For me, December 6th has been a pretty important day for most of my life. Two disasters shape today for me: the first happened long before I was born, but shaped the city I grew up in, and the second happened when I was just 13. It scared me a lot more than I realized at the time and helped to shape me into a feminist.
I grew up in Halifax (now part of HRM), a vibrant port city on the East coast of Canada. From the very beginning, we were taught about the Halifax Explosion because it was such a massive disaster and an event that shaped Halifax, in many ways. Today, in 1917, at 9:04 AM, a munitions ship exploded after a collision with another ship. It was the largest man-made explosion before the first testing of an atomic bomb, and is still considered to be one of the largest non-nuclear man-made explosions. It decimated Halifax’s north end, killed about 2,000 people, injured about 9,000, and left tens of thousands homeless and without shelter. This was exacerbated by the fact that it was winter, and there was a blizzard the next day.
This is a map of the area that was directly affected. It shows where the ship exploded, the area that was decimated (dashed red line) and the area that was damaged (blown out windows, etc.; solid red line). I don’t think the importance of the event and the extent of the tragedy really hit home for me until the year that I saw a lot of pictures, including a map like this one. I lived on the corner of Charles and Windsor, just 2 blocks away from the solid red line. To this day, I can’t watch the Halifax Explosion Heritage Moment video without tearing up a bit. The stories from the event are an emotional mix of tragedy and triumph (the amazing people and their determination to survive and help, the assistance from afar, etc.).
If you’re interested, you can find out more about the Halifax Explosion here and here. I’d also encourage you to visit the Nova Scotia Archives website to explore parts of their collection relating to the Halifax Explosion. They tweeted about it today, which was great for those of us who live far away.
In 1989, a day when we were all remembering the explosion, something happened in Montreal that would shape Canadian feminism and affect me deeply. Twenty-five-year-old Marc Lépine, armed with a legally obtained Mini-14 rifle and a hunting knife, went to École Polytechnique and shot twenty-eight people. Most of them were women, who he specifically targeted, and 14 of them died. As noted on Wikipedia:
“He began his attack by entering a classroom at the university, where he separated the male and female students. After claiming that he was “fighting feminism”, he shot all nine women in the room, killing six. He then moved through corridors, the cafeteria, and another classroom, specifically targeting women to shoot. Overall, he killed fourteen women and injured ten other women and four men in just under twenty minutes before turning the gun on himself.”
I was just 13 at the time. I don’t know if I truly grasped the importance and tragedy of the situation. I do remember being shocked. This doesn’t happen in Canada, or, at least I didn’t think it did. A few years later, I took part in my first Take Back and Night march. It ended in a gathering where we watched a documentary about the Montreal Massacre. I fought back tears, in my stubborn determination to never cry in front of other people, and was really shaken up by it. I knew what had happened, but that was the first time I was confronted with the whole story all at once and with such honesty. It wasn’t until several years later that I realized how much the event had scared me when it first happened and how much it affected me as a woman and a newly (and bravely) self-labeled feminist.
There is so much I could say about how it affected me and shaped my feminism, but, honestly, even after all these years, I’m still not sure how to put my feelings into words. Instead, I’d encourage you to learn more about it. There’s a good article here that talks about the effect on the feminist community (first hiding to avoid instigating more violence and then emerging out of the rubble). There’s information about the violence still inflicted on women (and children) and ideas for how to take action here.
Edit: After writing this, a friend re-tweeted something from Ellen Page. It included a link to a post by NDP MP Megan Leslie. It’s a wonderful and powerful post. The last few lines are particularly powerful:
On December 6th, 1989, fourteen women were shot because someone thought that they’d stepped out of line.
On that day, all of their power and potential was taken from them.
On this day, and on all days, we owe it to them to not waste ours.
So, there you have it. This is why December 6th is an important day for me and why my Twitter feed has been full of re-tweets about the Halifax Explosion and the Montreal Massacre.