Julie Pagano

On the 25th Anniversary of École Polytechnique

Content notice: violence, violence against women, mass shooting

Today is the 25th anniversary of the mass shooting in Montreal often referred to as the École Polytechnique Massacre. I have been thinking about it a lot today, so I want to share some thoughts, rambling as they may be.

Today I wonder how many people outside Canada think about this incident. Do those who are younger and American even know about it? It happened on December 6th, 1989. I was four, living in Pennsylvania, and far too young to have learned about it. The first time I visited Montréal was this year for PyCon. Despite no attachment to the place and being very young when it happened, I think about this incident often. Honestly, more often than I like.

The notable thing about this incident for me is who was killed and the reasons the killer cited. He targeted women engineering students claiming that he was fighting feminism. He killed fourteen women. The day is commemorated in Canada as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

This event is notable to me and often thought about because it is a reminder that people do exist who not only intend harm against women, but will actually carry it out. This isn’t an isolated incident — another mass killing targeting women happened this year in California. Many smaller incidents happen all the time. I think about it often. I can’t not.

École Polytechnique, in particular, sticks with me because I am a woman, an engineer, and a feminist. So are many of my friends. Many of us have received harassment, stalking, and threats of violence. Sometimes thinly veiled. Sometimes straightforward. Always unsettling.

People tell us to ignore the trolls. They’re not serious. They’re just trying to get a rise out of you. The trouble is, some small percentage of the time they do mean real physical harm. We have no way to know when someone is “just a troll” and when someone will do something terrible like what happened in Montréal. One man even invoked Montréal when threatening a feminist video game critic this year.

I think of these incidents every time myself or one of my friends receives harassment or threats. I can’t not. What so many people don’t get is the long-term psychological damage of having to run the numbers in your head of how likely it is that a threat is serious. Of how likely it is that someone is going to harm you or someone you care about. Trying to figure out all the ways to make yourself less easy a target.

Don’t publish your travel information. Use a PO Box. Remove your information from “people search” sites. Always pay for whois privacy protection on your domains. Warn your friends and family to avoid social engineering. Secure all of your electronic accounts with two factor authentication and strong passwords. Know that none of this is enough if someone really wants to harm you.

When we mention these incidents, people tell us to go to the police, as if we didn’t think of that already. Believe me, we’ve tried to contact the police. They don’t care. I once asked a retired law enforcement officer who cares about me about this, hoping there was a trick to get police to pay attention and care. He did not sugarcoat his response. He said that, sadly, “they tend not to care until there’s a body. It’s wortwhile to file a report, so that if someone does hurt you, there’s a paper trail, but that’s about it.” The experiences of myself and my friends certainly support that. I dearly hope that none of us ever get to the part where someone has been harmed.

I keep talking about harm like it only involves a gun or a knife or a dead body. There are many forms of harm, and that is certainly the most extreme, but there is another form of harm. The psychological harm of worrying about the risk of the physical harm is significant, especially over long periods of time. I think people forget that. They don’t think about École Polytechnique more often than they want to. They don’t receive threats, harassment, or stalking. They don’t regularly run numbers in their head about risk assessment. They have the luxury of seeing events like Montréal and Isla Vista and so many others as isolated incidents caused by madmen. They don’t understand what this feels like.

Maybe you should think more about what happened at École Polytechnique more often. About the women that died because a man hated feminists. Think about it before you say something to women talking about their fear and frustration with harassments and threats. Think about it before you tell them what to do or how to feel. Think about it.

Fuck a culture that sacrifices women on the altar of men’s hurt feelings.

Photo of plaque at École Polytechnique commemorating victims of the massacre
Plaque at École Polytechnique commemorating victims of the massacre