Image by Erica Mason

The Legacy of December 6 at UBC: Moving Forward

Trigger warnings: Misogynistic Violence, Murder, Suicide, Mental Illness, Slurs

Note: This is being published today, instead of actually on Dec 6, as to leave time for reflection, and concentrate on moving forward.

Twenty-five years ago, as of December 6, 14 young women, most of them engineering students, were killed. Their names were Genevieve Bergeron, Helene Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair , Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault and Annie Turcotte. The last fatality was the gunman, Mark Lepine.

It’s not a mystery why these women were gunned down in the middle of lecture. Lepine said it, and wrote it down. He killed 14 women in engineering because he hated feminists. Survivor Natalie Provost stated, “He told us he was there because we were feminists and I just replied that we were not feminists, that we were just studying in an engineering school and that he would be able to come and study with us and then he shot (opened fire).”

His final letter stated, “Would you note that if I commit suicide today 89-12-06 it is not for economic reasons (for I have waited until I exhausted all my financial means, even refusing jobs) but for political reasons. Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker. For seven years life has brought me no joy and being totally blasé, I have decided to put an end to those viragos.”

So, he hated feminists and planned to murder them, methodically. This much is explicitly clear.

Twenty-five years later, Elliot Rodger stated, “I’m going to enter the hottest sorority house of UCSB and I will slaughter every single spoilt, stuck-up, blonde slut that I see inside there. All those girls that I’ve desired so much, they would’ve all rejected me and looked down on me as an inferior man if I ever made a sexual advance towards them…I’ll take great pleasure in slaughtering all of you. You will finally see that I am, in truth, the superior one. The true alpha male…”

Two parallel cases, 25 years apart. Men who hate women, men who kill women. They said it, they wrote it down, and they made it their mission. But we’re still ready to make excuses, choosing to pay attention instead to gun control, or mental health.

A few days ago Justice Minister Peter MacKay said, in the House of Commons, “This week, we remember the horrific events that took place in Montreal at École Polytechnique 25 years ago, and while we may never understand what occurred — why this happened, why these women were singled out for this horrific act of violence, we have to stand together.”

We do know why it happened, and why women were singled out. It’s critical that we understand this, in order to move forward and make postsecondary a safe place for women in engineering, and elsewhere.

I talked to three women: Hannah Barath, a co-op student at Access and Diversity, Jeanie Malone, the VP Communications at the Engineering Undergraduate Society, and an anonymous commenter to reflect on the way UBC commemorates this day of Canadian history, how we’re moving forward on campus, and what’s left to be done.

Jeanie and Hannah mentioned the numerous ways UBC honours Dec 6, the anniversary of the tragedy, but also the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.

Multiple campus organizations come together to host events and memorials in commemoration. Access and Diversity co-ordinated this years panel discussion, candlelight vigil in the Students Union Building, and hosted passive campaigns that included buttons and flyers. The Engineering Undergraduate Society hosted their annual “14 Not Forgotten” memorial ceremony in joint with Women in Engineering, Alpha Omega Epsilon, Eng.Cite, and Westcoast Women in Engineering Science and Technology (WWEST).

As well, the EUS worked with UBC Campus and Community Planning to construct a memorial garden and courtyard. It’s located between the Engineering Design Centre (EDC) and the Civil and Mechanical Engineering (CEME) building, and is intended as, Jeanie states, to be “a place of quiet reflection.” She invites all UBC Community members to visit the memorial, and take a few minutes to reflect. Hannah explains that it’s “designed in such a way that its an open space where people can gather and connect.”

Hannah emphasized the importance of using this day as a catalyst for change, not simply reflection. She said, “We want it to be a day where we can remember these 14 women and the things that have happened, but also to recognize what is going on in the present and actions we can take in the future.”

Because this wasn’t a one-off horrible event in our past. It is connected to broader themes in our society that haven’t yet disappeared. Elliot Rodger’s misogynistic violent spree took place only half a year ago. Hannah also mentioned the recent threat launched against feminist cultural critic Anita Sarkeesian, where an anonymous email promised a Montreal-style massacre, and called Mark Lepine a hero. Anon states, “I see the term ‘feminist’ evoking hesitation and even anger and mistrust today, in 2014. I’ve seen the term ‘killing feminists’ thrown around online pretty carelessly…”

We need to actively work against the types of attitudes and thoughts that led to Dec 6. We need to be respectful and self-aware, in how we talk about this legacy. Jeanie mentions that, “listening is probably one of the best ways everyone can help – we can do this by being aware, educating ourselves and others, and thinking critically about the root causes of gender-based violence.” Hannah suggests that if you do hear someone talking about the issue in a way that unfairly refocuses it away from gender-based violence, to, if it is safe for you to do so, “speak up and intervene.” She explains that there are many ways to do this, both directly and indirectly.

Furthermore, we need to be careful when talking about mental health in this context. Lepine mused that he would be written off as a “crazy gunman,” and it’s critical that we do not do this. Not only does attributing his act of violence to an unstable mind bring attention away from gender-based violence, but it does a disservice to people living with mental illness who don’t go on murder sprees. Anon states, “I think unless there is specific evidence of hallucinations, mental illness doesn’t conjure up notions that don’t already exist yet. Yes, I read that the killer was mentally unstable, but he was also a misogynist.” She states that a significant portion of society lives with mental illness, and that’s not necessarily a bad thing. When we talk about Dec 6, we need to consider who we would be making feel comfortable in the conversation. Talking about Lepine as a mentally unwell person instead of a violent misogynist would make a student with mental illness uncomfortable, and would offer a misogynist some relief.

According to Jeanie, addressing mental health awareness, is an issue that the EUS is working on, and they aim to provide tools for student wellness- through wellness fairs and through other campus groups, like the Mental Health Network.

She emphasizes though, that, “listening, supporting, educating and working together are the best ways to help.”

Expanding from what individuals can do though, is what UBC as an institution can do. Jeanie recognizes that although engineering is becoming a more inclusive field, we aren’t yet where we need to be.

She elaborates by mentioning the EUS Inclusion project, as well as the introduction of the UBC Engineering Code of Ethics and Iron Pin ceremonies. The Code of Ethics stops short of addressing gender issues, but does have engineers pledge to, “Report any hazardous, illegal, or unethical decisions or practices by any member of our community.” She also mentions the UBC Women in Engineering group which provides resources and is open to all engineering students. She states, “they have been the driving force behind many conversations, and provide tools for students such as their seminar series. There are women in engineering groups across Canada, at industry and professional levels as well.”

From a faculty perspective, the Dean of Engineering has set a goal of having women make up 50% of engineering enrolment by 2019. This year women represented 29%.

Anon mentions, “UBC Engineering has a huge push to increase the number of women encouraged to pursue and stay in engineering,” and that although there has traditionally tended to be a very specific type of female engineering, that seems to be changing.

However, simply increasing the number of females in engineering doesn’t make it a safer place. Back to the importance of speaking up, Hannah brought up The Really? Campaign at UBC. It aims to ‘change the script’ by encouraging people to intervene when people are voicing demeaning comments, or offensive jokes. Disrupting people with something as simple as, “Really?” can be influential in what people internalize as ‘okay’ or ‘not okay.’

To properly remember, learn from, and honour this day, we need to recognize it to what is was (violence specifically directed at women/feminists), speak out it in those terms (not derail the conversation), be respectful (to female engineers and people with mental illness), and take concrete steps to move forward. In terms of concrete steps, I quote Veronica Knott, the president of the UBC Engineering Undergraduate Society, in steps that we can take:

1) Remember the women and read their stories. Short summaries can be found here:

2) Take time to reflect on what this means to you and how this effects [sic] you. I recommend visiting the new memorial in the EDC Courtyard.

3) Men: Get involved with the White Ribbon Campaign whether it is taking their pledge or just learning from their resources:

4) Students: Get involved on your campus, attend memorial events, and start the discussion. UBC Students a great place to start is with Access & Diversity:

5) Engineering Societies across Canada: Think, evaluate and understand all the actions you take – especially in a field still dominated by men. How can engineering societies lead the change.

6) Engineers: Get involved with Engineers Canada and their pledge for 30% by 2030. Get involved with your regional organizations of professional associations and they work they do, in BC, get involved with DAWEG. Get involved with your faculties and their work to attract more women into the engineering degree.

7) My personal favourite, is get involved with the NSERC Chairs for Women in Science and Engineering. They are all doing amazing work. In BC this is Westcoast Women in Engineering Science and Technology (WWEST). I also want to highlight a program I think is doing amazing work at setting this message and it’s ‪#‎Impact25‬, a program run by the NSERC Chair for WiSE in Ontario, asking members to pledge their impact for the next 25. Read them here: