Last week my wife and I attended a performance of the School of Music wind ensemble at the Isabel. It was a great performance of several recent and contemporary compositions. The one that stuck with me was ‘Polytechnique’, a moving piece by young Quebec composer Jonathan Dagenais that concluded with 14 chimes in memory of the women killed by a crazed and hateful gunman on 6 December 1989 at the Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. (Click here to watch a performance of ‘Polytechnique’ by another ensemble).
This Saturday will mark the 25th anniversary of that scar on our national psyche, and it has particular resonance given recent discussions on campus and in the media concerning sexual assault. Among those who attend the memorials (here at Queen’s it is scheduled for Friday Dec 5) on campus, a great many will not even have been born in 1989. As with Remembrance Day, the commemoration of this date has passed to a new generation.
As I listened in the darkened hall to ‘Polytechnique’, played so beautifully by our students, I cast my mind back 25 years to my much younger self and the world of the time. On December 6 1989 I was 31 years and one day old (having celebrated my birthday the day before), a relatively new assistant professor in Dalhousie University’s history department. On that day, I was travelling home from Winnipeg, where I had taken my 8-month old daughter Sarah, at that point our only child, to visit with her grandparents. I was in the full flush of new fatherhood and proudly paraded Sarah to a series of old friends’ houses.
We arrived back to our house in the north end of Halifax and I knew before I stepped in the door that something was wrong. Sarah’s mother had an ashen look on her face and told me that news reports were coming in of a madman having killed a number of female students in Montreal. Over the next hours and days I felt for the victims and their parents and loved ones with a particular empathy that perhaps one can only feel as the parent of a daughter.
While few things compare with the magnitude of that tragedy – and I wouldn’t venture to compare them – I can’t help but recall that the fall of 1989 was a challenging one for Queen’s. That’s when a campaign on campus on the theme of ‘no means no’ was ridiculed by a number of students in the men’s residences (gender integration of the residences would be one consequence of these events, as historian Duncan McDowell points out in his forthcoming history of the university between 1961 and 2004). I won’t retell the events here other than to say that things got very nasty, very quickly and in a very un-Queen’s-like way. Then-Principal David Smith and his administration struggled to deal with a problem of which it is clear they were unaware. Many alumni—me among them—wrote letters of concern or even outrage to the Alumni Review. Then, when the Montreal Massacre occurred, what had been largely a campus incident at Queen’s alerted a lot of people to the fact that problems of misogyny, violence against women, and a highly sexist culture permeated the country.
A quarter century and a generation later—my daughter is now nearly 26 and has two brothers in their earlier 20s— it would be foolish to claim that we have not made progress. There is a much higher level of awareness of and, I think, much lower tolerance for, the attitudes that provoked the heated debate on our campus and ultimately led to the horror at Ecole Polytechnique. Departments of Women’s and Gender Studies such as ours (which was then in its infancy) are now well established at many institutions. We have much greater gender equity across many disciplines, including Engineering, the discipline that the victims in Montreal were studying (their very right to do so contested by their killer). We have in many ways moved on to other issues.
But we’re still not where we need to be. The allegations swirling around a recently dismissed radio celebrity have brought this to mind, and so, frankly, have the recent media reports on sexual assaults on our campus and others. It’s clear from talking to a number of our faculty and students in recent weeks that many women students feel unsafe. If ‘no means no’ was Principal Smith’s wake-up call, then I guess I’ve now had mine.
As I noted in the Queen’s Journal last week, I don’t believe that having a sexual assault policy is a magic bullet to fix attitudes and behavior—we need a broader strategy and an approach that brings young men into the solution, just as many of them were part of the positive discussions in the years after 1989. But I do believe that a policy will help, and that it will, most importantly, provide the basis for clearer and unambiguous support by members of our community to survivors of sexual assault.
I hope that, should I still be living in a further 25 years, my eventual successor will be able to look back on the next quarter century as a time of greater progress and of the eradication of sexual assault and the attitudes behind it.