MONTREAL — Thirty-four years after a gunman massacred 14 women at Montreal’s École Polytechnique, the father of a woman who was fatally shot by her former partner called on senators to pass new gun control legislation as quickly as possible.
Brian Sweeney travelled to Montreal from Sault Ste. Marie, Ont., for a ceremony on Mount Royal marking the grim day in 1989 when a man with a Ruger Mini-14 killed 14 women at the school, which is now known as Polytechnique Montréal.
Sweeney joined gun-control advocates, victims' families and dignitaries as 14 beams of light pierced the frigid sky one by one, as the names of the victims of the 1989 tragedy were read aloud.
"I came here for this because of the recent incident with my family, and to support the other victims here that have been suffering for a lot longer than myself," he told The Canadian Press prior to the ceremony.
Sweeney, whose daughter Angie was shot and killed in October, said the anniversary is also a reminder of the need to combat domestic violence and to ensure federal firearms legislation is passed.
"I just believe that it's time the government stepped up and started doing more control over the gun issues," he said. "When people don't qualify for a gun, they should never be able to get one."
Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, who attended Wednesday's event alongside Quebec Premier François Legault and other dignitaries, said there is a duty to remember the women who were killed "just because they were women."
"We have a responsibility to reflect that there has been some progress over the past 34 years, but not enough," Trudeau told reporters. "There's still so much more work to do to make sure that everyone is safe in their home, (that) women are safe from gender-based violence."
In a letter sent this week to members of the upper chamber, Sweeney urged senators to adopt the legislation known as Bill C-21, arguing it contains crucial measures that would improve the way police deal with domestic violence cases involving firearms.
"Implementing these measures is urgent," Sweeney says in the letter, made available to The Canadian Press. "The bill is the result of years of advocacy from victims and women's groups, and women have died while the bill has been debated."
Sweeney's daughter Angie was shot by her former partner Bobbie Hallaert after he broke into her home in Sault Ste. Marie. Hallaert proceeded to a second home and killed three of his own children and injured another woman, who survived. The gunman then took his own life.
"Angie's death, like that of all victims, leaves behind a trail of broken hearts and broken lives," Sweeney says in the letter.
Police probing the Sault Ste. Marie shootings said late last month they were trying to determine how Hallaert obtained the SKS rifle and .38-calibre revolver seized during their investigation. He did not have a current firearms licence at the time of the shootings.
Sault police have confirmed the offender was involved in intimate partner investigations in the past.
The federal bill would usher in new measures to keep firearms out of the hands of domestic abusers, reinforce a freeze on handguns, increase penalties for firearm trafficking and move to curb homemade ghost guns. The bill also includes a ban on assault-style firearms that fall under a new technical definition. It would apply to such guns designed and manufactured after the bill comes into force.
Gun-control groups such as PolySeSouvient, which includes students and graduates of the Montreal engineering school, want to see the bill become law. Conservative MPs and some gun owners have said the legislation is misguided and penalizes law-abiding Canadians.
Members of a Senate committee have been reviewing the bill clause by clause, but it is expected to return to the full upper chamber soon.
"I just hope the government, the Senate and everyone else realizes that it's very important that they put this bill through right now, because any more delay is just a waste of time, it's a waste of lives and it's destroying our future," Sweeney said Wednesday.
Earlier in the day, a small group of Polytechnique Montréal students and administrators gathered on the school’s campus to commemorate the women whose lives were cut short in the anti-feminist attack exactly 34 years prior.
Ceremony participants laid flowers at a granite memorial plaque bearing the names of the 14 massacre victims: 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.
A minute of silence followed.
"This day over the years has become really a symbol for the memories of these young ladies who lost their lives," Polytechnique Montréal president Maud Cohen said in an interview after the ceremony. The anniversary also serves as a reminder of the importance of making the school welcoming to future engineers, she said.
For Polytechnique Montréal energy engineering student Béatrice Cyr, the anniversary is an occasion to reflect on social progress and the women before her who were denied the opportunities and sense of security she has enjoyed in her field.
Cyr said that because the massacre occurred before she was born, she doesn't think about it every day. "But I think that's a good thing because I study here and I'm just passionate about what I do and I feel good here," she said. "I feel welcome. I feel like I have my place."
"But when it comes to this week, to this day, it's very heavy to think about" how the 14 massacre victims "could not have my chance to pursue my passion and to pursue engineering."
This report by The Canadian Press was first published Dec. 6, 2023.
— By Jim Bronskill in Ottawa and Morgan Lowrie in Montreal, with files from Thomas MacDonald.
The Canadian Press