The Hidden Narratives: stories of the many in the Montreal Massacre
Sue McPherson 2006
Abstract: The Montreal Massacre is seen as one of the most appalling tragedies in Canadian history. On December 6th, 1989, a 25 year-old man walked into the École Polytechnique in Montreal and shot to death fourteen women, wounding twelve others, before turning the rifle on himself. One of the main narratives to evolve from this mass murder was “violence against women,” of which Marc Lépine became the symbol. This main narrative, which made the most sense at the time, was able to contain the emotions of many of those affected. Many years have passed, and in this paper I explore the hidden narratives—of Lépine’s life and others—which have been set aside while the grieving has been taking place. The individual stories and fragments of stories of those who died and those who survived, and the injustice felt on all sides, from before the event and the years since then, are what make up the Montreal Massacre. As a means of drawing together the different spaces of the Montreal Massacre I draw on Michel Foucault’s model of the heterotopia, and consider the possibility of moving forward towards more diverse forms of remembering.
Keywords: Foucault; heterotopia, mass murder, narratives, social injustice, time and space, violence
Paper presented at the Narrative Matters conference, Acadia University, Wolfville, Nova Scotia, Canada, in May, 2006. 4700 words ( 8 pages).
For this Narrative Matters conference, held at Acadia University in Wolfville, Nova Scotia, in May, 2006, it was my intention to impart a particular idea—a way of thinking—about a historical event in Canadian history. The idea I intended to present may not be a welcome one to many people if they are still caught up in a one-sided view of the Montreal Massacre. Still seeing the fact that it was women who were killed as the main concern, there seems to be some reluctance to see it from other perspectives. It was disappointing, after giving my talk, to have the first response be from a woman still apparently reeling from the effects of the fact that “it was women who were killed.” Facts may be facts, but they do not tell the whole story.
In the paper I respectfully acknowledge that it was, indeed, women who were killed. But that does not mean that Marc Lépine killed women because they held some particular traits of womanhood, for instance, being objects of sexual desire. Marc Lépine’s concern was that women were taking the place of men, who traditionally had held a monopoly over such domains as engineering.
My aim for this conference was to present this concept in a manner conducive to understanding, avoiding complex theoretical arguments unnecessary to achieving that goal. The topic itself is an emotional one, and my main aim at this conference, through this talk, was to attempt to find a way through that resistance. In this written paper, which follows the same format of the presentation, I have expanded on some of the ideas I presented there.
In April of 2006, the month before I presented this paper, there was a mass murder in Ontario. Eight bodies had been discovered in cars in a secluded area of southwestern Ontario. They had all been shot. The dead were all men. While this has been called a mass murder, and referred to as a massacre (Gillespie, 2006), the significance of it has had little immediate effect on Canadians, unlike the murders in Montreal in which those shot and killed were also all of one gender.
These murders, of members and associates of motorcycle gangs, were not characteristic of mass murders, but neither were the killings in Montreal, though they were characterized as such. If you recall, on that day in 1989, a young man armed with a high-power semi-automatic rifle walked into an engineering school in Montreal, separated the men from the women and started shooting. By the time he had finished, he had killed 14 women, 12 of whom were students in the engineering program, and had injured several more. When he was done, he put the rifle to his head and killed himself.
At Concordia University, in 1992, a professor in engineering faculty by the name of Valery Fabrikant went on a rampage, killing four his colleagues. He was found mentally fit to stand trial and has been serving a life sentence for the murders. But many of his claims were found to be true. Three surviving colleagues, who had been the targets of Fabrikant’s allegations, have since had their research accounts frozen for misappropriating research funds and have been forced to take early retirement (Wikipedia, nd.).
What do these multiple murders have in common – the bikers, the women students, and the professors? None of them entirely fit the stereotype of the mass murder, as described by Elliott Leyton (2003: 23), who claims that mass murderers pick a social group, for instance on the basis of social class, or religion, and in the case of the Montreal Massacre, on gender. But these examples were not typical. That the victims in the Montreal Massacre happened to be women had more to do with their career aspirations than any particular aspect of their womanhood, just as the motorcycle gang members who were killed were probably killed for some other reason than their simply being men. Nor were the London bombings in London, England, in July last year typical of a mass murder.
According to the Toronto Star (Contenta, 2006), “the first home-grown suicide bombers to strike on British soil were motivated by “perceived injustices” committed against Muslims by the West, says a British government report.” What the government thought was meant by this was the perceived injustice of the war in Iraq. However, there may also have been other forms of injustice perceived by the bombers.
This phrase, perceived injustices, or words to that effect, is the same used in discussing mass murderers, that often they commit their deed out of some illusion between their expectations and the realities of their world. There is an underlying suggestion that there could not have been any injustice, only one imagined by the murderer. In his book, Leyton presents his killers as being less than human, and usually as less competent, thus in a sense deserving of their lower status in life, their need to “relieve a burning grudge engendered by their failed ambition” (p. 287) through murder, a consequence of their own inadequacies as humans (p. 26). But I ask, and continue to ask, what are people like Marc Lépine expected to do, when their future has been taken away from them? And what would you do if your life – your career, or your future career, were taken away from you? Leyton argues that
the fundamental act of humanity is to refuse to kill. Our murderers have consciously
rejected that humanity. They are not robots programmed by some machine to do
exactly what they do: they know precisely what they are doing (Leyton: 2003: pp. 26-27).
Leyton asks, “Why do individuals with equally tragic (or far more so) backgrounds choose not to kill” (p 26). To say simply that they are more mature or more humanitarian would hardly address this question about the nature of humanity and about society itself. In his suicide letter Marc Lépine revealed his awareness of the influence of feminism upon society, and in particular, upon his own life. He also disclosed an interest in political acts of resistance, mentioning Denis Lortie, who in 1984 had killed three government employees in the Quebec Parliament buildings before surrendering to the military police.
One difference between Marc Lépine and many others in society was that he attempted to take on those who held more power in society rather than take out his frustrations on those who were worse off or more vulnerable than himself in some way. Although Lépine has been portrayed as sadistic and hateful, in particular against women in general, there remains the possibility that he had had previous interactions with feminists before that December day. The women he went after were students at the same engineering school to which he had applied to study. These women engineering students could not be considered the more vulnerable members of society, already showing independence of spirit and headed as they were to careers in engineering. The vulnerable person in this scenario, the one who had been cast out of his chosen field and denied the opportunity of participating within society on his own terms, was Marc Lépine.
Another difference between Marc Lépine and others who had led equally harsh lives in their family of origin was that he was aware of what had led to his downfall, as demonstrated by his knowledge of feminism and social change. If Lépine had internalized the shortcomings others were probably keen to lay on him, simply because society can be like that, he might have succumbed to a life less fulfilling than his original expectations. But it appears he had not internalized such attitudes, declaring as he did that that he had wrongfully been denied his place in the École, in which case it would be understandable that he would feel anger at not being able to proceed through the engineering programme. Nevertheless, killing women was obviously no solution despite the frustration he must have felt. In his suicide note he tried to explain the reasons for his actions, while claiming his act of destruction was a political act, an act of war. Virtually no one heard him, and if they did, when they tried to be heard their voices too were drowned out.
Marc Lépine perceived himself to be a victim of injustice, and he may well have been a victim of real injustice, not simply of imagined injustice. More than likely he would have been as capable as many of the women in the engineering program, of doing the work and of becoming an engineer. But society was changing, and women were entering what previously had been men’s domains in work and education, displacing those without the support to enable them to proceed. Marc Lépine was one of those who got left behind. James Fox and Jack Levin tell how, in America, at least, the “economic pie is shrinking, and there simply aren’t enough slices to go around” (Fox and Levin, 2005: 234). There’s no reason to think that competition for scarce resources was any different in Canada or Britain at that time.
People like Marc Lépine should lower their aspirations, some might say. While strong religious beliefs sometimes enable people to do that, to be able to accept misfortune gracefully, Lépine’s religious background was mixed – part Catholic on his mother’s side, and Muslim, from his father’s. How that influenced the choice he made, to deal with the injustice he perceived he had been dealt, we do not know.
The story of Marc Lépine is sometimes situated within a larger context comprising serial murderers and mass murderers, often men who tortured, maimed, humiliated, and raped their victims, men (most often) who may have been delusional and sometimes under the influence of drugs. This wasn’t Lépine. Including his story in a book about serial killers and mass murderers does nothing to dispel the fact that Lépine wasn’t like them in many ways. As with the recent killings of biker club members in southwestern Ontario, of the 2005 London bombers, and the murderous professor at Concordia University in 1992, the Lépine killings were not typical of mass murders.
At the time of the Montreal massacre, in 1989, there was a certain logic that enabled the assumption to be made that the specific category of people Lépine killed was a social category within society, and that was “women.” From there, just one more step to be made to the idea that the main problem within society was violence against women, particularly women in intimate relationships with men, although the kind of violence Lépine committed had nothing to do with a personal relationship. But this distorted logic, viewed through the lens of strong emotion, came to be the foundation of the White Ribbon campaign.
The violence against women narrative was the first and main narrative to come out of the events that December day in Montreal. That progressed to the White Ribbon Campaign and of Marc Lépine and the events of that day coming to be seen as symbolic of violence against women, particularly in their personal relations with men. As a consequence, all men came to be seen as potentially capable of committing violence against women. This is the narrative of meaning attributed to the event itself – to the shootings, and the deaths of the 14 women.
There were also the human stories, and there must be many of them, some hidden forever from prying eyes. Some of them I will tell about here.
There are the women who died. 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 (Wikipedia, École, nd).
They were young, and held much promise for future careers. Fragments of information come out about the women. Anne-Marie Edward, age 21, was studying chemical engineering and had just been named a member of the Alpine ski team. Maryse Laganiere, age 25, was a finance department employee, had recently married. Genevieve Bergeron, age 21, was the daughter of a Montreal City councillor, and had baby-sat the mayor’s daughter. Helen Colgan, the pride of her family, age 23, was in mechanical engineering and just one semester away from graduation. The police-officer father of Maryse Leclair, age 23, discovered his daughter’s body himself when he wandered into the school. The father of 23 year old Nathalie Croteau beat his fists against the wall of his home when he found out she had been killed (Barry Came et al, 1989).
Nathalie Provost was one of the engineering students who survived the onslaught. When Marc Lépine yelled “You’re a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists,” threatening to kill female engineering students, Nathalie Provost tried to stop him, pleading that she and her classmates were not feminists, just students taking engineering. After she had recovered from her bullet wounds, Provost resumed her studies and went on to become an engineer (Pelletier, 1994).
Sylvie Gagnon was another of the women who, although injured, survived the shootings at the École. Here, Wendy Hui Kyong Chun tells how it changed the young woman:
Although she talks about her childhood dreams and her belief, prior to Lépine’s actions, that the world was hers, she does not insist on returning to these dreams and beliefs. Rather, she says that she is a different person now, that such an event changes a person, and that slowly she is dealing with the pain and the trauma, that it gets better every day (Chun, 1999: 139).
There are also the families and friends of the women who died. Some of these stories have no doubt been hidden from us, and some are scarcely known.
There is the mother of Marc Lépine – Monique Lépine. One can only imagine the horror she felt at learning her son had committed this crime, and the great sadness at losing him, turning to her religious community for solace.
There are the men—students who were in the building at the time it happened—two of whom killed themselves in the aftermath of the killings of the 14 women. Sarto Blais, a young male student who had been there that day, committed suicide a few months afterwards; if that weren’t tragedy enough, his parents, overcome with despair, followed soon after (Wikipedia, École, nd).
Marc Lépine’s name when born was Gamil Gharbi. His French-Canadian mother, Monique, divorced his abusive father when he was a teenager, at which time he took her last name, and sometime after that he also changed his first name. This is the background of Lépine’s life, but by no means should it inevitably have led up to the direct consequence of committing mass murder. No doubt Marc Lépine was capable and intelligent enough to have successfully completed the engineering program. After the killings, he was accused of being a misogynist – a result of his childhood and other relationships, presumably, but he had been excluded from what was traditionally a male domain and unable to find some other way of dealing with the rejection and the realization he would not get to fulfil his ambitions. He died at the scene of the killings, from a self-inflicted shot to his head.
Usually, narratives are coherent. They tell a story – they make sense. But the Montreal massacre was such a wide-ranging happening with so many different strands of the people involved in it. What we have, for the most part, are fragments of narratives. So how do we make sense of it all, when narratives are incomplete and there are many perspectives, and so many different ways this historical event was experienced?
Nigel Rapport, writing on the “contrarieties” of Israel, argues that each person’s different perception of an event—“momentary individual cognitions”—are what make up the social milieu:
...I have introduced alternative doxies which, emphasizing the complexities, the
multiplicities, the inconsistencies, in a word the contradictoriness, of classifications
of the world, would suggest the sources of the latter as being momentary individual
cognitions, the purposes as being an individual construction of order “self, fulfilment,
beauty, power) in the world, and the implications being a diversity of such orders
within the person and within a social milieu at any one time and over time (Rapport,
The inconsistencies and multiplicities Rapport describes are in the same conceptual framework as a model described by Michel Foucault. This model, that accounts for the fragmentary nature of the narratives of the Montreal massacre and the often contradictory voices, drawing them together into one, is Foucault’s model of the heterotopia.
In his lecture, Of Other Spaces, delivered in 1967, Foucault spoke of his model of the
heterotopia, which developed from ideas related to architecture. He talked of our era being one of space, saying “We are in the epoch of simultaneity; we are in the epoch of juxtaposition, the epoch of the near and far, of the side-by-side, of the dispersed” (Foucault, 1984). In this single, multidimensional space of the heterotopia, different elements—often incompatible with one another—are brought together.
Could the Montreal Massacre be viewed as a heterotopia, occupied as it is by incompatible elements, juxtaposed one against another, side-by side, near and far, widely dispersed? Foucault continues:
“We are at a moment, I believe, when our experience of the world is less that of a long life developing through time than that of a network that connects points and intersects with its own skein.” Foucault was speaking 40 years ago, and even today his way of perceiving time would probably be viewed by many as innovative. The metaphor of the skein, as used in this translation, suggests a skein of wool, loosely coiled, like a figure 8. Thus time, in effect, is seen, if not quite as doubling back on itself then as being re-played again and again.
“The space in which we live,” he says, “... is a heterogeneous space....We do not live inside a void.” He talks of looking into a mirror, where he can see himself situated in real space, but at the same time that it is real it is also unreal, as it is a reflection he is seeing. But it takes the mirror for him to be able to see himself and the details surrounding him. For anyone emotionally involved in the tragic events of the Montreal killings that December 6, it might be necessary to step outside and away from that perspective, to see how others may have experienced it, and to look into the mirror at one’s own self.
Foucault names six principles of heterotopias, while systematically explaining their meaning. In addition, to each of these I have added their relevance to the Montreal Massacre.
The first principle, Foucault explains, is “that there is probably not a single culture in the world that fails to constitute heterotopias.” As an example of heterotopias of deviance, he names psychiatric hospitals, where people’s behaviour deviates from the norm. He also names a form of heterotopia that he considers somewhat outdated – the crisis heterotopia, such as the sacred place within some cultures that would be reserved for menstruating women. In a different sense, but still evoking the idea of the “sacred place,” a place forbidden to outsiders, is the Montreal Massacre.
The second principle of heterotopias, says Foucault, is that as history moves forwards, changes in society result in changes in function of existing heterotopias. The example Foucault gives is the cemetery, explaining how that cultural space has changed over time, from death being at the centre of the town to the ways of our modern society in which death has come to be seen as an “illness” – as somehow being contagious and the dead being pushed away, out of the centre of the town to the outskirts. In the heterotopia of the Montreal Massacre, Marc Lépine and possibly others involved in that day’s happenings can be viewed in the same way, as toxic, needing to be excluded, unacceptable to our world.
The third principle is that within any single heterotopia several spaces may be juxtaposed – sites that are in themselves incompatible. A garden is the prime example of a contradictory site given by Foucault, particularly some Oriental gardens that he sees as having many superimposed meanings. The diverse and often contradictory stories and experiences of those affected by the Montreal Massacre also form a heterotopia – no longer in real space today, but no less real when we think about the people caught up in their personal tragedies that day.
The fourth principle, Foucault says, is that “heterotopias are most often linked to slices in time.” Some examples: the cemetery begins with the loss of life; museums suggest the accumulation of time; festivals are transitory. The Montreal Massacre was an event that happened and then was over – a slice in time. But each year the event is revisited – a commemoration of that time and a rediscovery of what it was all about.
The fifth principle. “Heterotopias always presuppose a system of opening and closing that both isolates them and makes them penetrable, though not usually freely accessible.” Foucault explains further:
To get in one must have a certain permission and make certain gestures. Moreover, there are even heterotopias that are entirely consecrated to these activities of purification - purification that is partly religious and partly hygienic, such as the hammin of the Moslems.
Commemorations are held each year to remember the victims of the Montreal Massacre. But they are for those who hold a particular view, that the victims were women only.
Sixth principle. “The last trait of heterotopias is that they have a function in relation to all the space that remains” (Foucault, 1984). Claiming there are two types of functions, at different extreme poles, Foucault distinguishes between the creation of space that is as perfect as ours is messy, and the creation of space that exposes other real spaces as more illusory, revealing life to be fragmented.
Foucault provides the example of Jesuit societies in early America to illustrate one of the functions. The role of the Jesuit society, developed according to a rigorous plan, was to create a perfect space in contrast to the messy, jumbled, world that remained apart. In a similar way, the annual commemorations of the Montreal Massacre provide the structure for those who belong and who share similar beliefs – a ceremony recalling each woman who died, a ceremony built upon shared values and rites of remembrance.
The second function is illustrated using the idea of the brothel, a space which in itself is real, but which exposes the illusion of the remaining real space in our world and the fragmentation of everyday lives. Applying that concept to the Montreal Massacre, we can see how that space, historically, is a very real space, but is it also, in another sense, based on an illusion? The Montreal Massacre is connected to the outside world by its association with the White Ribbon campaign, but in so doing, does it act to expose the fragmentation of life, the illusory nature—the false constructions and divisions—of society? The Montreal Massacre was a space unlike normal social space. But what has it shown us? Has it pointed out the illusions of our society?
When we look at the divisions existing after the Montreal killings, we cannot help but remember television journalist Barbara Frum’s words, “Surely, this is a crime against humanity, she said, over and over again (Lakeman, 2002). On all sides, people suffered. This brief, but significant insight is hardly a grand narrative, but these few words of Barbara Frum confirm the essence of what happened in Montreal. It was a crime against humanity – not only because women died, or that women were the obvious victims, but because on all sides people experienced injustice, much of it unacknowledged.
Tying in with Foucault’s concept of the heterotopia, Rapport’s complaint is that more often than not, “systematic ordering and classification of matter inexorably rejects certain elements as inappropriate: it must do this in order to arrive at clean lines of division between matter” (Rapport, 1997: 655). We would like our society to be free of contradiction, to have it make sense. But the reality of our world isn’t like that.
Rapport points out that society recognizes classificatory order though not creative disorder, except as temporary. He proposes a solution with a different foundation:
[that] social order is predicated not upon the absence of contradiction but upon its
co-presence: the cognitive co-presence of the contradictory, of both/and, together
with the classificatory order of either/or (Rapport, 1997: 657-58).
Recalling the distressing events of December 6th, 1989, it would seem reasonable to make a judgement on the basis of where one stands or one’s own experience, but the contradictions in various perceptions do not appear to be resolvable unless a new approach is taken.
The story of the Montreal Massacre started long before that horrific episode in the engineering school, and will continue to have effects on us for generations to come. Each year, as it is remembered and commemorated, as Foucault would have said, like a skein, the strands of various stories, intertwined, change as new fragments of detail and new understandings reveal themselves.
Note: All references to Foucault and Of Other Spaces were taken from the translation by Jay Miskowiec (see Foucault, 1984).
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