By: Stephanie Price, P.Eng., CAE, Interim CEO
When December 6 arrives each year, I think back to 1989. I was in high school, and was interested in studying engineering. I had visited university campuses that fall, and was considering where to apply.
I remember sitting in my family’s TV room on December 6 watching the news coverage with my parents as the tragedy unfolded at École Polytechnique in Montreal. A man had entered a mechanical engineering classroom, ordered the men to leave, and then began to shoot the women who remained, stating that he was “fighting feminism.” He killed 14 women and injured 10 others and four men. Most of the victims were engineering students.
I remember that amidst feeling an overwhelming sadness for the victims and their families, I struggled to understand why someone would commit such a terrible act. Having chosen to pursue an engineering education myself, the tragedy hit close to home—I couldn’t understand why someone would target people like me.
Twenty-eight years later and December 6 continues to be a day of great importance. It’s a day for us to honour the memory of the women we lost—women who may have one day been my engineering colleagues and who undoubtedly would have made great contributions to our profession and to Canadian society.
It’s also a day for us to think about how we, as an engineering profession, reacted to the events of December 6, 1989.
Many were able to channel their grief over the shooting into positive change. They moved forward by encouraging girls and women to stay in fields like engineering. For example, the Canadian Engineering Memorial Foundation (CEMF) was formed in 1990 by Claudette MacKay-Lassonde, P.Eng., and a group of concerned female engineers as a way to honour the memories of the 14 women killed at École Polytechnique. To this day, CEMF offers scholarships, bursaries, and other assistance each year for women pursuing an engineering education, and Engineers Canada is proud to help their efforts to support women entering engineering.
December 6 is also a day for us to reflect on the issues of violence on post-secondary campuses, and of violence against women—which unfortunately are still issues that we must confront in today’s society. The École Polytechnique massacre was the deadly result of one man’s deep-seated misogyny, examples of which still abound. Violence against women remains front-page news. In Canada in 2014 for instance, women self-reported just over 1.2 million violent victimization episodes, which represented 56 per cent of all violent incidents, according to Statistics Canada. And today, one need only to think of the scandals in the film industry and politics to be reminded that sexist attitudes and behaviours still exist. This discrimination, prejudice, and intolerance motivates us—like it did in the aftermath of December 6, 1989—to continue to create real progress for women.
Initiatives to improve conditions for women in the engineering profession existed before 1989; but the events of that year focused our efforts and pressed their importance. December 6 remains a moment for us as a profession to continue to be mindful about what it’s like to be a woman in engineering—or in any other field. December 6 is a chance for us to consider what we’ve done and how far we’ve come since 1989, and what more we must do to combat the type of hatred that led to the École Polytechnique shooting.
And hopefully in so doing, we can honour the memory of the 14 women who, like me, just wanted to be engineers.