restricted access Unbearable Witness: Toward a Politics of Listening
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Unbearable Witness:
Toward a Politics of Listening

On Wednesday, 6 December 1989, around 5 P.M., Marc Lepine (né Gamil Roderigue Gharbi) dressed in hunting garb entered a classroom in the École Polytechnique. Disturbing a presentation by Eric Chavarie, he waved a .22-caliber rifle and ordered the men and women into opposite corners of the classroom. Thinking it was a joke arranged to relieve the tedium of the last hour of the term, no one moved. A single gunshot persuaded them otherwise. Next, Lepine ordered the men to leave. Alone with the women, he stated, “I am here to fight against feminism that is why I am here.” Nathalie Provost, a 23-year-old mechanical engineering student, argued, “Look, we are just women studying engineering, not necessarily feminists ready to march on the streets to shout we are against men, just students intent on leading a normal life.” Lepine responded, “You’re women, you’re going to be engineers. You’re all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists.” He then opened fire, killing six women—and closing the discussion. After leaving the classroom, Lepine stalked through the halls of the school saying, “I want the women.” Lepine killed himself at approximately 5:35 p.m., his gun still loaded and the police not yet in sight. The total death count: fourteen women and Marc Lepine.

And then the discussion reopened.

The unexpected horror of this “American-style carnage” (Pelletier 33) shocked most Canadians and defied them to make sense of the worst one-day massacre in Canadian history. To those whose complacency had been shattered, it was imperative that some lesson, some understanding be extracted from the events of 6 December 1989. In response, the Montreal police launched a full-scale investigation, centered on the life of Marc Lepine. The day after the massacre, the police released a brief biography that described Lepine as “an intelligent but deeply troubled young man with no known psychiatric history” and alluded to a suicide note, found on his person, which blamed feminists for his life’s misery (Malarek and Aubin A1). The authorities, however, soon aborted their investigation. On 11 December 1989, the chief coroner, Jean Grennier, told the press that he preferred not to call for a public inquiry [End Page 112] since an inquiry would rehash “some of the gruesome and sickening aspects of the tragedy for no good reason. It would mean more pain and suffering for the families.” The coroner did say that he would call for a public inquiry if he felt the public was not being properly informed, but he argued that so far “the public is very well informed” (Malarek “More Massacre Details” A14). The next day, the Montreal police refused to answer reporters’ questions and stated that they “will provide any further pertinent information when it becomes available” (Malarek “Police Refusal” A18). According to the authorities, retelling the event equaled reinflicting pain upon the bereaved families. For the sake of those who had suffered most, the authorities argued, discussion must be closed—again.

The authorities, however, never consulted the families in question: the following June, nine of the fourteen families would join the National Action Committee on the Status of Women (nac) in calling for a public inquiry into the massacre (“Demanding Answers” 17). As the police psychologists would later explain, the authorities had closed down the investigation because they feared that continuing the discussion would unleash an unstoppable flow of antifeminist violence (“Police Won’t Confirm” A16). They interpreted retelling not only as re-enacting the violence against the bereaved, but also as propagating violence by calling others to identify with and act as Lepine. Moreover, by insisting that the already dead Lepine was and should be the only person implicated in the massacre, they were trying to make it so. Accordingly, the only way to contain the contagious potential of Lepine’s example—the only way to re-repress the desire to kill feminists—was to make the entire Montreal Massacre taboo. Thus, while they were claiming that the massacre was an isolated and incomprehensible event that no amount of investigation would ever render comprehensible, the...