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A few weeks ago, I was in Edmonton to speak about the rise of the far right on social media. My talk coincided with yet another weekend of online abuse. Every few minutes, when I checked my phone, there were two to five new messages insulting and harassing me. They were responding to a Twitter thread I wrote that listed some parallels between hockey culture and Canadian culture related to racism, misogyny and violence as a means of exercising power.
One of the messages made me pause. “[Y]our address has been posted on numerous pages now and people know you are arriving at your airport,” the stranger wrote. He wanted me to know that, even though he disagreed with me, he didn’t agree with the violence and threats he was seeing.
I didn’t convince him to tell me where he saw these comments. But I thanked him and went back to thinking about my speech.
Most of what has been written to commemorate the 30th anniversary of the massacre at École Polytechnique has focused on the obvious: gendered violence and femicide are still epidemic; incel violence has eerie echoes of what we know drove Marc Lepine; violence against women disproportionately impacts racialized, poor, marginalized, trans, disabled, queer and Indigenous women. These are important facts.
But violence against women is mundane in Canada. Indigenous women and girls experience horrible and consistent violence, and politicians shrug if they react at all. Every day, there is a reason to talk about violence against women. The École Polytechnique anniversary gives us a moment to confront an inconvenient truth: Politicians and corporate media are actively making things worse. They have failed to understand that men are radicalizing online; and, worse, many have found ways to exploit it, diminish it or simply ignore it.
It’s impossible to know what will spark someone to take a violent action. Alexandre Bissonnette delayed his shooting spree by two months because he was afraid someone had seen him loading his guns in the parking garage of the mall he had planned to attack. He eventually carried out his massacre at the Islamic Culture Centre in Ste-Foy. He sought to impose violence on people who he didn’t know and who had never harmed him, Bissonnette didn’t target Justin Trudeau, for example, whose tweet welcoming Syrian refugees had, Bissonnette said later, provoked him to carry out a murder spree.
Bissonnette, Lepine and Toronto van attacker Alec Minassian each engaged in violence that did not target those people who they claimed were causing the most harm. Despite having a list of high-profile feminists that Lepine wanted to attack, he murdered women simply because they studied engineering. Regardless of the threats that many of us who are high-profile receive, Canadian history tells us that their targets are rarely us. Their violence is terrorism: it’s seemingly random and poses a danger to all Canadians.
But modern radicalization requires a bogeyman to whip up anger. Key actors within the far-right are turning those of us who speak and write critically into demons in their own vision. They construct a fake reality where we want all men to die, or at least be deeply unhappy. They aggressively promote this fantasy on message boards and on far-right blogs. If this is believed and internalized by a man somewhere who has easier access to a gun than he does to social services, it becomes a violent problem that places everyone at risk.
Instead of debunking the far-right rumour mill, far too many politicians eagerly exploit it for political gain. Rather than explore and deconstruct the public flaying of left-wing intellectuals, Canada’s establishment media either ignore the phenomenon or, worse, they join in the pile-on. The Internet’s power to destroy social solidarity has been incredible and swift and, sadly, these protectors of the status quo seem happy to watch from the sidelines, sometimes cheering, sometimes sneering, but so far, never intervening to say, wait — if we don’t find a way to stop this, more people will be murdered.
Every 2.5 days, a woman or girl is murdered in Canada by someone she knows. In the first three months of 2018 in Ontario alone, at least 15 women and their family members had been murdered by men they knew. When, on April 6 of that year, 15 boys and men from the Humboldt Broncos hockey team were killed by a rookie hauler near Armley, Sask., I wrote on Twitter that it was depressing that these two tragedies, with the same number of victims (at the time, the 16th victim, Dayna Brons, was critically injured and would pass away a few days later), elicited such different reactions from Canadians. “I don’t want less for the families and survivors of this tragedy. I want justice and more for so many other grieving parents and communities,” I wrote.
For these words, I’ve been turned into one of these demons: a woman who hates white men and wants them to experience harm and misery. There’s no doubt that the image that the far-right has created of me has been used to radicalize certain men — I say no doubt based on the hundreds of horrifying messages from men I’ve received. These men, pathetic or not, struggling or not, lonely or not, are being radicalized, just like Lepine, Bissonnette and Minassian were, through a sophisticated network of lies that makes many of us impossibly evil to them.
Blaming his woes on feminists, Lepine took his revenge 30 years ago this year. And, with the help of journalists and politicians, we are creating the pressure cooker conditions for history to repeat itself again and again and again.
The names of the 14 women murdered at École Polytechnique on December 6, 1989:
- Geneviève Bergeron (1968–1989), civil engineering student
- Hélène Colgan (1966–1989), mechanical engineering student
- Nathalie Croteau (1966–1989), mechanical engineering student
- Barbara Daigneault (1967–1989), mechanical engineering student
- Anne-Marie Edward (1968–1989), chemical engineering student
- Maud Haviernick (1960–1989), materials engineering student
- Maryse Laganière (1964–1989), budget clerk in the École Polytechnique's finance department
- Maryse Leclair (1966–1989), materials engineering student
- Anne-Marie Lemay (1967–1989), mechanical engineering student
- Sonia Pelletier (1961–1989), mechanical engineering student
- Michèle Richard (1968–1989), materials engineering student
- Annie St-Arneault (1966–1989), mechanical engineering student
- Annie Turcotte (1969–1989), materials engineering student
- Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz (1958–1989), nursing student