Today is a day of remembrance.
[Content note: This post discusses a violent incident against women involving guns]
I want to begin by remembering these names:
- Geneviève Bergeron
- Hélène Colgan
- Nathalie Croteau
- Barbara Daigneault
- Anne-Marie Edward
- Maud Haviernick
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz
- Maryse Laganière
- Maryse Leclair
- Anne-Marie Lemay
- Sonia Pelletier
- Michèle Richard
- Anne St-Arneault
- Annie Turcotte
This is the 28th anniversary of the massacre that killed these fourteen women and wounded fourteen others. Readers in Canada are likely familiar with this story, but for those elsewhere here is a bit of background: In the midst of a late-afternoon mechanical engineering lecture at École Polytechnique in Montréal, Quebec, a gunman entered the room, fired a warning shot, and ordered the male and female students to separate. The gunman then ordered the fifty male students to leave the room. After saying to the remaining nine female students: “You’re women, you’re going to be engineers. You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists,” the gunman shot them one-by-one, killing six and wounding three. The gunman then set out into other classrooms, killing an additional eight women, wounding eleven other people (four men and seven women), and eventually turning his gun on himself.
Known as “The Montreal Massacre” this is to date (and I pray it remains ever) the deadliest incident of gun violence in Canadian history. Two years after this incident our federal government declared that each 6th of December shall mark a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.
This day always punctuates the Advent season, serving as a harsh reminder of the things that stand in the way of the peace, hope, love, and joy we sing for during our December Sundays. While something of this magnitude is thankfully rare in Canada, versions of this incident play out on a smaller scale every day. We see it play out as violence that leads to death, hostility and harassment that lead to fear, and disrespect for bodily integrity that leads to sexual assault. We see it in classrooms, in parliaments, in pubs, in homes, in churches, and out on sidewalks. We see violence, cruelty, and harassment all combining to prevent women from being able to exist at ease.
We also see men spared the dangers. I still pause every time I hear the account of December 6th 1989 and think of the fifty male students who walked out the room leaving their female classmates behind with a gunman. Maybe my immersion in Christian history has led me too over-assume people’s willingness to serve as martyrs. Maybe I’ve watched too many war/superhero movies where everyone emphasises that “no one is left behind.” Maybe I still have some notions of gallantry that I haven’t deconstructed within myself. Whatever the source of my unmet expectation, the idea that none of those fifty men stayed behind hits me hard. 
Their acquiescence to the situation hurts because it highlights a pattern when it comes to violence against women: male bystanders’ passivity enables it. Just as scaled-down versions of this incident happen every day, we also see the acquiescence of bystanders creating space for gender-based violence and harassment to perpetuate everyday. We see it in classrooms, in parliaments, in pubs, in homes, in churches, and out on sidewalks. We see violence, cruelty, and harassment allowed to go on uncontested by colleagues, fellow congregants, fellow citizens, and friends. Julie Lalonde is an activist, stalking survivor, anti-sexual violence educator, and self-proclaimed feminist buzzkill based in Ottawa.
She highlights the problematic nature of the phrase “violence against women,” arguing that its passive construction adds to the problem. Lalonde points out that “passive language is political” and it needs to be challenged continuously. Along with language, she argues we need to challenge bystander passivity. Those surrounding abusers, harassers, and run-of-the-mill misogynists often enable abuse, assault, harassment, and misogyny with their silence. That silence and acquiescence needs to stop – especially the silence and acquiescence of men. To paraphrase a bystander who successfully intervened in a sexual assault, the call isn’t to be heroes, but to be human.
Theologically, I feel called to answer the sadness of remembering today with hope. To that end I’ll wrap up this post by sharing a prayer written by Carol Penner, a pastor and theologian who has done a lot of work on churches responding to abuse. This prayer comes from a longer liturgy for mourning and addressing gender-based violence that you can find in Penner’s book Healing Waters: Churches Working to End Violence Against Women.
We offer ourselves to you, O God our Creator.
We offer our hands.
Use our healing touch to comfort sisters, brothers and children who are afraid.
We offer our eyes and ears. May we see and hear the signs and stories of violence,
So that all may have someone with them in their pain and confusion.
We offer our hearts and our tears as their hurt and sorrow echo within us.
We offer our own stories of violence.
May we be healed as we embrace each other.
We offer our anger. Make it a passion for justice.
We offer all our skills. Use our gifts to end violence.
We offer our faith, our hope, our love.
May our encounters with violence bring us closer to you and to each other.
All this we ask through Jesus Christ who knows the pain of violence. AMEN.
 Just to clarify, I am not saying this story would be better or redeemed if some of those male students had died as well. I know using this incident as a reflection point is complicated. I feel guilty begrudging people their survival instincts. Certainly those fifty men were all young, with full and exciting opportunities ahead of them, with families who loved them, and with every right to live. Their female colleagues had all those things as well.