Jones: It could have been any of us

National Assembly employee Arianne Mignolet, left, sits at her desk all through a ceremony to commemorate the 25th anniversary of the Polytechnique tragedy, Thursday, December 4, 2014 at the legislature in Quebec City. Fourteen white roses are sitting at the main desk, in memory of the 14 women who died in the tragedy. Jacques Boissinot / THE CANADIAN PRESS

I was working at l’Auberge Montréal Central, a cheap hotel in the back of the bus station. Not exactly the greatest neighbourhood but as a student in a new city I needed the job, and being a night receptionist meant I could study whilst I worked.

It was snowing.

My boyfriend, Frank, and his roommate came to visit me. Frank brought a jar of his grandmother’s tomato and pasta soup. We were going to watch the hockey game together. We were students and didn’t have televisions at home.

We never did see the game. The broadcast was interrupted by a news flash saying that a gunman had opened fire on female students at a Montreal university. News organizations initially did not name the university but I knew from the pictures it wasn’t McGill. It happened on the other side of Mount Royal.

We heard bits information — there were no tweets or posts online to document what was happening — and eventually a story began to take form. On Dec. 6, 1989, a young man walked into l’École Polytechnique de Montréal with a semi-automatic weapon, separated the men from the women. Before opening fire on the classroom of female engineering students he screamed, “I hate feminists.” His name was Marc Lépine, and in fewer than 10 minutes, he executed 14 women and injured 10 more; then he killed himself.

I phoned my roommates to ask them if they heard the bad news. They had. One of them told me her parents called, not knowing what campus was affected. They worried that it could have been one of us.

Indeed, any one of my friends could have been taking a class in the McGill engineering building at 4 p.m. on a Wednesday. They have big classrooms — it’s where I took a Bible and Western Literature class. What if Lépine chose my school over the Polytechnique?

My roommate Jen was in a choir with one of the vital sufferers. She etched her name in the frost on our living room window.

The Montreal Massacre robbed me of the last fragment of my innocence, something I didn’t know still existed. I was sexually assaulted in a fraternity house the year prior. It was a high-profile case — one that was tried in the court of public opinion and tossed out by the Crown. You’d think that after going through what I did, I might have been less traumatized when I heard about the shooting.

Nope.

It was too much. These sufferers could have been my friends, their friends or me. They were students. These women were anonymous targets just like I was — like such a lot of sufferers of sexual violence. They were convenient, an opportunity to exploit.

The difference was that I was still alive. I survived.

Somewhere in the sorrow, I understand that being grateful that none of my friends was hurt. I understand that feeling guilty for that feeling. I still do.

Almost every woman my age who I know can recall where she first heard about the massacre. We are a unique cohort; bound together in the pain of knowing that 14 women were murdered on account of their sex. Wrong place, wrong time…

We responded. We became angry and tried to change our world in our own ways. My colleague Sylvia led the way by opening the first student-run campus sexual assault centre in Canada, at McGill University. My friend Billie-Jo works with sufferers of violence in Toronto’s aboriginal community. Martha raised two sons — now young men — who know that there is not any such thing as a rape joke because gender-based violence is never funny.

We do what we will be able to to ensure there will never be another Montreal Massacre.

It feels like our victories are brief.

A family member once said to me, “I was raped, but I don’t complain about it. I just moved on.” She knows I was assaulted. What do you say to a woman who believes rape is normal, and that sufferers shouldn’t whine about it?

Read the news today and it is obvious that Canada is not a better place 25 years after the Massacre. We have cultural icons who are violent and abusive. A judge in Nova Scotia sentenced a young man — whose actions pushed an equally young woman to kill herself — to take a sexual harassment course and apologize to her parents. More than 1,200 aboriginal women and girls are missing or murdered.

The pointless deaths of these 14 women could have meaning if their murders inspired real change. But it’s not happening, or at least not soon enough for me. There’s a higher chance than not that my daughter or one of her female friends will be sexually assaulted in her lifetime. It makes me angry when I desperately need to be optimistic.

For the past 24 years, I have lit a candle and read the names of the slain women out loud. I understand that Frank, and am grateful there was a sweet, solid guy with me that day. I understand that Maeve and Lynne beside me at the memorial service in the chapel after the massacre; there was not a tissue in sight.

Usually, it’s snowing.

Mary-Margaret Jones is a freelance communications strategist living with her partner and daughter in Toronto. She is a proud co-founder of the Sexual Assault Centre of McGill Students Society.