Every year for over a decade, my mother called my sister and me on December 6, the anniversary of the Montreal Massacre. On a dark winter afternoon in 1989, a lone gunman with a semi-automatic rifle killed 14 female engineering students at the École Polytechnique at the Université de Montréal. Demanding that the men leave before opening fire, the killer bellowed that he blamed these young women, these “feminists,” for his own failings in life, before turning the gun on himself.
Twenty-five years later, this is still the most brutal rampage to take place on Canadian soil since the 19th century. It has always struck me that it was called the Montreal Massacre — not the Polytechnique Massacre or even the University of Montreal Massacre. In a town dominated by language politics that divided us into French and English, East and West, rich and poor, the event needed this title to signal how completely it had shaken the entire city.
At the time I was 12 and my sister 19, already away in college. I heard the news in the hallways at school, right after it happened. I took in this information the way children often do — immediately fearing that we, far across the city, were in danger. We weren’t, but the news hit terribly close to home because one of the victims, a 20-year-old named Geneviève Bergeron, had gone to our school. Like my sister, she had played the clarinet and had sat next to her in orchestra.
For many years after 1989, we held remembrances at my high school. In 12th grade, I attended a boys’ school that had gone co-ed that year (not something I recommend), and found out that the school had, not once, had a remembrance — a boys’ school, ostensibly training their students to be good men in the world. I organized one there, too, asking 14 boys to hold a candle and say a woman’s name aloud.
For a long time after I left home, my mother’s annual calls were a tremendous, predictable comfort. I lived in places where people didn’t know anything about the Montreal Massacre — didn’t know how profoundly it had shaped so many of us as girls, how it had taught me early on to be afraid, and also how it had given root to my feminism, how necessary I knew that fear to be — and hearing my mother’s sad voice made me feel a little less alone.
But as we got further away from the tragedy — 15, 20 years on — her calls, her sorrowful voice on the phone, started to bother me. It wasn’t that the Montreal Massacre seemed any less awful. If anything, it was worse in retrospect, given that I was seeing it through the eyes of an adult who understood how a dangerous confluence of misogyny, violence, and access to firearms could so quickly and brutally end so many women’s lives. But her sadness seemed oddly acute for someone who hadn’t personally known any of the victims, for someone whose daughters weren’t engineering students (like that mattered), or didn’t go to the University of Montreal (like that mattered), or didn’t even live in Montreal anymore (like that mattered).
But my dismissal of her was also odd, unfair: I see now that growing up in the shadow of the massacre gave me a feminist consciousness from a very early age. Two years after the tragedy, when asked to write one of those ubiquitous “What Do I Want to Be When I Grow Up?” essays, I chose to be a “Feminist Activist.” I organized sexual harassment awareness events at school, attended Take Back the Night rallies, and launched myself to Oberlin College — that bastion of liberal feminism — where I enrolled in Women’s Studies 101 during my first semester. But over time, although I never stopped calling myself a feminist, the urgency of its call — the need to march, to protest, to rage with a capital F — seemed to fade.
Now, I, too, am a mother to a little girl. A girl with a father who tells her every day that she can be a mathematician or a scientist or an engineer. And I can see, with total, terrifying clarity, why it is that my mother needed to talk to us each year on December 6. Of course she feared that it could have been us — that it could still be us. Of course she thought about the babies she’d birthed and nurtured and fed and loved and protected with everything she had. She knew she could only do so much. She worried about what it meant to have girls out in this kind of world. She raised us as feminists and wanted us to be brave — to be who we wanted to be, to go where we wanted to go, to be free and bold, to speak out — and she, like every other mother on the planet, feared what this might mean. And every year, she just wanted to stop and hear our voices, to feel us, still close, on the other end of the line.
Abigail Rasminsky has written for The New York Times; O: The Oprah Magazine; Brain, Child Magazine; The Morning News; The Forward; and Dance Magazine, among other publications. She is a graduate of Columbia’s MFA Writing Program and lives in Vienna, Austria, with her husband and daughter. More at abigailrasminsky.com.