École Polytechnique: Remembering the past, looking ahead to the future

Still a long road ahead “to gender equality and the eradication of violence against girls and women,” says Principal Fortier
This plaque on McTavish Street honours the 14 women killed at École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989Neale McDevitt

When the armed gunman entered École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989, and killed 14 women, it was an act of misogynistic violence that shocked the world.

Fourteen young women had their lives cut short, futures full of potential forever unfulfilled.

In face of this hatred it was particularly poignant during a virtual memorial ceremony on December 6, when female McGill Engineering students paid tribute to the women killed at École Polytechnique.

Each McGill student read aloud the name of one of the murdered women and gave details of their respective lives. But they also gave their own name, listed their own aspirations and said what they shared in common with their Polytechnique counterpart. It was a powerful moment linking the past with the present while looking ahead to the future.

Annie St-Arneault. She was an only daughter. She was attending her last mechanical engineering class before graduating. She wrote poetry. She liked to work with her hands and she was passionate about the environment. My name is Laurence [Peinturier]. I am one of the vice presidents of POWE [Promoting Opportunities for Women in Engineering] and I just finished my last semester in mechanical engineering. Like Annie, I am also passionate about the environment and hope to pursue a career in sustainable engineering.”

Hélène Colgan. She was at the end of her degree in mechanical engineering. She was 23 years old when she died. She was a strong student who was looking forward to what came after her degree. In fact, she had three job offers lined up. My name is Ashley [Scappaticci]. I am in my third year of mechanical engineering and I’m one of the vice presidents of POWE. I’m about to start my first internship and like Hélène, I’m excited to explore my field outside of school.”

Nathalie Croteau. She was friends with Hélène Colgan, both of whom were planning a vacation someplace warm after their exams. She was three months from graduating and she was only 23 years old. My name is Paola [Prado] and I am also a vice president of POWE. I am in my final year of civil engineering. Like Nathalie, I am looking forward to going somewhere warm after my exams this term.”

Barbara Daigneault. Her father was a mechanical engineering professor and she worked alongside him as teaching assistant during her degree. She would share her notes with other students, always trying to help. She loved chocolate cake with whipped cream. My name is Amélie [Barsoum]. I am in my second year of software engineering and hope to work in healthcare tech after graduation. Like Barbara, I also love whipped cream.”

Anne-Marie Edward. She was 21 years old. She loved rock climbing, downhill skiing and whitewater rafting. She was studying chemical engineering. My name is Colette [Beauvais]. I am a third-year mechanical engineering student and play on the McGill tennis team. Like Anne-Marie, I love sports and adventure seeking.”

Geneviève Bergeron. She was a civil engineering student who had just turned 21. She played the clarinet, she sang in the Montreal Symphony Orchestra, and she even babysat Montreal mayor Jean Doré’s youngest child. My name is Georgia [Schullenberg] and I’m a third-year mechanical engineering student. Like Geneviève, I also play an instrument – the piano.

Maud Haviernick. She was studying materials engineering and already had a bachelor’s degree in environmental design. She made community living habitats. It was her dream to study engineering and design. She made sculptures as a hobby. My name is Sofia [Camp]. I am a fourth-year civil engineering student. Like Maude, I also have a passion for design. I hope to work in urban planning and sustainable development after I graduate.”

Anne-Marie Lemay. She was a mechanical engineering student inspired to study mechanical devices because her friend had lost a leg and she was fascinated by the importance of mechanical devices in his rehabilitation. She was 22 years old. She played in a band. My name is Carly [Bennett] and like Anne-Marie, I’m also a mechanical engineering student. I’m hoping to pursue a career in sustainability consultation.”

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz. She was studying engineering, economics and food logistics. She loved to read. She knew five languages. She was studying nursing science at the age of 31 in 1989. My name is Annabelle [Sirois]. I’m a student in materials engineering with plans to work in sustainable development for the transportation sector. Like Barbara, I also love to read.”

Maryse Laganière. She was a budget clerk for the department of finance. She had 13 older siblings. She tried to stop the gunman and not let him into the school. She was 25 years old. My name is Nilufer [Sumer]. I am a mechanical engineering student in my final semester and I am about to start my career in consulting.”

Maryse Leclair. She was the oldest of four sisters. She was studying in her fourth year of mechanical engineering. She was in love with a classmate named Benoit. She loved listening to music. My name is Yasmine [Laferriere]. I am a second-year civil engineering student and also a vice president of POWE. Like Maryse, I love listening to music and am the oldest of my siblings.”

Sonia Pelletier. She loved rock music. Her favourite song was Still Alive. She was days away from graduating at 28 years old in mechanical engineering. My name is Megan [Boone]. I’m a second-year mechanical engineering student. Like Sonia, I love music. Playing piano and singing are two things that make me happy.”

Michèle Richard. Her nickname was Mimi. She was a second-year materials engineering student. She was 21 years old. She wanted to buy a place and live in Lac-Mégantic where she was from. My name is Florence [Yared] and I’m a third-year software engineering student. When I first joined engineering, I was unsure if it was for me. But now I’m very proud to be a woman in engineering.”

Annie Turcotte. She had won a Women in Science bursary while attending Polytechnique. She was studying metallurgical engineering. She was a protector of nature and the environment. She taught swimming lessons for free at a summer camp for children with disabilities. She was 21 years old. My name is Michelle [Pelletier]. I’m a third-year civil engineering student. I’m also passionate about the environment like Annie was. I hope to work in sustainable development and help fight climate change. Annie was a year younger than I am when she was murdered.”

Very personal recollections

“December 6, 1989, saddened and profoundly shocked the country. In remembering the 14 lives tragically lost, we must also remember the responsibility each one of us has to fight violence against women,” said Principal Suzanne Fortier. “Over the past year, Quebec has experienced a tragic series of feminicides that painfully reminds us of the distance still to be covered on the road to gender equality and the eradication of violence against girls and women in society.”

Not surprisingly, considering the magnitude of the tragedy, some speakers spoke about their memories of that horrible day. Memories that are still fresh thirty-two years later.

“I was in my second year as a professor at McGill University on that very cold December day when that tragic event occurred,” said Provost Christopher Manfredi. “I remember returning home and turning on the news and listening to the terrible news of what was happening at the École Polytechnique. For those of us who are not that much older than those young women who lost their lives, one thinks about the lost promise of their lives.”

“I was a high school to student when these attacks happened and unsurprisingly this event has profoundly marked my adult life,” said Allison Gonsalves, co-Chair of McGill’s Senate Subcommittee on Women. “They were killed because of misogyny. They were targeted because they were assumed to be women studying engineering. Today we honour their memories but as we do so the Senate Subcommittee on Women invites the McGill and Montreal community to reflect on the reality that violence against women continues to be a part of our present.”

Supporting future engineers 

Jim Nicell, Dean of the Faculty of Engineering, closed the event. Echoing the sentiments of previous speakers, he spoke about the 14 murdered women, “who they were and who they might have become.”

Nicell spoke about the 1989 Polytechnique Memorial Scholarships. Established last year thanks to the support of McGill alumnus, Ian Van Cortlandt McLachlin (B.Eng. 1960), the Scholarships “were born out of a desire to pay tribute to the women of Polytechnic and to bolster equity and opportunities for women in engineering,” said Nicell. At present, 14 female undergraduate engineering students are recipients of the Scholarship.

“This is a very small step but a very important step in keeping their memory alive and providing opportunities for women. But we must keep moving forward. As important as today is we must remain committed year-round,” said Nicell. “It must be said that men have a large and essential role to play here. With STEM fields still dominated by men, and with men being the vast majority of those who perpetuate gender-based violence, it is up to us men to speak out and stand up in the face of harassment or abuse and to unify in our support of women and gender-diverse peoples.”

Watch the December 6 ceremony below