A Montreal Massacre Memoir
Wednesday, December 6, 1989, the day Marc Lépine targeted, shot, and killed 14 young women at a Montreal engineering school, I was a 28-year-old researcher-reporter at Maclean’s, “Canada’s national newsmagazine.”
The magazine’s deadline was Friday night, it went to print on the weekend. In my four years at Maclean’s there were only minor copy changes to the magazine on Saturdays unless there was a late-breaking story. I don’t recall a single instance of going home late on a Friday night and coming in Monday morning to see a different cover. Except on December 11, 1989.
The Montreal Massacre was and still is the deadliest mass murder committed by an individual in Canadian history. It was incredibly shocking.
You might think that the murder of 14 women (he also wounded 14 others, including four men, then shot himself) by a disturbed man who declared that he was motivated by his hatred of feminists would be a no-brainer for the cover of the nation’s weekly. But until the Saturday after the massacre, the chief editor of the magazine, Kevin Doyle, was firm that this was not a cover-worthy story.
That was pretty shocking too.
The murders had set off a national discussion around male violence against women, which became (still is–see Wikipedia) a faux “debate” because many preferred to label Lépine a madman. Working with a reporter that week, I asked him why he kept using phrases like “women’s groups are horrified.” First of all, women’s groups? Like the Girl Guides? And, did they have to be the only ones who were distressed?
As a subordinate researcher-reporter, or fact-checker, I was not privy to editorial meetings. But according to various colleagues at the time, Doyle was unwilling to accept that there was an underlying culture of male dominance and misogyny that had helped create Marc Lépine.
I remember a former editor telling me that in one of the meetings that week, apropos the existence, and statistically arguable prevalence, of male violence against women, Doyle opined, to various nods, that he had never known of any women who had suffered from domestic abuse. That editor did not feel safe enough to tell him that she had been such a person.
Doyle was of the camp that saw the murders as a one-off by a nut-bar. This contention apparently clouded his view regarding the newsworthiness of the dead and wounded.
Many people tried to convince Doyle that he needed to put the story on the cover. I may have been the one who swayed him.
The culture of the magazine was white, male, rigidly hierarchical, with a vibe of 1970s-era Presbyterianism thrown in. (Doyle was Irish-Catholic, but no matter. As a friend of mine used to say about grey and buttoned-up Toronto, which wasn’t always the hipster haven it is now, “It doesn’t matter who comes here, Jamaicans, Italians, whatever, they all become Scottish Presbyterians.”)
Think of me as a slightly more grown up and less feisty Nancy Wheeler (Stranger Things) at a slightly fancier publication with slightly more contained Canadian chauvinism. I was a young woman of half-Greek heritage from, in some ways, the more freewheeling city of Calgary. When I left journalism in the early 1990s, I pursued a career as an artist. In 1989, except for our receptionist of Indian ethnicity — i.e. India. I never saw a single visibly Native person in that office tower — I was close to as exotic a person as had ever worked there.
It took a lot of guts for me to go into Kevin Doyle’s office to tell him that I felt very strongly that the Montreal Massacre needed to be on the cover of the magazine. I had to speak to his personal secretary to ask for an audience. I was ushered to a chair outside a closed door until I was allowed to enter. The office was a somber, important-looking chamber with its dark wood paneling and royal blue velvet curtains, quite dissimilar to the generic cubicle where I worked. Though I had been in Doyle’s office before in the role of minion, to drop off a document or some such task, I had never been invited to sit there except briefly at the time I was hired. There was absolutely no question that I might pop by to chat. Maclean’s was a boys’ club and Doyle was a very shy and repressed man.
My colleague Victor, who is still a good friend, says he remembers clearly: “You went into Kevin’s office to argue for it, and cried much of the time, and he was won over.” My own memory doesn’t include the winning him over part.
It was late on Friday when I spoke to Doyle. I couldn’t believe he hadn’t yet changed his mind. I know I felt very emotional. To me, not putting the story on the cover was equivalent to an insult to the dead women and, by extension, any woman who had suffered violence at the hands of men. And Lépine was a madman. It wasn’t an either/or.
Victor added: “My memory is that the Christmas party at Kevin’s house was the Sunday between closing the issue and its appearance on the stands. So I guess December 10. And there was much relief that he had been swayed.”
I remember that Christmas party at his house quite vividly. But I don’t remember that sequence!
Kevin Doyle was only ever “friendly” to me once. Under the influence at that Christmas party, two days after I had been in his office making my passionate appeal, he grabbed me from behind and held my body against his. I, politely, quietly, not saying a word, slunk out of the clutch and manoeuvred into another room.
He sort of apologized. There had been other breaches of propriety that night and, in a mass memo to staff the following week, he mentioned accidentally mixing alcohol and medication.
It’s interesting to me now to realize that I don’t remember the convincing of Doyle or whether the party incident had happened before or after the Montreal Massacre. In other words, in terms of who I was at the time, it doesn’t matter.
Doyle was my boss. I don’t think I would have been more or less uncomfortable going into his office to talk to him about the importance of putting the massacre on the magazine’s cover whether the inappropriate hugging incident plus lame apology had or hadn’t occurred. My attitude would have been something like this: Sometimes old guys (much younger than I am now!) get drunk and paw young gals that work for them. Sure, it was gross, but it was part of the world of work and the world period.
For my work friends and I, ironists all, and on lower rungs of the ladder, it was another log on the fire of hilarity fuelled by our seniors. None of us used the word I used above, “inappropriate,” or the word “disrespectful.” He didn’t threaten me or hurt me. We didn’t take it seriously. Bosses, like fathers and school principals, had their reasons. Different rules applied to them. And we had the comfort of believing we were cool. Poor Kevin Doyle, with his ironed jeans on weekends, he was the farthest thing from cool.
I had never experienced domestic violence. But it was an issue that I knew to be grossly hidden, and its victims, mostly women, unfairly treated by partners and society alike. It was around me, even in my privileged circle. My best friend Suzan had been slugged unconscious by her lawyer boyfriend earlier in the 80s. He was given an absolute discharge on account of his good standing in the community. Also in the 80s, a woman, who had been a school friend and grew up two doors down on our prosperous street, was murdered by her husband who then killed himself, as is the style. In my later life, I befriended an older woman who in the 1970s and 1980s lived on a farm where her then husband raped, beat, and chased her with a gun. She often slept in the chicken coop. Her ex-husband has never been charged with a criminal offense. Her grown children don’t or won’t or can’t acknowledge what she went through. It’s a story she rarely tells.
I strongly resonated with the issue. It was fully on my emotional radar. Still, I wasn’t yet at a stage to articulate why it was so painful to me. Abuse against women being in the category of menstruation and other terribly dangerous taboos. Nor was I able to see how so many of my own personal struggles were caused by being a feminine, creative being in a competitive, masculine world. (Suzan killed herself in 2013. I’m sure lawyer-hitter was not the reason but I’m also sure that her inability to find peace in this iteration of culture was.) Like the female engineering student survivors at École Polytechnique in Montreal who said that they were just going to school and weren’t “feminists,” I did not think of myself as a feminist.
I don’t exactly wish to vilify Kevin Doyle (now deceased). As I recall him, I see a man struggling with measuring up to the required standards for a person of his gender, time, and place. I was 28, female and “artsy,” nowhere near being a confident or comfortable person. He was the boss, a middle-aged man and “powerful,” also nowhere near being a confident or comfortable person.
For about two of my four years at Maclean’s I was the main writer and editor of the “People” section, a page of mostly cutesy, gossipy items. The “People” editor, as part of the job’s mandate, had to contrive to feature a photo of a comely lady in revealing garments every week. I made sarcastic comments to my friends about what was euphemistically known as the “glamour shot” but hadn’t once made a real complaint about the demeaning nature of the whole exercise. It never occurred to me to do so. Just as it never occurred to me to believe I had influenced the editor-in-chief to change the cover.
From my current perspective, I realize Kevin’s attitudes should not have been such a surprise. But I also realize that the “surprise” wasn’t his attitude but the outing of it. I went from familiar, normal, unquestioned discomfort around a male authority figure to understanding that he was actually blind and indifferent to a reality lived by women. If anything has changed since 1989 — and I would argue that not much has even in the #metoo era, except, you know, the imminent demise of humanity due to patriarchy and capitalism — it’s that there is a lot more outing.