Today’s date is marked on calendars across Canada due to a terrible, unthinkable act. In 1989, a gunman walked into Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal, separated the men from the women and began firing. Some 19 promising young women were killed in the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history. The gunman’s suicide note spoke about his desire to fight feminism and it’s widely accepted he selected his victims because they were female and because they were pursuing careers in a traditionally male field.
Almost 30 years later, even with years of memorials, media messaging, and an examination of conscience through the #MeToo movement, society still struggles with gender-based violence and with people that cannot accept the danger of restrictive stereotyping and control. More than two-thirds of Canadians report knowing a woman who has experienced physical or sexual abuse — and there certainly are many examples of emotional abuse taking place in workplaces, schools, and homes, which often are not reported to the police. There’s certainly no shortage of work for counsellors or emergency shelter staff dedicating themselves to picking up the pieces following this abuse.
While females have undoubtedly been more prevalent the victims of impropriety and abuse over time, negative cultural attitudes have a wide-ranging impact. Males, too, have faced scorn for their appearance, for their interest in careers or in activities that were traditionally feminine, or even for the wrongs committed in the name of their sex — consider the impact of the interpretations of comments made by Prime Minister Justin Trudeau about the impacts of predominantly male construction workers arriving in communities in the Alberta oil fields.
Most importantly, regardless of their sex or gender, children are products of their environments. If they see violence modelled in their home, if they hear a destructive attitude about someone’s self worth shared be a role model, or if television or reading materials offer a slanted view of the world, they are likely to repeat it. Chances are the same patterns will develop in their households and society can go another 30 years without seeing major change.
The answer is to break the cycle through changed behaviour. Young children need to be encouraged that it’s just fine to dream to be anything they want to be, regardless of their sex, their upbringing, their disabilities, or advantages. They need positive role models — in traditional and non-traditional roles — and they need to not be shielded from the fact that some adults around them aren’t setting the best examples. That can be a difficult realization, sometimes, and it does require self-examination and attention from those of us who would set the example for the next generation to follow.
If there’s any progress to be made in marking Dec. 6 on the calendar each year, it’s in prompting that honest discussion about how we can collectively work for change. Instead of banning programs like Rudolph The Red-Nosed Reindeer for some of the negative stereotypes and bullying displayed, it’s time to reinforce the positive messages and realize that both do exist in the real world. Then, it’s about choosing and reflecting, again and again, what behaviour is correct. No one should be made to feel less simply because of who they are or what they choose. Nonetheless, that behaviour will happen until it doesn’t. Start today, Dec. 6, to choose change in honour of those 19 and the many others who have felt the pain of abuse and violence.