MONTREAL — Jean-Francois Larivee still remembers Maryse Laganiere’s piercing blue eyes the day he met her at the Universite de Montreal in the mid-1980s.
Larivee and Laganiere went on to marry and find happiness — until it was brutally shattered on Dec. 6, 1989, when she and 13 other women were gunned down in a murderous rampage at the university’s Ecole polytechnique.
“Who knew she would lose her life there four years later?” Larivee said at an emotional ceremony Sunday at the Notre-Dame Basilica attended by about 1,000 people, including survivors of Marc Lepine’s hatred.
“I found the strength to survive, to love, through that situation.”
Larivee said he hopes Laganiere would be proud of the work that has been done over the past 20 years to toughen gun laws in Canada since the country’s worst mass shooting.
Donald Turcotte remembers waiting expectantly for more news when he found out that fateful evening about the tragedy.
“We heard the news. Fourteen pieces of news, one-by-one,” Turcotte told the hushed gathering.
“Each one announcing the end of the world. The end of 14 worlds.”
His sister Annie was a student in metallurgy at the engineering school. She turned out to be one of Lepine’s victims after the feminist-hating gunman entered a classroom, ordered the men outside and began mowing down women.
“My parents lost their only daughter,” Turcotte said.
“The same pain was lived out in 13 other families.”
Mario Jolicoeur was a student at Ecole polytechnique at the time of the shooting. He is now there as a teacher.
“As a teacher, it’s hard to imagine the loss of 14 students,” he told the tearful crowd.
“But as a member of this society, I don’t think we’ll ever understand the scope of this loss”.
The time was also used to honour one of Ecole polytechnique’s own.
Lili-Anna Peresa, who graduated in 1987, received an honorary degree from Universite de Montreal for her humanitarian work. She is the first woman to receive the honour on Ecole polytechnique’s recommendation.
Peresa says she was hard hit by the tragedy and it spurred her to give back.
“It’s key for me to remember those 14 women didn’t die in vain,” Peresa said.
“I felt responsibility towards (them) to act to protect women who were living in violent situations.”
Earlier in the day, white ribbons fluttered in the breeze and several hundred Montrealers formed a human chain as they remembered the 14 women.
Their names were read out at a downtown park and a minute of silence was held in their honour.
Many in the crowd cheered as speakers highlighted the importance of doing everything possible to eliminate violence against women.
“It’s a painful, a horrible moment, but at the same time it’s a moment for us to look back and see where we want to go now,” Alexa Conradi, president of Quebec’s main women’s group, said of the tragedy.
Ceremonies took place all across the country Sunday.
About 250 people gathered at the Women’s Monument in downtown Ottawa, said Erin Williams, executive director of the Ottawa Coalition to End Violence Against Women.
Speakers at the hour-long evening vigil read out the names of Lepine’s victims, said Williams, and women who had been murdered in the Ottawa area over the past three years. Aboriginal drummers played as people laid flowers on the monument, she said.
“Violence against women is still happening. It’s not decreasing. And so we need to let people know that,” said Williams, who was a young teen at the time of the massacre.
In Toronto, people holding candles took part in a solemn hour-long ceremony near the Royal Ontario Museum.
Gravestones were laid out for every Ontario woman killed in incidents of domestic violence since the Montreal shooting.
Haligonians huddled together outside the city’s public library for a moment of silence — and then promtply broke that silence with screaming, shouting, and laughing.
Organizer Kimberley Csihas told the Halifax Chronicle-Herald the screaming was a way for participants to release ”all of their frustrations” about the issue of violence against women.
In Vancouver, people gathered to express their grief at a downtown women’s momument called Marker of Change. The event was hosted by local MP Hedy Fry.
In addition to the 14 women who died at Ecole polytechnique, 13 others — including four men — were injured in Lepine’s 20-minute rampage.
While the massacre prompted a toughening of Canada’s gun control laws, Conservatives MPs, along with a handful of Liberals and New Democrats, voted in principle last month to kill the long-gun registry.
The move sparked an emotional response in Quebec as Montreal’s police chief, survivors of the massacre and a gun victim’s mother urged politicians to support the registry.
The head of the Coalition for Gun Control said Sunday the fight to preserve the registry will continue.
“We’re down, we’re not out,” Wendy Cukier said as she took part in the human-chain ceremony.
Prime Minister Stephen Harper said in a statement it is important for Canadians to remain committed to eliminating violence against women.
“On Dec. 6, 1989, 14 bright, talented, young women were murdered at l’Ecole polytechnique de Montreal in one of the most tragic acts of violence against women in our country’s history,” Harper said.
“Their deaths galvanized the need to end violence against women in the hearts and minds of Canadians.
“Today, on Canada’s National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence against Women, we should all take time to remember and reaffirm our commitment to continue working to protect the lives, dignity and equality of all women.”