The commemorative plaque is seen on the outside wall at the Polytechnique in Montreal, on Friday, Dec. 4, 2020. Sunday will mark the 31st anniversary of the murder of 14 women in an antifeminist attack at Ecole Polytechnique on December 6, 1989. THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Scaled-back, virtual ceremonies to mark 31st anniversary of Polytechnique killings

MONTREAL, France — The anniversary of the attack that cut short the lives of 14 women at Ecole Polytechnique has become a day to reflect and call for action to end gender-based violence, but this year those moments will largely take place alone rather than in groups.

Most of the traditional events, including wreath-layings, speeches and a ceremony to project beams of light into the sky from the Mount Royal lookout, will proceed either virtually or without crowds in what one survivor of the shooting says is sure to be a “difficult” year.

“There’s a lot of human warmth in my life surrounding Dec. 6, a lot of emotions linked to those gatherings, and this year it’s a lot cooler,” said Nathalie Provost, who was shot four times when a gunman stormed Ecole Polytechnique in 1989.

Fourteen women, many of them engineering students, were killed and more than a dozen people were injured in an attack motivated by the gunman’s hatred towards women.

Provost, spokeswoman for gun control group PolySeSouvient, said the efforts to remember the event have gone on, even though health regulations mean people can’t congregate in-person.

Earlier this week, a $30,000 scholarship known as the Order of the White Rose was presented to Cree student Brielle Chanae Thorsen, who Provost describes as an “amazing young woman” and engineering student.

And on Sunday at noon, Provost will join a panel of speakers at a park named in honour of the women for a commemoration that will be broadcast online.

But Provost fears participation may be lower this year, noting people are tired of staring at screens.

“Gatherings are important for mourning and for commemoration, and now we’re trying to do them virtually, and my impression is that it’s much harder to achieve,” she said.

This diminished participation may come at a time when advocates say the issue of gender-based violence is more urgent than ever.

Elisabeth Fluet-Asselin, a spokeswoman for the Quebec Women’s Federation, said the pandemic has led to increased demand for women’s shelter space, difficulty in accessing services, and mental health struggles brought on by isolation. She said some groups are particularly affected, including Indigenous women, members of the LGBTQ community, women with disabilities and those in prison.

In addition to a Sunday ceremony at a Montreal park, the federation has organized a number of virtual events as part of its 12 days of action, including podcasts, videos, panel discussions, and art and poetry events — all designed to highlight and denounce the systemic nature of gender-based violence.

“Violence against women is not just physical, domestic, or sexual, there are lots of other kinds and we can’t forget them, especially in the current context,” Fluet-Asselin said in an interview.

Provost, for her part, worries about a rise in online abuse spread on social media, which she said can lead to real, violent consequences.

Over the years, Provost said her own emotions surrounding what happened to her during the massacre tend to ebb and flow.

This year, she mostly feels tired, and frustrated at the slow pace of change when it comes to gun control.

Provost said she was encouraged by a previously announced federal plan to ban some 1,500 types of assault-style firearms. But she said there’s still much she’d like to see, including a ban on handguns, stronger tools for police to intervene in so-called “red flag” situations, and action to address the guns currently in circulation.

Eventually, she hopes to turn the page on the shooting, and let the anniversary become a day of quiet remembrance. Instead, she says the opposite seems to be happening as victims of shootings in Toronto, Quebec City and Nova Scotia add their voices to those calling for change.

“We don’t need any more commemorations,” she said.

“We don’t want to create new ones. We want it to stop.”

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