Sunday, December 5, 2021

The Politicization of the Montreal Massacre, Janice Fiamengo

How Societies Encourage Young Men 
to Hate Themselves and Others

On December 6, 1989, Marc Lepine shot to death 14 women at the Engineering School of the University of Montreal in Canada; it was the worst single-day massacre in Canadian history.

More than three decades later, the anniversary of the shooting remains the occasion for alarmist claims about violence against women and the ritual shaming of every man.

I will review the massacre and the reporting about it to show how from the beginning it became a pretext to reinforce and exacerbate already widespread anti-male propaganda, much of it having little or nothing to do with the gunman or his crime. Rather than seek to understand what happened on that December day, Massacre commemorations have spread misinformation about the prevalence and meaning of violence against women, smearing all men as potential murderers.

Every year, the anniversary of the Montreal massacre is commemorated with articles and reflection pieces in mainstream media bearing angry titles like “Let’s finally call ‘violence against women’ what it really is” and “Violent misogyny is a threat to half our population. We need to call it what it is: Terrorism,” the latter op/ed referring to the massacre as “just one in a long line of mass killings motivated by hatred of women.” Such articles suggest that society has yet to grapple with the pervasiveness of hatred of women.

In actuality, “hatred of women” quickly became the dominant, perhaps the only acceptable, public explanation for the murders, with the bloodthirsty gunman recruited as a stand-in for all (“toxic”) men.  

Such an explanation, now formulaic from over-use, may satisfy the ideologically based outrage of some influential pundits, activists, and leaders, including Canada’s Prime Minister. But it does not aid understanding of the murders, is certain to do nothing to prevent similar crimes in the future, and should not continue to direct policy or public opinion.

Let’s return to December 6, 1989.

Marc Lepine
It was probably inevitable that the killings would be politicized. 25-year-old Marc Lépine (born Gamil Gharbi) had walked into the Engineering school at the University of Montreal in the late afternoon. He entered a classroom, separated the men from the women, and began shooting women with a semi-automatic handgun.

Stating that he hated feminists, he moved up and down the halls in search of victims before turning the weapon on himself. Fourteen women were left dead, ten other women and four men injured. To clarify his action, Lépine left a suicide note explaining his rage (He also appended a list, not released until many months later, giving the names of particular women he would like to have killed).  

In the suicide note, Lepine charged feminism with mass hypocrisy, finding that its advocates wanted “to keep the advantages of women […] while seizing for themselves those of men.” He noted that feminists were not interested in removing the male-female barrier in Olympic sports, which would have shut women out of medal contention in most sports; they were interested in so-called “equality” only when it benefited them, as for example in war memorials where women were honored as soldiers despite not having fought on the frontlines. He particularly hated feminist man-blaming. He wrote that they “always try to misrepresent [men] every time they can.”

Even before the note’s contents were revealed, most commentators ruled out of bounds the idea that Lépine was mentally ill or that his atrocious act was in any way exceptional. That was too easy, they insisted, and was itself a kind of sexism. Martin Dufresne, identifying himself as a member of the Men’s Collective Against Sexism, charged in a letter to the newspaper Le Devoir the day after the murders that “The antifeminism of the killer is strangely echoed by those who would again censor women by preventing them from saying what everybody knows perfectly well: it was misogyny that struck Wednesday, not an ‘incomprehensible act.’”

If anyone had tried to prevent women from calling Lepine’s an act of misogyny, the censorship was spectacularly unsuccessful.

Many declarations in the wake of the shooting (collected here in book form) were even more emphatic than Dufresne’s, alleging that Lépine’s act was an instance of ideological terrorism, logically planned and executed, its purpose to make all women afraid. His choice of an Engineering school was purportedly a warning to women entering masculine fields: if you attempt to usurp male authority, you will die. As feminist journalist Francine Pelletier wrote somewhat bombastically for La Presse newspaper just a few days after the incident, “If this is madness, never has it been so lucid, so calculated. […] The message is: there is a price for women’s liberation and the price is death.” Quebec feminist Nicole Brossard, also in La Presse, claimed that every woman who mourned Lépine’s victims knew that she herself had also “been symbolically put to death.”

These were dramatic declarations that no man dared contradict.

According to the story that would be repeated in the weeks to come, Lépine’s act was not only a warning, but was also a particularly bloody enactment of what was already happening to women every single day: in Brossard’s words, it was part of

“the day-to-day struggle inflicted upon women by men’s domination.” Denise Veilleux, in a letter to Le Devoir, summed it up as follows: “Most women know one thing only too well: it’s open season on women all year long!”

Lépine thus quickly became a symbol for male power over women, and men’s culturally ingrained sense of entitlement. “What is intolerable for some men today,” wrote Pelletier, “is that some women dare to be unavailable.” Another letter writer in Le Devoir claimed that every woman instinctively understood Lépine’s reasons because she lived them: “They are transmitted to her at birth by the fathers, the brothers, the husbands who find it normal to subject her to their will and their desires.”

The idea that most women in Canada are brutalized victims is a baseless exaggeration, but such rhetoric became the standard line about the massacre, often backed up with lurid statistics. Lépine’s slaughter was not really unusual, the reasoning went, and it was an act of misogyny to pretend it was.

It is true that men abuse and kill women every year in Canadian society. It is also true that women abuse and kill men every year—a fact that completely undermines the “gender-based violence” explanation favored by feminists. If women are killed by men because men have power in society, as feminists claim, how do we explain the men who are killed by women? In 1991, for example, two years after Lepine’s act, according to Statistics Canada, 87 women were killed by their spouses, as compared to 25 men. Two years later, it was 64 women compared with 24 men killed by their spouses. When it comes to non-lethal domestic violence, women participate in hitting, punching, and kicking intimate partners at least as often as men do, and for the same reasons that some men abuse; not infrequently, violent women cause serious harm.

Overall, men are far more likely than women to be homicide victims. In 2018, 484 men, as compared to 163 women, were homicide victims in Canada. Moreover, men kill themselves far more often than they kill women. These figures are worth pondering not to minimize the horror of what happened at L’Ecole Polytechnique—or any act of violence against women—but to provide context about the capacity of both sexes to cause harm, and the shocking silence in our society about male victims.

"The safety of women must be 
the foundation of any society" 
Justin Trudeau

When Canadian Prime Minister Justin Trudeau declared on Dec. 6, 2020 that “The safety of women must be the foundation of any society,” it was impossible not to notice the deliberate gender asymmetry. It’s a national tragedy only when women are killed; men’s lack of safety, including staggering occupational injuries and deaths, is a normal backdrop of every society that no national leader publicly mourns.

The shift toward seeing Marc Lepine as a symbol of male power occurred at the same time as the unhappy details of his real life were being air-brushed out of the picture. It should surprise none of us that when he was a child, his home life had been violent and unstable. His father, Rachid Gharbi, was a businessman, an
Marc Lepine

immigrant from Algeria, with a history of psychiatric illness. As Gharbi’s business failed, he became more unpredictable and explosive. According to his ex-wife Monique Lepine in interview, he had beaten both her and their son, once “slamm[ing] [his son’s] face so hard the marks were there for a week.” He also failed to show his son any affection.

When Marc was seven, his parents divorced and his father disappeared from his life. Later, Lépine would take his mother’s maiden name (and change his first name to Marc) in an act of defiant self-transformation. For three of his teen years, Lépine had a Big Brother, a volunteer mentor, named Ralph, who also ultimately disappeared, possibly due to a conviction for sexual abuse of a boy in his care. It’s not known if he might have abused Lépine as well. At seventeen, Lépine attempted to join the Canadian Armed Forces, but was rejected following his interview. It seems that Marc was looking for masculine mentorship and identity throughout his teenage years, to no avail.

He thus grew up a lonely, socially awkward boy, bullied by his peers and considered unattractive because he had bad acne. Even his younger sister taunted him about his alleged ugliness. The siblings lived mostly apart from their mother, who worked as a nurse administrator and left her children with relatives during the week. Though he was intelligent, Lépine abandoned or failed out of two post-secondary programs, one in pure sciences and the other in computer programming. He applied to study Engineering at the University of Montreal, but was rejected. (I have not been able to ascertain whether the University of Montreal was proactively recruiting female students in the same year it rejected Lépine. Many Engineering faculties have made no secret of doing so.)

In the final year of his life, Lépine was working as an orderly at the same hospital, St. Jude de Laval, where his mother was Director of Nursing; acquaintances found him odd and unlikable. Though his hostility towards feminism is undeniable, it did not seem to spring from male privilege or even, given that he was friendly with several women, from a generalized misogyny. It’s hard to imagine that Marc Lépine ever felt entitled to anything in his short, wretched life.

Monique Lepine
Even his mother, Monique Lépine, in the first interview she granted in 2008, echoed the standard perspective on masculinity when she protested that “it was not in my home that he was trained to be macho, he must have learned that in school, or from the guys around him, or maybe it’s a genetic thing, I don’t know.” Defending herself from responsibility, she reached for the well-entrenched feminist idea that it is toxic masculinity that causes violence rather than childhood abuse.

At the time, commentators did not want to extend any empathy to Lépine, and some seemed unwilling to let even completely non-violent men off the patriarchal hook. For journalist Francine Pelletier, the massacre was not only every woman’s tragedy, but every man’s shame. “The day men start saying that they too are afraid of this
Francine Pelletier

kind of behaviour, that it hurts them too, that they don’t want any more of it—that’s the day when things will start to change. Not before.”

Pelletier did not clarify how men were to prevent random attacks like Lépine’s, but the charge that all men were implicated in the violence was one that no man could
easily refute, and most didn’t even try.

The rhetoric had moved quickly into irrational territory, and stayed there. To state, as has become commonplace, that “violence against women will not end until men are an active part of the solution” is tantamount to a blanket accusation. If one wanted to create festering resentment in some number of men, one could do no better than to demand that they accept moral responsibility for crimes they have not committed and which they are powerless to stop, and in recompense embrace laws and policies to advantage women at their expense.

Yet this was the precise route taken by the Canadian federal government, which commissioned a House of Commons Subcommittee to write a report “inquiring into the causes of the problem of violence against women in Canadian society and the response of the criminal justice system, community groups, and government to this problem.”

As Paul Nathanson and Katherine K. Young explain, the report could have been given a very different mandate. It could have inquired into the causes of violence generally, recognizing that men are also victims. It could have inquired into the specific factors that produce mass school shootings. It could have affirmed that the demonization of men as a group was unacceptable. It could have asked what steps a society should take to mitigate the impact of feminism on young men. It might even have asked whether Lépine’s accusations against feminism had any basis. Already in 1989, any of that was out of the question.

Instead, as signaled in its title The War Against Women, the report, finalized in June, 1991, fully accepted the feminist interpretation of Lépine’s act.

Issuing more than two dozen recommendations, the report aimed to put violence against women “on the public agenda,” and to implement or extend favored feminist goals. Many of these had little, if anything, to do with Lépine’s actual crime. They included, for example, “mounting a national, multi-media education campaign on violence against women” and mandating gender-sensitivity training for all students, as well as for police, judges, Members of Parliament, and the public. The report also called for continuous funding of domestic violence and sexual assault initiatives, especially for “front-line agencies providing services to assaulted and abused women and girls.” The report did not recommend any services for assaulted and abused men and boys, services that are still largely absent today despite demonstrated need.

Many of the policies recommended in the report disregarded and overrode basic principles of justice for accused men, including the presumption of innocence. The report called for the federal government to “stress the importance of mandatory charging policies in cases of physical and sexual assault and abuse” whereby police must charge a man accused of violence even in the absence of evidence. The report also called for judges to be granted the right “to remove a man charged with assaulting his spouse from the family home.” This latter recommendation has meant in practice that any man can be removed from his home at any time subsequent to an accusation, and charge, of domestic violence. The report became an occasion for feminist activists to push for long-desired changes to the law advantaging female complainants.

The Canadian Government endorsed 
a grab bag of anti-male assumptions that have 
shaped law and policy for decades

A major thrust of the report had nothing to do with violence, focusing instead on so-called “equality-enhancing legislation.” In one of its more incongruous formulations, it stipulated that amateur sports organizations “eliminate barriers to the full participation of girls.” The report’s commissioning illustrated the willingness of the government under pressure from feminist organizations to endorse a grab bag of anti-male assumptions that have shaped law and policy for decades.

The government also moved to enshrine the Montreal Massacre in public memory within a feminist framework. Within two years, December 6th became, officially, “A Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women.” (In time, this was expanded to The 16 Days of Activism against Violence Against Women). Universities across Canada have commemorated the day annually with memorial gatherings, awareness events, and displays, sometimes spread over multiple days and usually attended by university presidents and other top-level officials. Participants read the names of the dead, make speeches about men “unlearning toxic masculinity,” and enact rituals of angry mourning. White ribbons are often worn, particularly by men (who started the White Ribbon Campaign in 1991). As in religious observances, church bells are rung, candles are lit, and white roses are placed at designated sites.

Over time, the emphasis of the day has been modified to reflect shifts in feminist thinking, especially the turn towards “intersectionality,” with its emphasis on multiple “interlocking” forms of oppression such as racism, white supremacy, western imperialism, homophobia, and Islamophobia. The Status of Women Canada webpage about the massacre affirms its commitment to fight “misogyny” with an expansive revised definition: “In Canada and around the world, women, girls, LGBTQ2 (lesbian, gay, bisexual, transgender, queer, two spirit) and gender diverse individuals face unacceptable violence and discrimination.” Only heterosexual men are excluded from the list of those whose experience of violence is considered “unacceptable.”

Sarain Fox
Many commentators at more recent December 6th vigils have stressed the suffering of Indigenous, Muslim, or colonized women, sometimes hardly focusing on Lépine’s (unfashionably white) victims at all. A memorial event at Ryerson University in 2019 featured Sarain Fox, an Indigenous television personality and story-teller who spoke on “gender-based violence, colonization, and [Indigenous] genocide in Canada.” The University of Toronto Mississauga campus marked December 6 in that same year by donating “wellness kits” to Nisa Homes, a transition house specifically for Muslim women and children. The webpage was silent about the fact that Lépine had been abused by his Muslim father.

Few commentators, still, have explored the awkward mismatch between Lépine and the feminist theory of male power. In 2015, the executive-director of the Women’s Centre at the University of Regina, Jill Arnott,
Karen Dubinsky
did note in interview that “the shooter grew up in an abusive home
,” a fact showing, she stated, that “violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum.” But the rest of the article said no more on that theme. Queen’s University professor Karen Dubinsky took a different tack in 2009, focusing on the allegation by Lépine’s mother that her ex-husband had fought in the Algerian War of Independence and had been tortured by French colonial forces. This focus recast the father—and Lépine, by extension—not as an exemplar of toxic masculinity but as a victim of western imperial violence. Under this interpretation, Lépine was no longer blamed as a privileged white man, as he had been previously; but privileged white men were still ultimately to blame for his violence. This rather convoluted interpretation has not caught on generally.

More recently, and in line with a fashionable new feminist target, Lépine has been dubbed an “incel” killer, allegedly enraged by his “involuntary celibacy” and motivated by the imputed belief “that men should have, by rights, unfettered access to women’s bodies.” Self-declared incels who express their sexual frustration in online communities are perhaps the most vilified men in our society today. A small minority of these men, most notably the Isla Vista killer Elliot Rodger, who left a detailed manifesto, and Alek Minassian, the Toronto van killer, have committed mass murder (though not exclusively of women). There is no evidence that Lépine acted out of sexual frustration, but that hasn’t stopped commentators from conscripting him for their anti-male threat narrative. A 2018 article about Minassian linked him with Lépine and mosque-shooter Alexandre Bissonette as paradigms of vengeful masculinity, quoting feminist activist Julie Lalonde who noted that all were “fascinated, or obsessed, with the idea of being ‘a real man,’” and concluded (oh so predictably) that “masculinity is at the heart of mass murdering.” The suggestion by Lalonde seems to be that the way to end male violence is to give men even fewer opportunities to express masculinity. 

Men’s only approved role in relation to the Montreal Massacre has remained constant: they must accept their shameful affiliation with Lépine and work unceasingly for women’s advancement. Fourth-year civil engineering student Will Patterson spoke at UBC’smemorial service in 2013 to emphasize men’s obligation to stop “consenting to the oppression of women” and “take ownership of the shift to an equal and violence-free culture.” Any man who did not see himself as complicit in women’s oppression must swallow the thought. 

A University of Regina student, Tyler Perkins, part of an initiative called Man Up Against Violence (which hosted a Masculinity Confession Booth two years later), spoke at his school’s annual vigil in 2015 with a similar message, saying “We want men to start taking a stand against gender violence.” He proposed, rather incredibly, that men needed to learn that “Women aren’t lesser than men. They don’t deserve to be objectified and they certainly don’t deserve to be shot in their classrooms.” This man’s challenge to other men: “It’s not manly to be violent, so why are we acting like it is?” 

 It couldn’t get much more insultingly simplistic, yet few object to the platitudes. Men are to advocate for gender equality, but not equality for men. They are to stop being violent, but they are to stop violent men. Years earlier, criticism had been leveled at the men who had allowed Lépine to target female students. Mark Steyn had been appalled that “the defining image of contemporary Canadian maleness is not M Lépine/Gharbi but the professors and the men in that classroom, who, ordered to leave by the lone gunman, obediently 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.” 

Steyn’s implication was that feminism had denuded men of precisely the chivalric boldness and aggression that might have saved the lives of their female peers. Indeed, the shame of some men present at the attack was intense; one young man, Sarto Blais, killed himself within eight months of the massacre. Was his masculinity “toxic,” or was it feminist-approved? Male deaths, men’s pain, and men’s self-understandings are granted no part in the authoritative Montreal Massacre story, which promotes a vision of the social and carceral taming of men as part of the state-mandated empowerment of women. It doesn’t seem to matter that the empowerment of women and the hectoring of men about so-called “equality” were precisely what enraged Lépine and are highly unlikely to prevent future Lépines.

The story of the Montreal Massacre is a microcosm of feminist warping of reality for ideological ends. Lépine did not kill because he was socialized into machismo by a woman-hating culture or because he thought he was entitled to control women. The majority of men do not hate or abuse women. There is ample evidence that men’s violence, like women’s, is caused by factors such as mental illness, addictions, stress, and family of origin abuse. 

Although it is impossible to know Lépine’s mind, we can plausibly speculate that if he thought much about his masculinity, it was to note that Canadian society had little use for unsuccessful men, and was indifferent to, or even contemptuous of, men’s troubles. Like many young men, Lepine sought meaning and identity in traditionally masculine spheres—first the military, then sciences, computing, and Engineering—only to fail, and in the midst of his failure to be told he must embrace the promotion of women at the expense of his own opportunities. Then as now, he would have been well aware that any public criticism of women or of feminism was impermissible, while mass denunciations of men were perfectly acceptable.

The Montreal Massacre anniversaries are a state-sanctioned occasion not primarily for remembering the women killed but for vengeful anti-male posturing. For men looking on, the message has been clear for decades. No matter how many men die in Canada and around the world, whether through suicide or violence or in loving self-sacrifice, there will never be a day sanctioned to honour them. Even November 11 war memorials, as Lépine indicated, have been “equalized.” While men’s historical and contemporary sacrifices for their society are ignored even while expected, the bad behavior of some few men is magnified out of all proportion and made all men’s responsibility.

It’s far from clear that we can ever “end violence against women,” though the utopian premise conveniently justifies increasingly radical anti-male initiatives. But if we are serious about reducing violence, we should start by acknowledging that male victimization is equally tragic, and we should seek to understand, rather than demonize, those abject figures like Lépine whose “toxic masculinity” we love to hate.

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