Seeing names…

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I didn’t know these women, but I want to I remember them. 

This week marked twenty-three years of remembering a tragedy: in 1989, on December 6, a young man took a gun and a knife and went on a woman-targeted shooting spree at the École Polytechnique, here in Montreal.  The fourteen women named above were killed, fourteen more people were injured, and our nation was scarred.  The perpetrator was aiming at women because, as he wrote in his suicide note, he hated feminists, and more generally, women who worked in fields traditionally held by men. 

When this shooting took place, I was a girl with aspirations of going to university, and it seemed to me very scary and sad that young women in a university might be killed just because of what they chose to study.  A seed of fear was established: I could be selected as the target of violence because of my gender.  Especially if I chose to do things seen as challenging it.

Events to commemorate this tragedy have kept me aware of it, at least annually, but this year several people, on the part of Facebook that I see, created an image that has the “Montreal Massacre” affecting me more this year than ever before.  What my Facebook friends did is this: they created lists of the names of each woman who died that day. 

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There has been a movement in recent years to name victims rather than perpetrators, to move the focus over to maintaining memories of the lives that were lost.  While I’ve liked this trend in concept, it has never previously had a strong effect on me.  But this year, seeing all of these names togetherin what has become a familiar online space—has been so effective. 

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Some posts were detailed, containing the women’s young ages, or their fields of study; other notes were simply a list of names.  It appears to me that no two of my friends just cut and pasted the names from the same location.  Each person used slightly different spacing or punctuation, and with those seemingly minor formatting techniques, they thoughtfully curated each alphabetized list.  I imagine these friends, at their computers, pausing, and with a quiet breath out, wishing that each woman’s fate had been much different.

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Whether or not these imagined efforts actually went into the posts isn’t really the point; rather it’s that a set of names together, particularly in these memorializing circumstances, has such a strong visual effect.  It’s not just a reading of some letters that add up to names; there’s an overall significance to this imagea visual yet textual representation of humans—one that only names can create.  As another example, the Vietnam Veterans Memorial Wall is particularly compelling in a similar way: designed by Maya Lin, large slabs of polished black stone have been inscribed with nearly 60,000 names of veterans.  As you walk along this wall, the sheen of the stone reflects your image onto the names; the names are on you and you can’t shake them off.  

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Seeing the names of the victims of those violent acts on December 6th, 1989, brought my class lists to mind.  I teach communication courses to undergraduate engineering students at McGill, and semester after semester, I note how few women study engineering.  In my current classes of twenty-five students, generally, only two or three of those students are women.  So few!

Seeing the names of these women, who never got to carry on with their careers, has me thinking about what smart and tough young women they must have been.  If circumstances had been different, today these women would likely be established in their fields, and mentoring and leading younger women, like my students, to work in a field that isn’t easy by any stretch, but especially not as a woman.

What is it that you see in this list of names?

Geneviève Bergeron, Hélène Colgan, Nathalie Croteau, Barbara Daigneault, Anne-Marie Edward, Maud Haviernick, Maryse Laganière, Maryse Leclair, Anne-Marie Lemay, Sonia Pelletier, Michèle Richard, Annie St-Arneault, Annie Turcotte, Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

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