Momentous Event: Dec. 6, 1989

Momentous Event: Dec. 6, 1989

By: WJO

There are far-reaching public events that occur in our lifetime for which we vividly remember where we were when we learned of them.

The first one for me was – The End of the War in Europe. I was just over five years old, May 1945. My Mom & Dad were listening to the radio in our front room – 382 Watson St – West Saint John, NB. All of a sudden, they hugged, smiled and let out a big jubilant roar. Shortly after I was out playing; church bells are ringing, and people are celebrating in the streets – interfering with the road hockey game that I was playing, with my brother, Vern, and a few other kids from the neighbourhood.

The next one was Nov 1963 when JFK was assassinated. I was in my third year of a four year tour at 4 (F) Wing, Germany. I was in the Airman’s Club – Friday night. There was a heavy and steady rain and quite cold. We had a number of serving USAF personnel at 4 Wing at the time; I knew and was a friend to many of them. The word on the assassination spread quickly – (word of mouth), in those days, based on the time and where we were located. The mood and atmosphere that evening quickly turned very sad.

Within an hour or so, some brass (don’t remember the names or ranks) from Wing HQ called everyone to attention – there was an aircrew member missing and long overdue from an “escape & evasion” exercise from nearby in France. They took a roll call and we were to report back at 0600 hrs the next morning; dressed and ready to go on a search for the missing pilot. All of a sudden the focus switched from Dallas, Texas to getting ready for the search.

I along with others returned at 0600 on the Saturday. On arrival, we were informed that the missing pilot had showed-up at the designated area safe & sound. We were dismissed and permitted to return home.

 

The Canada /Soviet 1972 hockey series certainly stands out in my mind.  This is not the time to recall those memories.

9/11: I was at Panet House on a fairly extended phone conversation, with the parent of a IV Year. Well into the conversation, the mother said something like – ”Oh, did you hear about an airplane flying into one of the twin towers in NYC?”

The phone conversation came to a quick end.

The slaughter of 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique on Dec. 6, 1989 is definitely front and centre in my memory bank. Being the father of four daughters is reason enough. I was serving at RMC at the time; well acquainted with a number of the lady cadets – many of whom were in engineering programs – all years.

I was getting ready that weekend to attend the AGM for CIAU Athletic Directors at Banff, Alberta. By the time that I arrived at my destination and for the following few days, most of the talk was about Montreal and the tragic event.

Immediately after the shootings, various media commentators reported that the killer was a madman and that the women just happened to be in the way, as opposed to being specifically targeted.

Sometime after when the killer’s suicide note became public there was no longer any doubt for his cowardly act.”Would you note that if I commit suicide today it is not for economic reasons … but for political reasons,” it read. “Because I have decided to send the feminists, who have always ruined my life, to their Maker … I have decided to put an end to those viragos.”

Over the years, I often wonder what these RMC lady engineering cadets were experiencing during that time period – before, shortly after and to this day.

I have been in touch with a few of them. Of these – there are some very profound memories and what they recall about the Montreal Massacre and the atmosphere at RMC in December 1989.

What two IV Year 1989-90 Lady Engineering Officer-Cadets had to say:

Dear Bill,

Your note has reached me with the thought of -why? My time at RMC was full of hateful misogyny. The massacre was during exam routine. The comments I recall from the “Gentlemen” cadets of the time, as we lined up waiting for the exam doors to open, were along the line of “Hey! We should do that here!” or “How did he miss so many others?”

With that invective and utterances, it came as no surprise to me several years later when the problems of the 90’s became public. The seeds had been sown years before.

My relationship with RMC has been like that of an abused lover. I wanted to love the College so much. I had dreamed of it since I was 15. Things would be good for a while, and then BAM – you are hit again with the hatred and derision of your male peers. 25 years on I have recurring nightmares in which I never graduate and am stuck there.

I have a Masters, and I am currently a senior engineer in DND, and an expert in my field. I love my work. I was born to be an engineer. So were most of my classmates on your list. Each of them has done well in their own fields, in their own specialties.

Would I do it all again? Maybe. But I had no idea then that misogyny reigned so deeply in society and in the cadets at school.

“No means hit her again!”

“No means f–k her anyways!”

I finally did meet a true gentleman a year after grad. He was a mature man of 28, a Cpl then. But he had the all the qualities few of my male peers ever showed. We’ve been married since 1992.

I am sorry. This is not the response you were looking for. I think some of the others will have more appropriate words. I have forwarded this to Alanna and Nanette. Marie will likely send to Laura. Six of us get together periodically for a lunch and share the updates on our work and families.

Kind regards,

17300 Sherry Oake

***

I remember the incident well. It was a shocking event and as a female engineering student at a very male dominated institution it was something that we all took a little personally. However, the actions of one unbalanced person do not reflect the attitudes of the majority. Maybe I am just an optimist at heart but I would like to think that there are positives we can look at when commemorating this tragedy.

When we were at RMC we certainly experienced some reluctance on the part of our male peers to welcome us into the fold, particularly since engineering and of course military service had been male centric professions since their inception. Whether it was the gentlemanly apology for using certain language that may offend our feminine ears, or the disdain that was often surreptitious and sometimes overt, we noticed that we were different. However, most male cadets were certainly appalled by the events in Montreal and they perhaps accepted us a little more readily afterwards. The “old boys club” was still closed but there was less animosity.

Throughout my career, both as a military officer and currently as an Engineer working within the Department of National Defence I have seen attitudes towards women changing. In the early days we had to work a little harder to make sure that we met the bar, or perhaps we just felt that we did so that no-one could say we were only promoted because of a quota. Eventually you earned the respect of your peers and gained a reputation within your Branch. You certainly got used to being the only woman in a room full of men. There came a point when you were surprised when asked if you felt uncomfortable as the only woman, because you hadn’t really noticed that you were indeed the only one. Well I can honestly say that I see things changing. There are certainly more women around the table these days, and people aren’t surprised anymore when they speak up and their ideas have merit.

The Montreal Massacre was a tragic event and certainly should be commemorated to remind us of the attitudes of the past. Hopefully the young engineering students of today just shake their heads in disbelief that there was ever a notion that women didn’t belong. My son is a second year engineering student at the University of Ottawa today, and one day I asked him how many women there were in his classes. I was surprised to hear that it was still only about 20%, and really hadn’t increased much since I was a student. I cannot believe that in today’s society, where both girls and boys are taught that they can do anything and be anyone, that young women are discouraged from entering the engineering profession. As painful as it is to remember the events of 20 years ago, it is still an important reminder that we need to encourage our young women to engage in science and engineering, and make sure our young men are open and accepting of their female peers.

17336 Nanette Fliesser

Class of ‘90

Former Construction Engineering officer

Currently employed as a Project Manager in the Directorate of Construction Project Delivery

2 Comments

  • Lucy Cerantola

    December 7, 2014 at 4:28 pm

    Thanks for posting. I appreciate the need to remember, so we can act in a way that moves attitudes forward. I strongly felt then and continue to feel now that you (woman or man) should go out into the world – work at what you love, what fascinates you – honour their memory because that is what those young women wanted to do and would have done.
    Lucy Cerantola (Rourke, 17383), B. Eng (Mech) Class of ’90
    Former AERE Officer
    Repair and Overhaul Engineer (UTAS Landing Systems)

  • Marie-Josée Potvin

    December 8, 2014 at 11:12 pm

    I was a student in Physics Engineering at Polytechnique at the time. My reality was quite different from the one described by the former RMC cadets: at Polytechnique, although in my program there were only 5% women, we never felt rejected or excluded. This would come later in the workplace… Polytechnique was an awesome place for women to thrive and feel everything was possible. I was lucky, the gunman tried to come in the room where I was hiding but didn’t manage to open the door. It was just pure luck, but December 6th nevertheless shattered my sense of confidence in everything. No place seemed safe anymore. The following year, I moved to Kingston where I worked as a teaching assistant at RMC while doing my master’s at Queen’s. When December 6th came, I was shocked by the political debate surrounding the event. I felt it interfered with my ability to grieve for my friends quietly. Again, the reality of women in engineering hit me much later, when I was given my first responsabilities at work and some male colleagues just couldn’t accept it. We have made progress as a society, but we still have a long way to go… In the mean time, every December 6th, I think of those girls who were full of projects, close to graduating and whose life was taken away from them. The last 25 years have been very busy for me, getting a Ph.D., having a career in the space domain, raising four children and volunteering with several organizations helping women in engineering. Every December 6th, I wonder if I have done enough to be worthy of the gift I got that night: my life…