Content warning: This article discusses violence and mentions death and transphobia.

“We mourn, and then we work for change,” said Olivia Chow, in a speech at Hart House on December 6. Members from the U of T faculty, staff, students and alumni had gathered in person and via an online live stream to acknowledge the 34th anniversary of the École Polytechnique massacre and reaffirm the need to end gender-based violence.

The event — led by the Faculty of Applied Science & Engineering (FASE) — included Toronto Mayor Olivia Chow and Kai Cheng Thom, an author and performer who discussed the need to promote compassion and empathy.

The École Polytechnique massacre 

On December 6, 1989, a man opened fire on women in an engineering class and a cafeteria at the École Polytechnique in Montréal. A suicide note by the shooter confirmed that he was motivated by misogyny.

In 1991, the Parliament of Canada officially recognized December 6 as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women, also known as White Ribbon Day. The occasion seeks to honour and mourn the 14 women killed and all others who experience gender-based violence, including women and 2SLGBTQI+ people. 

According to Statistics Canada, 90 people were killed through intimate partner violence in 2021, three-quarters of whom were women and girls.

Chow’s speech

During the event, Chow told attendees about the first time she remembered hearing about the massacre, 34 years ago. 

“All day, I was in shock. And then, in those evenings, some of us said we needed to do something,” said Chow. Following the massacre, Chow and her friends collected money to create a December 6 fund, which gave $750 interest-free loans to women leaving abusive relationships. 

Chow also shared her personal experience of seeing gender-based violence growing up. She remembers her father physically abusing her mother and described the shame her mother felt until, sometime after Chow’s university years, her mom decided to leave the relationship.

As mayor, Chow told the crowd that she plans to build shelters and housing for individuals experiencing domestic abuse. According to the Canadian Women’s Foundation, shelters can provide immediate refuge for women and children experiencing domestic violence, allowing them to figure out their next steps. Chow also pushed a motion, that passed in July 2023, for the Toronto City Council to designate intimate partner violence and gender-based violence as an epidemic in the city. 

Student research awards and ceremony

The Award for Scholarly Achievement in the area of Gender-Based Violence, first given by U of T in 2017, recognizes students from all disciplines who have made essential contributions to research on gender-based violence and engaged in community, co-circular, and academic commitment on the issues of violence against women, girls, and trans and non-binary people. 

This year, third-year undergraduate student Gabrielle Tavazzani, who studies bioethics, received the award for her research and work providing pro bono dental care for survivors of domestic violence. Faculty of Music PhD candidate Nil Basdurak also received the award for their work on violence against women in Turkey. 

After the awards, Marisa Sterling — assistant dean and director of diversity, inclusion and professionalism at the FASE — joined the stage to lead a moment of silence. Fourteen students from the engineering department with white ribbons on their shirts came up one by one, each reading the name of one woman killed in the massacre.

Sterling shared that she was a chemical engineering graduate student when the massacre occurred. Today, in her role, she said she seeks to make FASE’s culture more welcoming and safe for women through a mentorship program that connects first-year engineering students with upper-year mentors.

Engineers Canada — an organization that helps regulate engineering licenses and encourages the field’s growth — found that, in 2020, women only represented 14.2 per cent of engineer license holders, a small increase from 13.9 per cent in 2019. Although more women have graduated from and enrolled in engineering programs in the past decade compared to previous years, less than 14 percent of those who graduate go on to practice engineering.

A 2011 US study by the University of Wisconsin-Milwaukee found that women who left engineering tended to do so because of machismo workplace climates, lower salaries, and a lack of advancement opportunities.

Keynote speaker: Kai Cheng Thom 

During her speech, Cheng Thom shared poems and letters from her anthology Falling Back in Love with Being Human: Letters to Lost Souls. The anthology, a Canadian bestseller praised by The New York Times, explores Cheng Thom’s journey as a trans woman and includes expressions of self-acceptance and passion.

Throughout her talk, Cheng Thom acknowledged the violence experienced particularly by marginalized transgender women worldwide.

According to Cheng Thom, many were upset with her presence at the event, with some spreading transphobia on social media. During the event’s livestream, individuals on Twitter also posted angry messages invalidating Cheng Thom’s identity.

Cheng Thom spoke about the roots of transphobia: “When our fear overtakes our capacity for empathy, our capacity for love, we lose the ability to see the human in the other. And so they become a monster in our eyes, a being who must be restrained and defeated at all costs.” She hoped to lead the audience to move through fear and into a world that encourages love. 

In a post on X, the platform formally known as Twitter, Thom reflected on the online backlash to being a transgender woman speaking at the event, writing, “Though not the majority of the online comments criticizing my keynote at the Dec 6 memorial, there are some that openly call for violence… This is not dialogue. It degrades us all.”

Leila Agil, a first-year FASE student, was one of the many students who attended the event. In an interview with The Varsity, she shared that she sees the event as a testament to how far women in STEM have come and how much work remains to be done.

She noted Chow’s line from earlier: “We mourn, and then we work for change.” Agil went on to say, “I think mourning is inherent in tragedies like this… But I also think it’s important to see where we can go and how we can stop this from happening again.”