École Polytechnique massacre

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Coordinates: 45°30′17″N 73°36′46″W / 45.50472°N 73.61278°W / 45.50472; -73.61278

École Polytechnique massacre
Mtl dec6 plaque.jpg
Plaque at École Polytechnique commemorating victims of the massacre
LocationMontreal, Quebec, Canada
DateDecember 6, 1989; 30 years ago (1989-12-06)
TargetWomen at École Polytechnique de Montréal
Deaths15 (14 by gunfire including the perpetrator and 1 by stabbing)
PerpetratorMarc Lépine; born Gamil Rodrigue Liass Gharbi

The École Polytechnique massacre (French: tuerie de l'École polytechnique), also known as the Montreal massacre, was a mass shooting in Montreal at an engineering school affiliated with the Université de Montréal. 14 women were murdered and 10 women and four men were injured.

On December 6, 1989, Marc Lépine entered a mechanical engineering class at the École Polytechnique and ordered the women and men to opposite sides of the classroom. He separated nine women, instructing the men to leave. He stated that he was "fighting feminism" and opened fire. He shot at all nine women in the room, killing six. Lépine then moved through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, targeting women for just under 20 minutes. He killed a further eight before turning the gun on himself.

At the time, the incident was the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history.[a] In a search for a rationale since the attack, there have been debates over various interpretations of the events, their significance, and Lépine's motives. Many characterize the massacre as an anti-feminist attack representative of wider societal violence against women. The anniversary of the massacre has been commemorated as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Other interpretations emphasize Lépine's abuse as a child or suggest that the massacre was simply the isolated act of a madman, unrelated to larger social issues.[3][4] Still other commentators have blamed violence in the media[5] and increasing poverty, isolation, and alienation in society,[6] particularly in immigrant communities.[7]

The incident led to more stringent gun control laws in Canada. It also introduced changes in the tactical response of police to shootings, changes which were later credited with minimizing casualties during the Dawson College shooting.


Sometime after 4 p.m. on December 6, 1989, Marc Lépine arrived at the building housing the École Polytechnique, an engineering school affiliated with the Université de Montréal, armed with a rifle and a hunting knife.[8] Lépine had purchased the rifle less than a month earlier on November 21 in a Checkmate Sports store in Montreal. He had told the clerk that he was going to use it to hunt small game.[9] Lépine had been in and around the École Polytechnique building at least seven times in the weeks leading up to December 6.[8]

oblique view of a long, modern building about 6 storeys high, with many windows and large main entrance
Exterior of École Polytechnique de Montréal

Lépine first sat in the office of the registrar on the second floor for a while, where he was seen rummaging through a plastic bag. He did not speak to anyone, even when a staff member asked if she could help him. Lépine left the office and was subsequently seen in other parts of the building before entering a second-floor mechanical engineering class of about sixty students at about 5:10 p.m.[8] After approaching the student giving a presentation, he asked everyone to stop everything and ordered the women and men to opposite sides of the classroom. No one moved at first, believing it to be a joke until he fired a shot into the ceiling.[10]

Lépine then separated the nine women from the approximately fifty men and ordered the men to leave.[5] He asked the remaining women whether they knew why they were there, and when one student replied, "No," he answered, "I am fighting feminism." One of the students, Nathalie Provost, said, "Look, we are just women studying engineering, not necessarily feminists ready to march on the streets to shout we are against men, just students intent on leading a normal life." Lépine responded, "You're women, you're going to be engineers. You're all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists." He then opened fire on the students from left to right, killing six, and wounding three others, including Provost.[8][11] Before leaving the room, he wrote the word “shit” twice on a student project.[5]

Lépine continued into the second-floor corridor and wounded three students before entering another room where he twice attempted to shoot a female student. When his weapon failed to fire, he entered the emergency staircase where he was seen reloading his gun. He returned to the room he had just left, but the students had locked the door; Lépine failed to unlock it with three shots fired into the door. Moving along the corridor, he shot at others, wounding one, before moving towards the financial services office where he shot and killed Maryse Laganière through the window of the door she had just locked.[8]

view of a classroom from the rear, with blackboard and three desks and tables at the front of the class, and five rows of long curved student desks with blue chairs attached.
The third floor classroom in the École Polytechnique in which the attack ended

He next went down to the first-floor cafeteria, in which about a hundred people were gathered. The crowd scattered after he shot a woman standing near the kitchens and wounded another student. Entering an unlocked storage area at the end of the cafeteria, Lépine shot and killed two more women hiding there. He told a male and female student to come out from under a table; they complied and were not shot.[8]

Lépine then walked up an escalator to the third floor where he shot and wounded one female and two male students in the corridor. He entered another classroom and told the three students giving a presentation to "get out," shooting and wounding Maryse Leclair, who was standing on the low platform at the front of the classroom. He fired on students in the front row and then killed two women who were trying to escape the room, while other students dove under their desks. Lépine moved towards some of the female students, wounding three of them and killing another. He changed the magazine in his weapon and moved to the front of the class, shooting in all directions. At this point, the wounded Leclair asked for help; Lépine unsheathed his hunting knife and stabbed her three times, killing her. He took off his cap, wrapped his coat around his rifle, exclaimed, "Oh shit," and then died by suicide, shooting himself in the head twenty minutes after having begun his attack.[12] About sixty unfired cartridges remained in the boxes he carried with him.[8][12]

After briefing reporters outside, Montreal Police director of public relations Pierre Leclair entered the building and found his daughter Maryse's stabbed body.[13][14]


In a park, 14 coffin-like benches of pink stone are set in a circle. A higher slanted pink panel is visible in the foreground
Marker of Change, memorial consisting of 14 coffin-like benches in Vancouver by artist Beth Alber

Lépine killed fourteen women (twelve engineering students, one nursing student, and one employee of the university) and injured fourteen others, ten women and four men.[8][12]

The Quebec and Montreal governments declared three days of mourning.[13] A joint funeral for nine of the women was held at Notre-Dame Basilica on December 11, 1989, and was attended by Governor General Jeanne Sauvé, Prime Minister Brian Mulroney, Quebec premier Robert Bourassa, and Montreal mayor Jean Doré, along with thousands of other mourners.[14]


The shooter, Marc Lépine, né Gamil Gharbi, was born to a French-Canadian mother and an Algerian father. His father, a mutual funds salesman, did not consider women to be the equal of men. He was physically and verbally abusive to his wife and son, discouraging tenderness between mother and child.[15][16] When Gamil was seven, his parents separated; his father ceased contact with his children soon after.[15] His mother returned to nursing to support the family, and because of her schedule, the children lived with other families during the week. At 14, Gamil changed his name to "Marc Lépine," citing his hatred of his father as the reason for taking his mother's surname.[15] Lépine attempted to join the Canadian Army during the winter of 1980–1981 but, according to his suicide letter, was rejected because he was "anti-social."[17] The brief biography of Marc Lépine that police released the day after the killings described him as intelligent but troubled.[11] He disliked feminists, career women and women in traditionally-male occupations, such as the police force.[17] He began a pre-university CEGEP (college) program in Pure and Applied Sciences in 1982 but switched to a three-year vocational program in electronics technology after his first year. He abandoned this program in his final semester without explanation.[18][19][20] Lépine applied to the École Polytechnique in 1986 and in 1989 but lacked two CEGEP courses required for admission.[21] He completed one of them in the winter of 1989.[8][22]

Suicide letter

Lépine's inside jacket pocket contained a suicide letter and two letters to friends, all dated the day of the massacre.[8] Some details from the suicide letter were revealed by the police two days after the event[23][24] but the full text was not disclosed. The media brought an unsuccessful access to information case to compel the police to release the suicide letter.[25] A year after the attacks, Lépine's three-page statement was leaked to journalist and feminist Francine Pelletier. It contained a list of nineteen Quebec women whom Lépine apparently wished to kill because he considered them feminists.[11][26] The list included Pelletier herself, as well as a union leader, a politician, a TV personality, and six police officers who had come to Lépine's attention as they were on the same volleyball team.[27] The letter (without the list of women) was subsequently published in the newspaper La Presse, where Pelletier was a columnist.[28] Lépine wrote that he considered himself rational and that he blamed feminists for ruining his life. He outlined his reasons for the attack including his anger towards feminists for seeking social changes that "retain the advantages of being women [...] while trying to grab those of the men."[29] He also mentioned Denis Lortie, a Canadian Armed Forces corporal who killed three government employees and wounded thirteen others in an armed attack on the National Assembly of Quebec on May 7, 1984.[30] The text of the original letter in French is available, as well as an English translation.

Search for a rationale

A public inquiry was not held,[31] and Marc Lépine's suicide letter was not released as government and criminal justice officials feared that extensive public discussion about the massacre would cause pain to the families and lead to antifeminist violence.[11] In addition, although an extensive police investigation into Marc Lépine and the killings took place,[32] the resulting report was not made public, though a copy was used by the coroner as a source in her investigation.[8][33] The media, academics, women's organizations, and family members of the victims protested the lack of a public inquiry and paucity of information released.[5][11][34]

circular monument in a park, and made of multiple grey stones. The large central stone contains a bilingual inscription in memory of women killed by men's violence. Many much smaller irregularly shaped stone shafts are carved with women's names
Memorial in Minto Park, Ottawa

The gender of Marc Lépine's victims, as well as his oral statements during the massacre and in the suicide note, quickly led to the event being seen as an antifeminist attack and as an example of the wider issue of violence against women.[35][36][4][37][38] Feminist scholars consider Lépine's actions to spring from a widespread societal misogyny, including toleration of violence against women.[36][39][40] Scholars have categorized it as a "pseudo-community" type of "pseudo-commando" murder-suicide, in which the perpetrator targets a specific group, often in a public place, and intends to die in "a blaze of glory."[41] Criminologists regard the massacre as an example of a hate or bias crime against women, as the victims were selected solely because of their membership in the category of women, and those targeted were interchangeable with others from the same group.[42][43][44] Lépine's mother later wondered if the attack was not directed at her, as some would have considered her a feminist since she was a single, working mother.[16] Others, including television journalist Barbara Frum, pleaded that the massacre not be seen as an antifeminist attack or violence against women, and questioned why people insisted on "diminishing" the tragedy by "suggesting that it was an act against just one group?"[4][45]

As predicted by Marc Lépine in his suicide letter,[29] some saw the event as the isolated act of a madman.[11][4][3] A psychiatrist interviewed Lépine's family and friends and examined his writings as part of the police investigation. He noted that Lépine defined suicide as his primary motivation, and that he chose a specific suicide method, namely killing oneself after killing others (multiple homicide/suicide strategy), which is considered a sign of a serious personality disorder.[8] Other psychiatrists emphasized the traumatic events of his childhood, suggesting that the blows he had received may have caused brain damage, or that Lépine was psychotic, having lost touch with reality as he tried to erase the memories of a brutal (yet largely absent) father while unconsciously identifying with a violent masculinity that dominated women.[46][47] A different theory was that Lépine's childhood experiences of abuse led him to feel victimized as he faced losses and rejections in his later life.[47] His mother wondered whether Lépine might have suffered from attachment disorder, due to the abuse and sense of abandonment he had experienced in his childhood.[48]

Others expressed a broader analysis, framing Lépine's actions as the result of societal changes that had led to increased poverty, powerlessness, individual isolation,[6] and polarization between men and women.[36][7] Noting Lépine's interest in violent action films, some suggested that violence in the media and in society may have influenced his actions.[5]

Effects and controversy

a long straight walk down the middle of a narrow park is bordered on both sides by trees and roads. At intervals along each side of the path, are series of waist-high boxes
Place du 6-Décembre-1989 (December 6, 1989 Place), Montreal, featuring the artwork Nef pour quatorze reines (Nave for Fourteen Queens) by Rose-Marie Goulet

The injured and witnesses among university staff and students suffered a variety of physical, social, existential, financial, and psychological consequences, including post-traumatic stress disorder. At least two students left notes confirming that they had committed suicide due to distress caused by the massacre.[49] Nine years after the event, survivors reported still being affected by their experiences, though with time some of the effects had lessened.[49]


Failure to intervene

a roughly edged flat grey stone inscribed with the names of the women murdered, and dedicated by the engineering community at McMaster
Memorial at John Hodgins Engineering Building, McMaster University

Male survivors of the massacre have been subjected to criticism for not intervening to stop Lépine. In an interview immediately after the event, a reporter asked one of the men why they "abandoned" the women when it was clear that Lépine's targets were women.[50] René Jalbert, the sergeant-at-arms who persuaded Denis Lortie to surrender during his 1984 attack, said that someone should have intervened at least to distract Lépine, but acknowledged that "ordinary citizens cannot be expected to react heroically in the midst of terror."[13] Right-wing newspaper columnist Mark Steyn suggested that male inaction during the massacre illustrated a "culture of passivity" prevalent among men in Canada, which enabled Lépine's shooting spree: "Yet the defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is not M Lepine/Gharbi but the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, meekly did so, and abandoned their female classmates to their fate—an act of abdication that would have been unthinkable in almost any other culture throughout human history."[51]

Male students and staff expressed feelings of remorse for not having attempted to prevent the shootings,[5] but Nathalie Provost, one of the survivors, said that she felt that nothing could have been done to prevent the tragedy, and that her fellow students should not feel guilty.[52]

Anti-feminist interpretation

The feminist movement is periodically criticized from a right-wing or anti-feminist perspective for appropriating the massacre as a symbol of male violence against women. For example, Charles Rackoff, a University of Toronto computer science professor, compared the Ku Klux Klan with those organizing vigils marking the event, writing that "[t]he point is to use the death of these people as an excuse to promote the feminist/extreme left-wing agenda," and adding that it is "no more justified" than the KKK using the "murder of a white person by a black person as an excuse to promote their agenda."[53] Other critics say that Lépine was a "lone gunman" who does not represent men, and that violence against women is neither condoned nor encouraged officially or unofficially in western culture. In this perspective, feminist memorializing is considered socially divisive on the basis of gender and therefore harmful by bestowing guilt on all men, irrespective of individual propensity to violence against women.[36][54] Some men's rights and anti-feminist commentators state that feminism has provoked violence against women, and without explicitly condoning the shootings, view the massacre as an extreme expression of men's frustrations.[4][55] Some anti-feminists view Lépine as a hero, and glorify his actions.[56][57][58][59][60][61]

Gun control

The massacre was a major spur for the Canadian gun control movement.[22] Heidi Rathjen, a student who was in one of the classrooms Lépine did not enter during the shooting, organized the Coalition for Gun Control with Wendy Cukier.[22] Suzanne Laplante-Edward and Jim Edward, the parents of one of the victims, were also deeply involved.[62] Their activities, along with others, led to the passage of Bill C-17 in 1992, and C-68, commonly known as the Firearms Act, in 1995, ushering in stricter gun control regulations.[22] These new regulations included requirements on the training of gun owners, screening of firearm applicants, 28-day waiting period on new applicants, rules concerning gun and ammunition storage, the registration of all firearms, magazine capacity restrictions for centre-fire semi automatics and firearm restrictions and prohibitions. Between 2009 and 2012, survivors of the massacre and their families publicly opposed legislative actions by Stephen Harper's Conservative government aimed at ending the requirement to register non-restricted firearms (commonly referred to as the "long-gun registry").[63][64][65] A bill was narrowly defeated in September 2010,[66][67] but following their 2011 majority election win, the long-gun registry was abolished by the Harper government in April 2012.[68] The Quebec government subsequently won a temporary injunction, preventing the destruction of the province's gun registry data, and ordering the continued registration of long guns in Quebec.[69] In March 2015, The Supreme Court of Canada ruled against Quebec, clearing the way for the destruction of all registry data.[70]

Police response

Police response to the shootings was heavily criticized. The first police officers to arrive at the scene established a perimeter around the building and waited before entering the building. During this period, several women were killed.[8][71] Subsequent changes to emergency response protocols led to praise of emergency responders' handling of the Dawson College shooting in 2006 in which one woman was killed by a shooter. In that incident, coordination amongst emergency response agencies and prompt intervention were credited with minimizing the loss of life.[72]

Violence against women

In response to the killings, a House of Commons Sub-Committee on the Status of Women was created. It released a report "The War against Women" in June 1991, which was not endorsed by the full standing committee.[73][74] However, following its recommendations, the federal government established the Canadian Panel on Violence Against Women in August 1991. The panel issued a final report, "Changing the Landscape: Ending Violence – Achieving Equality," in June 1993. The panel proposed a two-pronged "National Action Plan" consisting of an "Equality Action Plan" and a "Zero Tolerance Policy" designed to increase women's equality and reduce violence against women through government policy. Critics of the panel said that the plan failed to provide a workable timeline and strategy for implementation and that with over four hundred recommendations, the final report failed to make an impact.[75]

The Canadian women's movement sees the massacre as a symbol of violence against women. "The death of those young women would not be in vain, we promised," Canadian feminist Judy Rebick recalled. "We would turn our mourning into organizing to put an end to male violence against women."[76]


Since 1991, the anniversary of the massacre has been designated the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, intended as a call to action against discrimination against women.[37] A White Ribbon Campaign was launched in 1991 by a group of men in London, Ontario, in the wake of the massacre, for the purpose of raising awareness about the prevalence of male violence against women, with the ribbon symbolizing "the idea of men giving up their arms".[77] Commemorative demonstrations are held across the country each year on December 6 in memory of the slain women and numerous memorials have been built.[29]

a waist high grey box is carved with a large H; the rest of Hélène Colgan's name is spelled out in large raised lettering on the ground of the park
Nef pour quatorze reines (Nave for fourteen queens), detail

The Place du 6-Décembre-1989 in the Côte-des-Neiges/Notre-Dame-de-Grâce borough of Montreal was created as a memorial to the victims of the massacre. Located at the corner of Decelles Avenue and Queen Mary Road, a short distance from the university, it includes the art installation Nef pour quatorze reines (Nave for Fourteen Queens) by Rose-Marie Goulet.[78] It is the site of annual commemorations on December 6.[36]

A memorial erected in Vancouver sparked controversy because it was dedicated to "all women murdered by men," which critics say implies all men are potential murderers.[79] As a result, women involved in the project received death threats and the Vancouver Park Board subsequently banned any future memorials that might "antagonize" other groups.[80][81]

The event has also been commemorated through references in television, theatre, and popular music. A play about the shootings by Adam Kelly called The Anorak was named as one of the best plays of 2004 by the Montreal Gazette.[82] Colleen Murphy's play "December Man" was first staged in Calgary in 2007[83] The movie Polytechnique, directed by Denis Villeneuve was released in 2009, and sparked controversy over the desirability of reliving the tragedy in a commercial film.[84][85] Several songs have been written about the events, including "This Memory" by the folk duo the Wyrd Sisters,[83] and "6 December 1989" by the Australian singer Judy Small.[86]

In 2013, a new science building at John Abbott College was named in honour of Anne-Marie Edward, a victim of the massacre who attended the college before going on to university.[87]

On 25th anniversary, fourteen light beams representing the 14 victims shine from Mount Royal

For the commemorative ceremony on the 25th anniversary of the massacre in 2014, fourteen searchlights representing the fourteen victims of the massacre were installed on the summit of Mount Royal, 2,500 feet (760 m) east of the school, and turned skyward at the exact time when the attack had started 25 years earlier.[88] Also in 2014, the Order of the White Rose was established, a $30,000 national scholarship for female engineering graduate students. The selection committee was made up of presidents, principals and deans of engineering from several prestigious Canadian universities and chaired by Michèle Thibodeau-DeGuire,[89] the first female graduate of École Polytechnique.[90]

See also


  1. ^ The 2020 Nova Scotia attacks left 23 dead, including the perpetrator.[1] However, autopsies for the victims are pending, and the perpetrator is believed to have killed some victims by means other than shooting.[2]


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