Toronto attack déjà-vu: lessons from the misogynist Montreal massacre

Anne Kingston: Mass murder motivated by ideological hatred of women meets the legal definition of terrorism. Why won’t we call it that?
The aftermath, as a vehicle plows into pedestrians in Toronto
epaselect epa06689507 A woman writes a message at a makeshift memorial across the street from where a man in a rented van plowed into pedestrians on Yonge Street in northern Toronto, Canada, 24 April 2018. Ten people were killed and 15 injured on 23 April 2018, after a man driving a rented van mowed down pedestrians along a one-mile stretch of Yonge Street. EPA/WARREN TODA

Canada, mercifully, has been spared the number of hate-fuelled mass-murders now commonplace in other countries. Yet it can’t be ignored that the horrific vehicular attack that killed 10 people—eight women and two men—in Toronto last week triggered a sickening déjà-vu when news broke that it appeared to have been motivated by hatred of women. This country’s most notorious modern-day mass murder—Marc Lépine’s slaughter of 14 female engineering students at Université de Montréal’s École Polytechnique in 1989—was driven by a misogynistic rage: Lépine ordered men out of a classroom, shouted “You’re all a bunch of feminists, and I hate feminists!,” then opened fire with a semi-automatic rifle he later turned on himself.

The country bears deep scars from that attack, in good part because Lépine’s hatred of women, specifically “feminists,” as clearly spelled out in a suicide note that included the names of 19 high-profile feminists he intended to slay, was dismissed as mental instability, not terrorism as defined by the Criminal Code of Canada: an act committed “in whole or in part for a political, religious or ideological purpose, objective or cause” with “the intention of intimidating the public.” A blueprint for reducing violence against women proposed in its wake was ignored. 

Last week, almost three decades later, similar women-resenting intent emerged in a Facebook post attributed to 25-year-old Alek Minassian, now facing 10 charges of first-degree murder and 13 of attempted murder. Minassian paid homage to a more recent misogynist terrorist: Elliot Rodger, the 22-year-old University of California, Santa Barbara student who killed six, including himself, and injured 14 in 2014 fuelled by anger he was an “unkissed virgin.” Rodger became a cult figure among “incels” (short, as most Canadians now know, for “involuntary celibates”), a fringe group of men who congregate online to vent frustration that women (or “Staceys”) deny them sex; they also revile sexually active men (“Chads”). Incel communities exist as a particularly virulent strain in the “manosphere,” the informal network of  “masculinist” communities populated by marginalized, angry young men: Reddit banned them for endorsing rape and torture of women. Minassian identified himself as an incel insurgent in his post: “The Incel Rebellion has already begun! We will overthrow all the Chads and Stacys!”

READ MORE: The people who rushed to help — ‘I hope the families know their loved ones weren’t alone’

Lépine’s attack focused solely on women—specifically those who defied gender roles by entering the male-dominated field of engineering. He identified his actions as “political”: “Would you take note that if I commit suicide today, it’s not for economic reasons (but) for political reasons,” he wrote. “I have decided to send the feminists who have always ruined my life to their Maker.” His attack occurred just as the Canadian women’s movement was at it apex: gender roles were being recast, women had access to legal abortion, the courts made it illegal for a husband to rape his wife and there was movement toward pay equity, employment equity and constitutional equality. Anti-feminist backlash was also on the rise, with the arrival of  “REAL women,” the Reform Party, the “family caucus” in the Progressive Conservative Party, and an emerging “men’s rights” movement.

Calls to view Lépine’s actions as ideological were ignored. “He was our first terrorist and nobody was treating it that way,” journalist Francine Pelletier, one of Lépine’s named targets, told the Toronto Star in 2014: “Those (engineering) students dared to take the place of men. They represented our future and he was targeting our future—how we imagined ourselves to be.”

Anyone who dared identify the massacre as a crime against women in the wake of the shootings was vilified, Dawn Black, then an NDP MP, tells Maclean’s: “The mainstream media with a few exceptions saw him as a mentally ill person and refused to see him as a perhaps a mentally ill person who deliberately targeted women.”

Black introduced the Private Members’ Bill that saw Dec. 6 recognized as a National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. She was also an author of an 1991 report, “The War on Women”,  written by an all-women, all-party parliamentary subcommittee, which is as relevant today as it was 27 years ago. Violence against women is identified as a systemic problem rooted in entrenched traditional gender roles (men as “the bosses and women subservient”). Indigineous women were far more vulnerable, it noted: “80 per cent of aboriginal women in Ontario said they’d been assaulted or abused.” Its 25 recommendations included a national campaign to counter violence against women, resources to remove barriers to equality faced by girls and women, particularly in Indigenous communities, and mandatory sensitivity training for police, judges and MPs.

RELATED: Dash cam video and witness provide new details about the route of Toronto van attack

Backlash was virulent, Black, now a director of the Broadbent Institute, recalls: “It was the same criticism you hear today—that we were condemning all men, that not all men beat women, that we were ‘feminazis’.”  A few recommendations, including education of police and judges, were enacted, as were gun control measures, some later reversed by the Harper Conservatives. Black was instrumental in introducing Canada’s first anti-stalking legislation in 1993. Social media has made the climate far more vicious today  than it was 30 years ago, Black says: “Young women tell me horror stories.”

Lépine’s prediction that “the Mad Killer epithet will be attributed to me by the media” came to pass. Willful blindness to Lépine’s stated agenda was institutionalized: “We may never understand why women were singled out by Marc Lépine,” then Justice Minister Peter MacKay unfathomably told the House of Commons in 2014.  No similar confusion was expressed when “lone wolf” Michael Zehaf-Bibeau, whose 2014 attack on Parliament Hill killed Cpl. Nathan Cirillo, was immediately identified  as a “terrorist” by the RCMP due to his conversion to Islam and videos in which he supported jihadists.

The rise of terrorism, both international and domestic, since the Montreal massacre has seen “terrorist” conflated with “jihadist.” Citizens have been conditioned to fear threat from without more than threat from within. “Domestic” as an adjective—whether before “violence” or “terrorism”—has a moderating effect, connoting a tamer version when it fact it’s more pernicious.

Within hours of the Toronto attack, Prime Minister Justin Trudeau reassured the country that there’s “no reason to suspect there is any national security element to this attack” (read: “not terrorism”). The call for calm is understandable. Yet gender-based violence underlines the very right-wing ideologies that embrace authoritarianism, militarism and racism that do pose a direct national security threat. There’s little surprise that Rodger’s search history also showed interest in Nazis and torture. In 2014, the UN began to speak about violence against women as a “global pandemic” and called on governments to have national action plans in place by 2015.

People gather around the commemorative plaque during a ceremony marking the 28th anniversary of the Montreal Massacre when a gunman shot 14 women to death and injured 14 other people THE CANADIAN PRESS/Paul Chiasson

Intimate partner violence is also known training ground for mass violence. As Paul Gill, a University College London lecturer who studies “lone wolf terrorists,” told the New York Times: “Having a history of violence might help neutralise the natural barriers to committing violence.” A study by Everytown for Gun Safety, a gun-control advocacy group, that analyzed FBI data on U.S. mass shooting (defined as four or more people) from 2009 and 2016 found the perpetrator shot a current or former intimate partner or family member in 54 per cent of cases.

James Alan Fox, a criminology professor at Northeastern University who studies mass killings, doesn’t see domestic violence as “a major predictor”; even so, his research shows one in six mass killers have a known history of domestic violence. He identifies another subset of men at risk: “They may have a history of failure, of frustration, of anger, but not to the point they’ve been [violent],” Fox told the Washington Post.  That dovetails with what we know of Lépine and Minassian, both 25 when the attacks occurred. Neither had police records. Both have been described as socially maladroit loners. Lépine’s sister taunted him for being “gay” because he didn’t have a girlfriend. Both applied to the military. Lépine referred to being rejected in his suicide note: “They refused me because antisocial [sic].” Minassian enlisted in the Canadian Armed Forces but dropped out after 16 days; he identified as a solider in his Facebook post.

Yet the list of  mass murderers who also have a history of domestic violence is staggering. Just a few names: jihadist Khalid Massood, who killed four in London when his car ploughed into a group of people outside Parliament; Evangelical Christian Robert Lewis Dear, who killed three at a Planned Parenthood clinic in 2015; Tamerlan Tsarnaev, the elder brother implicated in the 2013 Boston Marathon bombing; Mohamed Lahouaiej-Bouhlel, who killed more than 80 when he drove a truck into a crowd on Bastille Day in Nice; and Omar Mateen, who killed 49 people at Orlando’s Pulse nightclub. Stalking can be a red flag: Seung Hui Cho, who killed 32 students and teachers at Virginia Tech in 2007, was reported to university police for harassing and stalking two female students. Ninety minutes before Cedric Ford opened fire in Kansas in 2016, killing three, he was served with a restraining order to prevent him from contacting a woman he’d abused.

Exposure to violence in the home has also been linked to later mass carnage. Dylann Roof, the 24-year-old white supremacist who killed nine in a Charleston church in 2014, grew up in a home with domestic violence. So did Lépine who was seven when his father left the family. His mother, Monique Lépine, testified at her 1976 divorce hearing that her husband beat both her and Marc: “Out of nowhere I’d get blows to my face,” she said. “I didn’t know if I was supposed to be his wife or his servant.”

While men are far more likely to be killed by violence, that violence is not as commonly committed by an intimate partner, though men do count themselves victims of domestic abuse. A Canadian woman, on the other hand, is killed every six days by an intimate partner; this year, Ontario was declared “a killing field” after 15 women were killed by people they knew. Where incidence of every other type of violent crime decreased over two decades, rates of sexual assault against women remain unchanged.  In 2017, the Trudeau government promised a “federal strategy on gender-based violence” but details remain scant: its one-page website hasn’t been updated since June 2017. The 2018 budget saw $86 million allocated over five years to the strategy. Lise Martin, executive director of Women’s Shelters Canada, did the math on total expenditures: it works out to a paltry $2.20 per year for every woman and girl, she tells Maclean’s. “That does not begin to reflect the magnitude of the problem,” she sayscalling for the federal government to take leadership. Martin, like many who work with victims of violence, wants to see a national action plan involving provinces and territories that ensures equal access to services and protections. Lengths of shelter stays vary by province, says Martin, who also points out there’s no domestic homicide review committees in the Atlantic provinces and that a huge gulf exists between in services in urban centres and rural and isolated northern communities.

Lépine’s assassination of young women took place 15 years before Facebook and social media provided a new venue for radicalization—and veneration. Rodger became a hero to Nicholas Cruz, the 17-year-old who killed 17 at a Parkland, Fla. high school this year. Lépine would be a model for Université Laval student Alexandre Bissonnette, convicted of killing six men and wounding five in 2017 at a Quebec City mosque. Bissonnette, born the year of the Montreal attack, searched YouTube for “Polytechnique all shooting scenes.” He sought information about Muslim groups at Laval, but also wanted details about feminist groups, including the Facebook “events” page for one. He also searched one right-wing site for “feminism hurts men and women,” an endeavour that takes on grim irony in light of the indiscriminate carnage caused by misogyny-fuelled attacks. Lépine inadvertently wounded four men before killing himself. Rodger killed four men then himself; Minassian is accused of killing two.

One week after the Toronto attack, much remains unknown. Even so, there’s resistance to frame the intentional mass murder as ideologically driven terrorism. Minassian, the accused man, has been categorized as “mentally ill” and a “loser,” as was Rodger.  Police have cautioned that it’s not clear that women were even targeted; Minassian’s Facebook post was described as a “cryptic” message. An attack like this is not something people would readily identify as a manifestation of violence against women, says Martin: “But  every time you turn around there’s a different manifestation. It’s a deep rooted societal issue; it needs attention and resources put to it.”  Yet discussion of prevention has already moved on to new automotive technologies and urban planning strategies. Toronto city crews are erecting concrete security barriers at heavily-traveled sites such as Union Station. The reflex is understandable. But if the aftermath of Marc Lépine’s hateful attack  taught us anything, it’s that the structural changes urgently required to prevent further carnage are to society itself.