In Memory – École Polytechnique, Dec. 6, 1989


UofA Memorial

UofA Memorial

For women in engineering, things changed forever when their lives were stolen:  Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard,  Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

On November 1, 1989, I started my job as the first female tenure track professor in the Faculty of Engineering at the University of Alberta –  the only woman in a faculty of about 140 male professors.  That was just 23 years ago –  unbelievable for one of Canada’s largest universities.  Of course, when you wrap your brain around the fact that just 90 years ago women were considered property, and not even allowed to vote, I guess maybe it’s not all that surprising.

To say  I was an oddity would probably be an understatement.  I can remember being interviewed on radio and in the newspaper.  I can remember going to engineering faculty council and being totally intimidated as the only woman in a meeting with 140 men.  I can remember going to the faculty Christmas party and having many people ask me which of the professors was my husband.  I can remember getting a call from one of those professor’s wives inviting me to join the engineering wives for tea on Wednesday afternoons – and I remember that she was amazed when I said I couldn’t because I had a lab to teach at that time.   I can remember the Dean asking me to give a lecture to the entire first year engineering class of 600+ students (probably 90% men), so that they would all have at least one lecture from a woman professor during their 4 year program.  (One lecture out of thousands…  pretty sad.) I can remember being mistaken for a secretary by professors, graduate students and undergraduates on a daily basis.  I can remember being treated like a ‘second-class’ professor by secretaries.  And barely one month into the job I can remember the darkest day ever for women in engineering.

Just after 4 pm on December 6, 1989 a man carrying a semi-automatic rifle entered the École Polytechnique in Montreal, Canada and shot dozens of people.  He killed fourteen…  all women…  most were engineering students.  In the 23 years since, these women have been remembered each December in memorial ceremonies at engineering schools across Canada and around the world.  In the first few years I was actually afraid to attend these ceremonies, for fear that someone else would take the opportunity to mimic this horrible act.

Probably every Canadian who remembers, or knows about, this event could name the murderer, but sadly few would be able to name even one of his victims.  So I will name them here – but I will not name him.  Never him.  The fourteen women who lost their lives that day were:  Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz.

Did their deaths have meaning? Of course not.  It was a senseless act of violence against women.  Did it make a difference?  Undoubtedly.  Perhaps not in terms of invoking better gun control laws as many (including me) might have hoped, but in terms of changing the school and working environment for women in engineering – absolutely.  Here are the things that vanished from my work world:

  • Godiva rides during engineering week – in my undergraduate days  (~1980), this actually involved driving a topless stripper through campus on the back of a pickup truck. (They didn’t even have the class to use a horse!)  Some years later they were still doing this at my graduate school – they had the girl on a horse, but faked the nudity.
  • Objectification of women in lectures – it was a routine practice to slip the occasional slide of naked or scantily dressed women into engineering lectures (and instructional movies) – to keep the men in the audience attentive.
  • Beauty (princess) pageants – this was still a big part of engineering week at my graduate university up until 1989.
  • Nude women on posters and calendars – these were ubiquitous in engineering labs and offices – both on and off campus – right up until the late 1980s.
  • Sexual harassment of women in engineering – until at least the early 80s it was commonplace for male students to pinch or slap women on the backside, or to ‘goose’ them – for example as they leaned over to look through a survey instrument.  The practice among older men in the profession to make sexually suggestive remarks to female colleagues and students was still common in the later 80s.

It’s sad to think that in the late 1980s women in engineering were still expected to put up with so many of these humiliating practices and attitudes.  Most women engineers would have never even considered speaking out against them - lest they be branded “feminist” – a very dirty word indeed in those days – at least in engineering circles.  We engineering women strove to ‘fly under the radar’, to ‘not make waves’, lest we wear out our welcome (such as it was) in the engineering world.

The massacre at the École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989 was unquestionably the turning point in changing these  attitudes – it caused a complete paradigm shift, at least in the engineering schools across Canada.  The murderer was a self-proclaimed anti-feminist, and so for men to continue to harbour these antiquated attitudes immediately invoked a comparison to this murderer’s attitudes and thus (by default) his actions.  And so it finally became unfashionable to be chauvinistic in one of the last bastions of male chauvinism.  As a result, women were no longer reluctant to complain about chauvinistic practices in engineering.

I’m sure it would be little consolation to the victims or their families to know that this massacre forever changed the work and school environment for women in engineering for the better.  But as one of the women in engineering who has benefited immensely by those changes – I will forever honour these women in my memory.  Ladies – you will never be forgotten – and your loss will forever be mourned.

© Faye Hicks 2009, 2012

5 thoughts on “In Memory – École Polytechnique, Dec. 6, 1989

  1. This was fascinating to read. Thank you. I don’t think many European people ever heard of this tragedy. (But we do know about the horrors of being a woman in a men’s science field…)

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