I felt a sense that I wasn’t the only one shook up by what happened. Heck, it appeared that an entire country was, understandably, still in shock.
In a strange way, the conversation, one of many that I’m sure was going on that day and week throughout Canada, made me feel better about my struggling comprehension about what happened in Montréal. Dare I say it, it may have been the moment when my empathy circuits finally went into mature mode. It was the point when I had deep feelings of understanding and compassion for people I’ve never personally known. It was when, more than before, I wanted to give some stranger in Montréal or Canada a pat on the shoulder or even a hug around the and tell them… I am so very sorry for your loss and for what you’re going through.
Understandably, not everyone has remembered the events of December 6, 1989 at École Polytechnique, especially if you’re not Canadian; it may be easy for you to go on without a remembrance or acknowledgement of what happened on that date (it doesn’t always conjure up recollections like it does for those of a certain age who remember where they were when John Kennedy died). But I imagine that, 27 years on, it still has at least some little bit of importance for the Canadians who where around then and for those they’ve passed the story on down to.
On the 20th anniversary of the tragedy, in 2009, I recall seeing a front page of the Montréal Gazette newspaper that commemorated the anniversary. It was just an above-the-fold tease for the coverage inside the paper, but I was struck by what that tease included. It was an assembly of photos of various women, and the fact that there were more than 14 photos led me to thinking it was not about dredging up the tragedy and not about remembering those who were lost that day in 1989 (and they may have been photos of those in the present day and not of the victims). The accompanying text reinforced that belief. I don’t remember that caption’s exact wording, but it roughly said that 20 years earlier, a hateful man killed 14 women just for being women and for living their lives, and that it was better to not only remember who those victims were, but to celebrate other women who dare to have dreams, who dare to fulfill those dreams, and who support others just like them for being strong women with their own dreams. It was a truly moving message, and it made me wish I was in Montréal that day just so that I could pick up a copy of the Gazette.
For certain, there are still issues of safety, gun violence, and violence towards women that the tragedy let surface. We in America have our own issues, for sure, but Canada is still facing those issues, as this article and this column indicates. But it’s good to know that there is still a feeling not only of remembrance and moving on but of staying strong and staying vigilant in the 27 years since the tragedy at École Polytechnique… or I guess I should say Polytechnique Montréal since that’s what the school appears to go by now.
So what positive recognition of the tragedy has there been since 1989?
- Every December 6 since 1991 is nationally recognized in Canada as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, with ceremonies and half-staff flags throughout Canada in recognition of the dark anniversary and the need to combat violence against women.
- Also since 1991, an international movement called the White Ribbon Campaign has been in force, a movement of men and boys working to raise awareness of gender-based violence. (Take note that the movement’s URL is WhiteRibbon.ca; accept no shortsighted wannabes who want to co-opt the movement for their misogynistic viewpoints.)
- Polytechnique Montréal has taken their own positive actions. One of them is called the Week of the White Rose, a year-round fundraiser in which virtual white roses are sold, with all funds going to support Folie Technique, the school’s science camp geared toward giving girls from disadvantaged communities exposure to science awareness activities.
- Additionally, Polytechnique Montréal has the Order of the White Rose. Set up in 2014 (the 25th anniversary of the tragedy), the Order of the White Rose is a $30,000 scholarship given to a woman engineering student who wishes to enroll in graduate studies in engineering at any college or university of her choosing anywhere in the world. Nathalie Provost, one of the survivors of the 1989 tragedy, serves as an ambassador of the Order of the White Rose.
- And in addition to the memorials on campus and the laying of white roses on said memorial every December 6, there are other physical memorials for those lost in the tragedy. The most striking I came across was one pictured at the bottom of this post, in which 14 beams of white searchlight (one for each victim) shone skyward from Mount Royal on Montréal’s west side on the 25th anniversary of the tragedy. I’m not sure if the display has shone every year since it was first set up in 2014, but this memorial still serves up a striking image.
But while physical and monetary memorials and awareness organizations are all well and good, they all share one thing: Empathy. Without empathy, there would be no shared sense of loss… no shared understanding of why women should never be treated with disdain or violence… and no sense of the importance that everyone should be treated by the content of their character and the abilities they possess and not by their gender or background. And now more than ever, empathy towards your fellow human beings is an important thing to possess.