December 6 has come around again. Shouldn’t be surprised. It does so every year. Like clockwork, almost.
In 1989, I was living in Lethbridge, Alberta. That’s the small city I grew up in. I had returned to Lethbridge after doing my Master’s in Ontario. I was back in town, and back living with my folks, and teaching some English Literature classes at the University, and feeling slightly sophisticated in my je ne sais quoi woman of the world way. I wince to think of it now.
Around supper time in Alberta, the phone rang. It was my sister. In December 1989, she was a student at Université du Québec à Montréal. My only sister. We argued and disputed the silliest things as kids, from who first could be unseatbelted in the back of the station wagon on long trips, to whose Barbie got to marry Ken. Her message to us: “I don’t know what’s happened, but there are a lot of police and ambulances around. I’m ok.”
Nor did we know what happened yet. It was pre-email days, pre-Google, pre-much-internet. Only later that night did we see the images of the blood and the grief. It was astonishing. I recall nothing else like it, either making an impact on me personally, or making an impact on the country more broadly.
It is a bit cliche: “it could have been my sister….my girlfriend…my daughter.” I’ve thought those ideas myself, in other contexts. But it actually could have been my sister. She ate in the cafeteria where women were killed. She walked those halls.
I think I became a feminist that night. Before I left home, I would, in a rather blasé manner, tell anyone who would listen to me that it was merit that mattered, not sex (I didn’t have any concept of gender, at the time). That we didn’t need affirmative action or burnt bras because all that mattered is that we were just as smart or ambitious or whatever, and if we didn’t succeed, it wasn’t systemic, just a lack of conviction. Heck, I didn’t even know what systemic meant.
So yes, that first year away from home, I read some feminist theory, had some new yet vague inkling that maybe I had a chance at success not because — simply put, I could be thought of as pretty terrific— but because I was (well, still am) white, and middle-class, and straight and given access to lots of supports and good luck.
But reading feminist theory, while eye-opening, didn’t really “hit home.” It was those images of blood and sirens and grief that made me think more than twice. It is a mark of my real privilege that December 6, 1989 was the first night that I even had to think about the actual imprint of misogyny on female bodies, in more than a theoretical way. I shed tears even to write this, and I wish I weren’t so astonished by that realization, about how insulated I was. This impact on me was still so remote, a connection with my sister, and her body that walked the halls and ate the food and studied the books and dreamt about her future. It wasn’t even me.
Since that night, in trying to be a feminist, I’ve come to realize about all the ways that my feminism doesn’t ask that much of me. Women I love have never, to my knowledge, had to be afraid about walking a highway and no highway they walk is named a highway of tears. I restrict my movements at night, because of caution but not because of my own personal history. None of my sisters, friends, moms, aunts, cousins, daughters is the subject of an inquiry that is necessary because it is a national, racist disgrace of inaction and neglect.
I marched for abortion rights before December 6, 1989; marched to “take back the night” too, while trying not to walk home alone. But December 6 1989, my tears were different. The victims in Montreal were victims not because they were in the wrong place, and not just that the wrong place lined up that evening with the wrong time, but because they were women.
They were particularly women in the late 80s, in a place where they could get access to opportunity, had they lived in those towers (the ivory-ness is certainly acknowledged) that sanction and approve them and let them into spaces others had been kept out of. I was about to write “because they were women, no more, no less.” But apparently, “no more, no less” means that “you get exactly what you bargained for: no more, no less.” How wrong I was. They got so much less than they bargained for, an equal opportunity, to coin a phrase. They were murdered.
I’ve been to a memorial service each year since then. I’m now old enough to be the mother of the women who light the candles and select the roses out of the vase. I’m old enough now to be a grey-haired feminist in the back of the room, wiping away a tear or two. I’m old enough now to think, damn, I thought we were done with this. And I’m younger than the other feminists in the room who thought that for years before I did.
So now, December 6, 2017. I’ve been struggling a bit with this year. It coincides with the memorials of the Halifax Explosion, which in my part of the world has been highly visible in the news and in the infrastructure expenditures. I’m a lawyer and I spend time in the Court House on Devonshire Avenue, and have noted over the years the pictures in the hallways of the destruction and survival, while waiting for a matter to be called, and a Justice to rule about money or children or parenting time or adoptions.
The Explosion was a terrible, tragic, political event of war and conquest and accident. None of the folks who died that day were guilty of anything beside being in the wrong place, at the wrong time. None of them got what they were bargaining for. But somehow, December 6 is always going to be about Montreal for me, because no one in Halifax on December 6, 1917 was targetted for who she was and who she could have been.