National Post

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Tuesday, December 07, 1999

A question of context
Marc Lepine: madman or social barometer?
Luiza Chwialkowska
National Post

To journalist Patricia Pearson, who has spent the past 10 years studying and writing about murderers and mass murderers, Marc Lepine's slaughter of 14 women in Montreal in 1989 is no less baffling than the legacy of his crime.

While strolling the grounds of the University of Toronto with the eminent British criminologist Colin Wilson last year, Ms. Pearson came across a monument to the victims.

"It was a woman on a cross. A crucified woman dedicated to the women killed by Marc Lepine," Ms. Pearson said yesterday.

"Colin Wilson knew about Marc Lepine. But he didn't know anything about the Canadian discourse on it. And his jaw just dropped to the ground. He was just astonished that that would be the interpretation."

"That's how I've always felt over the last 10 years. If you look at that crime from the point of criminology instead of the gender war, it's completely insensible to interpret it as being an indicator of violence against women," Ms. Pearson said.

Ten years after the Montreal massacre, its meaning remains the subject of emotional debate and vitriol: Was Marc Lepine an aberration or a symbol?

In official statements out of Ottawa yesterday, Marc Lepine's violent act was cast as a symptom of widespread male violence against women.

"It is important that we honour these young women," said Hedy Fry, Secretary of State for Multiculturalism and the Status of Women. "The senseless loss of their young lives has become symbolic of the experiences of all women whose lives are shattered by deliberate acts of gender-based violence," she said.

Those who argue that the killings were an emblem of violence against women say their battle for public opinion has been won.

Judy Rebick wrote yesterday in the Ottawa Citizen: "At first there was a ferocious debate. He was just a madman, they said. It had nothing to do with violence against women, they said. But we knew better. Why did we even have to argue the point? His suicide letter had a hit list of prominent feminists he wanted to kill. He shouted, 'I hate feminists,' as he fired. How much clearer could it be?"

Ms. Rebick, former head of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, says it took several years of lobbying, but, in both English and French Canada, the link between the murders and domestic violence has been made as permanent as the monuments to the victims.

One of the results of the massacre, she said, is "the heightened awareness of violence against women and children.

"There have been improvements in the criminal justice system, but putting violent men behind bars will not solve the problem," she wrote. "The root of this violence is male dominance. Men who attack and kill women are trying to dominate and control women."

Writing in The Toronto Star, columnist Michele Landsberg also recalled a struggle to make the Canadian public accept the view that the crime was linked to the broader issue of domestic violence against women. Initially, she said, journalists and politicians were reluctant to associate Marc Lepine with Canadian men at large.

"Instantly, our hot tears and painful grief were dismissed as 'political,' " she recalled on Saturday. "The story, in countless broadcasts and news columns, became not of dead women, but the outrage of innocent men, in a fury at being linked by their maleness to Marc Lepine. It was all about them -- were their feelings hurt, were they being discriminated against because a few all-female vigils were planned? I regret that many of us spoke up so honestly only because it gave the backlash an opening for attack that served as a distraction from the real issue."

The definition of the "real issue" around the murder is still expanding.

For Joan Grant Cummings, president of the National Action Committee on the Status of Women, the massacre is linked not only to domestic violence, but also to poverty and cuts to government transfers.

"As a direct result of government economic decisions, the poverty of women in Canada is on the rise, which results in increased vulnerability to male violence," she said in a statement yesterday, adding that Canadian women's groups are commemorating Dec. 6 by issuing a "Call to Action" to women across the country to join the World Women's March 2000 to end poverty and violence.

Yet such linkages seem incorrect to observers, such as Ms. Pearson.

"Who [mass murderers] choose as their targets is extremely idiosyncratic. That Marc Lepine chose women reflects on nothing but Marc Lepine," said Ms. Pearson, author of When She Was Bad, a book about violent women, and a contributor to the National Post.

To others, the linkages are morally wrong. To others still, they are dangerous.

Writing in this newspaper yesterday, columnist Donna LaFramboise wrote that by scapegoating men for the actions of one, "we too sank to his level."

Greg Kershaw, founder of Fathers Are Capable Too, a self-help and lobbying group for divorced fathers, says that the Montreal massacre has injected new emotion to debates already marked by hyperbole.

"If we start taking the attitude that virtually all men are dangerous to women, it creates a culture of fear," Mr. Kershaw said yesterday.

"It's having a negative impact on men who are going through divorce and separation," he said, noting that such rhetoric creates a "presumption of guilt on the part of all men."

The atmosphere has made judges and police stricter with men if a women raises the possibility of violent tendencies, he said.

The link to custody-law reform is also being made on the other side of the debate.

The "root cause" of Marc Lepine's action was his "brutal, control-freak father," who sued for custody of his children without paying support, Ms. Landsberg wrote.

"Today, there are angry and violent men, some of them slick and plausible, who insist that they are entitled to custody of their children, and there are parliamentarians dedicated to promoting their cause," she stated.

But at least one woman who lives in the shadow of the shootings is more sanguine.

"It's an isolated event," Julie Gaudreault, 21, a second-year industrial engineering student at Ecole Polytechnique told The Gazette this week. "He was a sick guy."

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