Remembering the women killed in the École Polytechnique massacre

Dec. 6, 2019 marks 30 years since the attack at École Polytechnique. On that day, in 1989, a man determined to kill feminists took the lives of 14 women.

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

“We cannot forget,” said Bergeron’s sister, Catherine.

“Remembering what happened makes us more vigilant.”

READ MORE: Broken — A Global News series on Canada’s failure to end violence against women

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Annie St-Arneault was curious, meticulous, intensely caring and always searching for adventures of her own making.

St-Arneault, the only daughter and youngest of three children, was 23 when she was killed while attending what was to be her final class before graduating from mechanical engineering studies.

She was trying to figure out whether she wanted to take a job at an aluminium smelter or travel to Africa to join her brother, who worked there as a missionary.

St-Arneault wanted to make the world a better place. She wrote poetry and liked to build things by hand. Her childhood best friend remembers one particular Grade 4 project, painstakingly crafted through many recesses.

“She glued grains of rice one by one to make a clown figure,” says Sonia Beauregard, her friend. “When her clown was finished, it was fabulous.”

Like Annie Turcotte, who was also killed in the massacre, St-Arneault had a passion for the environment. Once, she came up with the idea of a play with the theme “What can we do to stop pollution?”

For the first four years after she died, people would gather in La Tuque, Que., to read St-Arneault’s poetry.

Jane Gerster

Hélène Colgan was 23 years old in early December 1989, just weeks shy of a planned trip somewhere warm with her friends to ring in the new year. It would have been a well-deserved rest, according to her father.

Colgan was a strong student at the tail end of a degree in mechanical engineering, Clarence Colgan told the Montreal Gazette shortly after the massacre. “She was a conscientious and patient girl and always pushed things through to the end,” said Clarence.

She was always juggling “so many projects,” but her hard work bore fruit: Colgan was weighing three job offers at the time she was killed, although she was leaning towards one in Toronto.

“She wanted to go to the farthest limits of life. She had so much ambition and hope,” Clarence said. “I don’t even want to think what she could have done.”

Colgan’s best friend, Nathalie Croteau, was also among the 14 women killed.

Jane Gerster

Nathalie Croteau was outgoing and enterprising with a passion for learning, particularly when it came to science.

Croteau was 23 when she was killed, just a couple of weeks shy of celebrating New Year’s Eve in the hot sun in Cancun, Mexico with her close friends, Hélène Colgan included.

“Twenty-three years aimed at graduating with a degree. She’s only three months away from getting it and she’s killed — all because she was sitting in a chair in a classroom,” her father Fernand Croteau told the Montreal Gazette shortly after the massacre.

He was so filled with rage at the loss of his daughter, he told the newspaper, he took it out on the walls of his home in Brossard.

Jigar Patel

Barbara Daigneault was not someone bound by conventional limits.

When she was just seven years old, she asked why she could never become pope. She would ultimately follow in her father’s footsteps and study engineering.

While she was at École Polytechnique, Daigneault worked as a teaching assistant for her father, Pierre-Alain Daigneault, a mechanical engineering professor at the Université du Québec à Montréal. At 22, with just one term to go before graduating as an engineer, she was already thinking about her career prospects.

Daigneault had visited professor Adrian Cernea a few times to seek his advice. He was one of the teachers in the classroom at the time of the attack.

“She was a marvelous girl, very nice, very smart,” Cernea told the Montreal Gazette shortly after the attack.

Her life as a student was what you might expect: sharing photocopies of class notes, chatting over cups of coffee, and meeting for lunch with friends. She loved shrimp omelettes and chocolate cake with whipped cream.

Her mother named her after a poem by Jacques Prévert, which Lawrence Ferlinghetti translated into English:

Remember Barbara /

It rained all day on Brest that day /

And you walked smiling /

Flushed enraptured streaming-wet /

In the rain

Drew Hasselback

Anne-Marie Edward loved skiing a sport she did at school and with her family.

A neighbour told the Montreal Gazette they often saw her and her family bundle into the car to hit the slopes.

It was so near to Edward’s heart that she was buried in her school team ski jacket, and her teammates from the Université de Montréal downhill ski team wore patches with her initials on their uniforms after her death.

But the 21-year-old from Pierrefonds was known to love all sports, including the more extreme ones, like white water rafting and rock climbing. She loved to take on any challenge she could, even if she wasn’t the most successful like the time she tried sailing and capsized the family boat 56 times in a row.

Edward was studying chemical engineering at the school and was known for being clever and stubborn.

In 2014, her mother told La Presse that Edward would be proud to see her memory being used to end misogyny.

Rebecca Joseph

Geneviève Bergeron was a second-year civil engineering student who celebrated her 21st birthday two weeks before she was killed.

She was smart enough to earn a scholarship but also talented enough that she was still vacillating between a career in engineering and one in music. Bergeron played clarinet and sang in the choir at the Montreal Symphony Orchestra.

“She loved to sing,” her mother, Thérèse Daviau, told the Montreal Gazette shortly after the massacre. “It’s a rare combination of interests.”

When Bergeron wasn’t studying or singing, she was swimming, playing basketball or babysitting Montreal Mayor Jean Doré’s youngest child (as a teenager, Bergeron had helped Doré campaign to win his first council seat).

“Geneviève was sweet, generous and bubbling with life,” Daviau said shortly after Bergeron’s death. “She was a real ball of fire and a total woman.”

Jane Gerster

Maud Haviernick was, first and foremost, an artist.

The 29-year-old had a bachelor’s degree in environmental design and started out her working life as an interior designer, creating habitats for community living.

She chose to go back to school at École Polytechnique to fulfil her dream of being an engineer and studying materials engineering.

She’s described as a go-getter who gave any pursuit she took on her all — her mantra was, “If you feel like going all the way, well, just do it.”

Haviernick lived with her partner, Serges Gagnon. Their home in Sainte-Rose had a room dedicated to her creative hobbies, which included sculpture. She was killed giving her final presentation for her metals class, along with her classmate, Michèle Richard.

Her sister Sylvie co-founded the December 6th Victims Foundation Against Violence in her memory, along with other people who lost loved ones in the attack.

Rebecca Joseph

Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz was outgoing, friendly and had what her husband described as a “great deadpan sarcasm.”

Klucznik-Widajewicz was born in Poland. When she was 16, she started dating Witold Widajewicz, her high school sweetheart who became her husband.

Klucznik-Widajewicz was a whiz, studying engineering, economics and food logistics. She was a woman who looked outward, her husband says. She spoke five languages, read a lot — and wasn’t shy about sharing what she’d read — and loved to help people.

The couple fled Poland for Germany in 1986 after the country was put under martial law. There, they managed to get an aunt in Quebec to sponsor them. Canada seemed safe, they thought, plus Klucznik-Widajewicz was interested in Québécoise culture. They landed in the spring of 1987.

Klucznik-Widajewicz was 31 years old and in her first year of nursing science at the school when she was killed. The couple was having a cheap meal in the cafeteria when the killer came. Widajewicz survived. He has a daughter now, which makes him anxious.

“Sometimes, I fear she might die if some maniac were to go after her for being too smart or too beautiful,” he says.

Jane Gerster

Anne-Marie Lemay wanted, at least for a little while, to study medicine.

The 22-year-old from Boucherville had wanted to go into health care but ultimately chose to study mechanical engineering, in large part because of a close friend. When she was a teenager, one of Lemay’s friends lost the use of his legs.

It was Lemay, known for her ability to connect with people, who visited him weekly to help with his rehabilitation. And it was there that she realized the importance of mechanical devices.

She never dwelled on problems. Lemay was social and played in a band. She was organized and studious. The night before she was killed, she studied all day and then wrote herself an unfortunately prescient note: “Tomorrow is the last day of classes… and of my life, too. Whoa! Now that sounds depressed, at 3 a.m.”

Lemay was close friends with Heidi Rathjen, one of the survivors of the massacre, who went on to become an outspoken advocate for gun control.

Jane Gerster

Maryse Laganière was a shy newlywed with a beautiful smile.

She was the youngest of 14 children raised in Montreal. Laganière, who was 25 when she was killed, was a budget clerk for the school’s finance department. That’s where she met the “love of her life,” Jean-François Larivée, in 1986.

“She was the most beautiful girl I’d ever seen in my life,” Larivée told La Presse in 2014.

The couple married in August 1989, and they were working on starting a family. Larivée still believes Laganière was very newly pregnant when she died.

The killer accosted her at the end of her workday, when she had already put on her boots and coat to leave. She tried to fight him and shut the door.

While Larivée has built a life since Laganière’s death, he has remained a staunch advocate for gun control. Still, he told La Presse he never got to “where I trusted in life enough to want to bring a child into the world.”

Jane Gerster

Maryse Leclair was a rebel and a go-getter who did not care what people thought of her.

Leclair, a 23-year-old in her fourth year of engineering, had three younger sisters and unabashedly lived life on her own terms.

She liked to listen to British punk and new wave music. For months before she died, she’d been in love with a classmate named Benoit. Together, the couple wanted to study and travel.

The Sunday before the attack, her father, Lt. Pierre Leclair with the Montreal police, had dinner with Benoit. She was wearing a brand-new red sweater purchased specifically for the holidays.

On the night of the attack, the lieutenant spoke to the media outside the school and then went inside and saw the red sweater. Leclair was found dead near the man who killed her.

“We think of our daughter every day,” he told La Presse on the 25th anniversary of the attack. “We talk about it often with our other three daughters. It caused us unbearable pain.”

Jigar Patel

Sonia Pelletier was the person who won every competition, secured every scholarship and always beat out others for top of the class.

She was a quiet, undemanding person who grew up with five sisters and two brothers. And yet, her intelligence and liveliness stood out to many. That she was so smart and driven was a source of joy and pride for the Pelletier family and their neighbours in the small, close-knit town of Saint-Ulric.

Pelletier loved rock music, and her favourite song was Gerry Boulet’s Toujours vivant (Still Alive). She liked to cook and teach others to cook. One of Pelletier’s favourite meals to make was pasta from scratch.

Pelletier was 28 years old and just days from graduating with a degree in mechanical engineering and a transcript of straight As when she was killed.

Despite their loss, her sister Micheline told La Presse the Pelletier family has always thought of the killer’s mother.

“We, the families of the victims, had pride in our sisters and daughters. But she had nothing at all.”

Jigar Patel

Michèle Richard, or Mimi, as she was nicknamed, had a brilliant smile and a calming presence.

There was something her friends couldn’t quite put their finger on that drew people to her. She was 21 when she was killed, a strong student in her second year of materials engineering.

Richard hailed from Lac-Mégantic, a region she was particularly proud of and returned to once or twice a year to visit her younger sibling, mother and friends. She thought, maybe, she might buy land there one day.

Richard planned to get engaged to her boyfriend, Stéphane, in the spring of 1990. They’d known each other for nearly four years, and he was with her in class when she was shot and killed.

A few days later, Stéphane told a reporter that Richard was “a gentle girl, happy, brilliant, beautiful. She lived every moment intensely. She abhorred violence.”

Richard’s mother joined other parents following the Montreal Massacre in advocating for stricter gun control.

Jane Gerster

Annie Turcotte was the youngest of three children, drawn to École Polytechnique because of her older brother Donald. She was gifted, and her intelligence won her a women in science bursary. Turcotte was most interested in metallurgical engineering. In many respects, she was a woman ahead of her time: committed to nature and finding ways to protect the environment.

Despite the seriousness with which she approached her work, Turcotte was lighthearted and a big hit with children. At a summer camp for children with disabilities, Turcotte taught swimming lessons for free. The rest of the year, she gave free lessons to any children staying with their families at the Turcotte family’s motel.

“She was amazing with kids,” her brother remembers. “We’d go somewhere, and they’d be all over her.”

Turcotte was 21 years old when she was killed. On the 25th anniversary of the massacre, her mother told La Presse that despite the years, Turcotte is “forever our darling daughter… We’ve always kept her very much alive in our house.”

Jane Gerster

WATCH: Why amplifying women’s voices in the wake of gender-based violence matters

Approaching the anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre, a group of reporters at Global News reflected on how we must provide better, more consistent and nuanced coverage of any woman, trans or non-binary person who has experienced violence, abuse or harassment if we are to play a role in eradicating it.

We set out to create Broken, a news project we believe Canada needs. This series will address issues that continue to contribute to and exacerbate gender-based violence. Follow it here.

Several women attend a demonstration in Montreal on Friday, Dec. 6, 2013, to highlight violence against women. Fourteen women lost their lives at the hands of a gunman at the École Polytechnique on this day in 1989.

THE CANADIAN PRESS IMAGES /Graham Hughes

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