Remembering a massacre: a tough pill to swallow (Part 18)

The moment my editor told me to get to the airport, my stomach fell as though I was on the down slope of a roller coaster. I stood in the middle of the newsroom, as a few deskers and reporters stared at me expectantly, wondering if I could possibly decline. I think reporters often dread the unknown of a story and the difficulties that lie ahead in nailing it down, but I feared I just wasn’t up to the task.

I’d been feeling tired, lupus tired, for days and I was walking like an elderly woman whose joints lacked lubricant.

But in Montreal, where the killing began around 5 p.m.,  27 people were shot or stabbed. All the dead were young women; fourteen of them.

How could I not go?

In the Beaches areas apartment I shared with my absentee boyfriend, who worked in Ottawa on Parliament Hill, I threw clothes into a bag, grabbed mitts, hats, a brown leather coat, and boots of some manmade material that would later harden into breakable toffee in the minus 20 weather. I took Montreal for Canada’s most fashionable metropolis but forgot it was also one of the coldest.

My newspaper in Toronto sent me, age 24, first. Then, a few hours later, another female reporter, also in her 20s. None of the male reporters working the night shift could say more than bonjour. My French was marginally better.

There was immediate anxiety on the news desk about having sent two young women to cover the massacre of other young women. Some editors worried junior reporters like us weren’t up to the task; my assignment editor told me he worried we wouldn’t cover the story objectively, being female and all.

In writing, I’ve circled and recircled the events surrounding the Dec. 6 massacre at L’Ecole Polytechnique in Montreal. First, 26 years ago, when I was sent to cover it as a news story. Last year, when I wrote a remembrance about how national reporters declined to write about the feminist anger following the event, sanitizing the tragedy so it was more palatable to readers—and editors.

And now this blog, again from another perspective. Covering that event was one of the formative experiences of my budding journalism career. I want to write what it was like to be sent to cover the biggest story of the day, in the midst of a lupus flare.

Macabre Christmas present

When I arrived in Montreal four hours after the killing had ended, yellow tape wrapped L’Ecole Polytechnique like a macabre Christmas present. It was past the evening deadline and there wasn’t much for me to do, other than grab a few quotes from lingering onlookers to file to the Toronto Star’s news desk, and then return to my hotel room.

By this time — five years into my illness — I was used to struggling through the pain of inflamed joints and hardened muscles. A shower always made me feel temporarily better. Afterward, I climbed under the covers to watch the CBC National’s coverage. Only men were quoted: Eyewitnesses. Professors. Police. Survivors. I revisited that footage 25 years later and my recollection is correct. It was still a man’s world on TV, even when events cried out for a female voice.

I awoke the next morning to minus 20 and questions of the killer’s identity and why had he targeted female engineering students. My joints were arthritic, worse than the day before. I decided to quadruple my dose of prednisone in the hopes it would dampen the inflammation. But I couldn’t find the bottle. I’m certain I’d packed my pills.

Never skip a dose

By then I’d taken prednisone every day for five years in doses as high as 80 milligrams. When you take prednisone even for a few months it can hamper the functioning of your adrenal glands, which produce cortisol, which corticosteroids like prednisone replace. If I went off the prednisone cold turkey — say because I lost it somewhere — I could have an adrenal crisis. The symptoms could include abdominal pain, confusion, coma, dehydration, dizziness, fatigue, headache, high fever, loss of appetite, low blood pressure, profound weakness, rapid heart rate, sluggish movement, vomiting.

I’d been warned to never to skip a dose of prednisone.

My boyfriend in Ottawa said he’d make the two-hour drive the following day to bring me half a bottle I’d left there.

At a press conference at the Montreal police headquarters, the identity of the killer was disclosed, along with a hit list of feminists. I scrawled a story in my notepad with my arthritic fingers, then called the rewrite desk in Toronto and dictated my story.

I then took a cab to the suburb where the killer grew up to interview his childhood neighbours and found out he had been beaten by his father, liked to play war games, and had been turned down by the military. I helped brand him as an abused madman instead of just a murderous misogynist.

Where is the permission?

By late afternoon, I could no longer take notes because my fingers were so stiff, knuckles inflamed. I had little sausage fingers. I hobbled into a drugstore and begged the pharmacist to give me a handful of prednisone tablets to protect me until the next day. He looked at me skeptically, until I showed him my deformed hands. Without a word, he put five prednisone tablets into a small envelope and slid it toward me.

I washed down all five tablets with coffee. I wrote what I knew about the killer and filed another story. There was a vigil being held by young feminists. I didn’t go near it. Instead, I returned to my hotel room to await my Ottawa visitor and my prednisone package.

On CBC’s The Journal, Barbara Frum, one of Canada’s most respected journalists, questioned a panelist while refusing to admit that the massacre was indeed an act of violence toward women.

“Why do we diminish it by suggesting that it was an act against just one group?” Frum asked.

Frum seemed puzzled that so many women insisted the massacre was a result of a society that tolerates violence against women.  “Look at the outrage in our society,” Frum said. “Where is the permission to do this to women? “If it was 14 men would we be having vigils? Isn’t violence the monstrosity here?” Last year, when I was rewriting my blog, I watched the video. Frum refused to even utter the word feminist.

Then, her neutralizing of feminist anger must have resonated, and perhaps was reflexive.  Filmmaker Maureen Bradley later asserted in her 1995 film, Reframing the Montreal Massacre: A media interrogation journalists were “social gatekeeping.” Male and female producers, news directors, reporters, anchor subtly changed the meaning of the tragedy to one that the public would get behind, silencing so-called ‘angry feminists.’  Bradley, in her documentary, wondered about Frum’s stance: “Was it necessary to deny any shred of feminism in herself in order to get where she was in this bureaucratic, media institution, boys’ club? “

Forget the angry women

She also pointed out that the national media did not cover that emotional vigil the day after the massacre, (the one I also skipped) where there was an angry confrontation between Montreal feminists and male students from the Université de Montréal. It would have made great TV content. Intelligent women voicing their outrage. But the story didn’t make it out of campus newspapers and local TV coverage onto a national stage. This story was not allowed to resonate with angry women.

Years later, when I reviewed the stories I wrote for the Star, I almost never used the word feminist; I never profiled the achievements of one of the slain engineering students or the obstacles she’d toppled. I never interviewed a single woman who was angry, only those who were merely sad. Why? No one told me what not to write, but I just knew, in the way I knew not to seem strident in a workplace where I’d already learned how to laugh at sexist joke and to wait until a certain boss had gone for the day before ripping down Penthouse centerfolds taped on the wall near his desk.

I’m not sure we reframed the murders intentionally, as Bradley suggested.

I chose whom I interviewed and how I wrote the stories based largely on my own experience covering attacks on women (my stories about the Scarborough rapist, later identified as Paul Bernardo, got about the same attention as stories on an arsonist who torched garages). My reporting was, no doubt, coloured by the response I got from male editors —and I had only male editors—when I pitched stories on women’s issues (not exactly front-page news in the 1980s) and by the way I’d had to negotiate minefields of gender politics just to get hired.

I felt lucky to have been sent to cover the tragedy at all.

After just three days, my editor said one of us would stay to cover the visitation and funeral for the women while the other would be sent home.

I took more prednisone. Eventually, the artificial energy would find me.

The following morning, I headed to a private viewing of the caskets laid out in the large entranceway of the University of Montreal’s administration building, temporarily renamed the Chapel of Rest.

Beside Nathalie Croteau’s graduation picture was a hardhat embossed with the school of engineer logo. At least twice during the afternoon, Croteau’s father Fernand appeared and draped himself over her coffin crying. The night she was shot, he pounded the university walls until his hands bled.

That day, 8,000 people stopped before each woman’s coffin. I stood in line and went through the building twice, each time staring numbly at the pictures of the dead women.

It’s impossible to know how to cover a story like this adequately.

I put a line in my story: “One woman had brought a homemade card offering her sympathy, but shoved it self-consciously into her purse once she realized the people she wanted to console most were dead.”

That woman was me. The homemade card was a message of sadness scrawled on hotel stationery. I wrote myself into my story, perhaps a nod to my editors’ initial concerns that I might be biased or at least a junior reporter who would dare to write herself into the story. But I wasn’t biased, I was just shocked to numbness, in pain and hobbling through my tasks.

If I shared anything in common with the young women who had been murdered, it was determination.

For years, I remembered one of my sentences in that story with particular pride. Reading it now, it shows everything that was wrong with how I covered the event:

They stood crying before the coffins of strangers, offering roses and tiger lilies to young women they never knew.

I wrote in my remembrance that year, that I’d turned the dead engineering students into sleeping beauties who received flowers from potential suitors. I should have referred to the buildings they wouldn’t design, the machines they wouldn’t create and the products never imagined. They weren’t killed for being daughters or girlfriends, but because they were capable women in a male-dominated field.

Reflections

By the time of the mass funeral at Notre Dame Cathedral in Old Montreal, the prednisone boost had made me manic and buoyant. I bounded up the huge stone steps, so giddy I almost forgot that young women had died.

The Toronto Star entered my coverage in the spot news category of the National Newspaper Awards that year. I did not win. But 25 years later, I won a National Newspaper Award in the short feature category for my remembrance of my coverage in the Ottawa Citizen. By that time, I was no longer a journalist and I’d written the piece as a one-off. I’d finally stopped working because my health challenges had become too challenging and incompatible with a newsroom.

 

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9 thoughts on “Remembering a massacre: a tough pill to swallow (Part 18)

  1. Pingback: Just because – redosue

  2. Carrie Buchanan

    Thanks for sharing this Shelley. Here in the U.S., I might not have remembered the anniversary of this event, which we both covered as new reporters who felt lucky to be sent to Montreal for this. I had no idea, at the time, of the challenges you faced.

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  3. Raymond Robertson

    Shelley, thank you for this refection. I remember reading your reports of the massacre.
    I can’t begin to imagine the pain, the numbness you experienced. I suspect that the physical pain helped you not to be overcome by the emotional, the psychological pain of this tragedy, at least until later.
    The date, December 6, 1989, will be forever graven on my heart. I can never forget the horror and the profound sense of loss, that this evil had been visited on our country, and had taken these bright and promising women from us. I remember searching the house frantically the next day for a white ribbon to pin on my shirt, and my then 3 1/2 year old daughter racing to her toybox, and running back, holding a little white lace bow she’d pulled off of her doll. “Here daddy,” she said, “you can have this one.”
    She’s 30 now, a mother herself, and works for DFO. I thank these young women, pioneers in a time when women were still struggling to break into the professions, for their sacrifice. Though they did not live to see their dreams realized, their examples paved the way for women like my daughter, and her generation.
    Thank you, for helping us remember.

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    1. Shelley Page Post author

      Thanks so much for writing…and I think you’re correct that some of my own physical issues distracted me from the weight of the murders and what it meant, as I ran around doing my job. My 16 year old daughter — at least for now — wants to become an engineer!

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  4. Kate

    I was a newly minted Professional Engineer and a new mother in December of 1989. I cried when I heard the reports. I could not understand and still do not understand what happened. I have dealt with sexism in the work place, and been told I was being “too sensitive”. Thankfully, I did not have to deal with more then words.
    I pray for a work world, where women can have any career they want, in an environment where they don’t have to pretend to be someone different from who they are.

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    1. Shelley Page Post author

      Hi Kate, thanks for your comments. Beyond the column I wrote about Dec 6th, I’ve documented what it’s been like to be a young woman working in a mostly male world, which journalism was for a very long time. I hope future generations get past this.

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