On Dec. 6, 1989, 23-year-old Nathalie Provost was shot four times by Marc Lepine after he entered her classroom at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique with guns drawn and separated the men from the women. Lepine, armed with a hunting rifle and a semi-automatic carbine, ranted about the evils of feminism.
Provost stood up to him, saying she and her classmates were just normal students trying to live a normal life. Lepine shot her and 27 others that day, killing 14 before turning the gun on himself.
In the years since, Provost and other survivors and witnesses of the shooting have become prominent proponents for gun control in Canada.
What follows is an edited transcript of a conversation Provost has with Yahoo Canada News in advance of the 26th anniversary of the shooting.
Q: What do you remember from the day?
Right after the event, my mind blocked my memory. For the first 12 months after the shooting, I didn’t have any visual memory of what happened.
I dreamt about Polytechnique a year after it happened, and in that dream all of the visual memories came back. I will never know if it’s really what I saw. But I have a dream about that in my mind, and it’s pretty clear so I imagine that’s what I saw.
It’s mostly a blur today. It was 26 years ago, so I don’t have the same clear memories of every minute of the event. Now it’s more like a big impression.
The main emotion was surprise, even more than fear. I could not imagine what was happening. I was totally surprised and it was the inverse of understandable. I could not understand what was happening. I was shocked and surprised, more than fear. It was more than fear because it went really quickly. Fear came after, but not on the spot.
I think that’s why I spoke to him. I was amazed. I could not understand. What he was saying to us didn’t make sense to me. And it’s easy for me to argue, so I answered him.
Q: Did the shooting change how you felt about feminism?
I don’t think it’s the event that changed my mind. It’s more living a grown-up life, in the workplace, with kids, year after year. I realized that I was a feminist. I act as a feminist. I live my life as a feminist. I just have to assume it fully.
It’s believing that I should have, and that my daughters and the women around me should have the same opportunities in life as men. Equal chances. That may be a bit simplistic, but even that is an everyday engagement because nowadays we realize that’s it’s never enough, in French we say, “c'est pas acquis.”
For me, being a feminist is fighting for a more civilized world. It comes with civilization. The more we can live together, being equal, giving chances to kids, believing in them — I think we should be feminists in order to build a better world.
Q: How long did it take you to recover?
I was out of the hospital nine days after the event. It took me a few months to walk normally. And it took five years to recover emotionally, at least. And I will always bear scars of what happened. But when I look back at it, I realize that after five years, the main healing process on my soul has been done.
It was more of a gradual realization. You don’t stop every year to say, “Where am I on that?” You’re not looking at a map and seeing where you’ve gone. I lived my life, I had kids and I was working. I went through many difficulties and opportunities. At the 20th and 25th anniversaries, then I had the time to go back and I had to look back. By then it was a long period of time. In my lifespan it was almost half of my life after it happened.
Q: When did you start speaking out on gun control?
I began being involved in gun control only in 2009. The students and teachers of Polytechnique began to try to improve gun control a few days after the events. Heidi Rathjen (head of PolySeSouvient, or Poly Remembers in English) is still an advocate, a very strong and powerful one, and she was involved in the first days after the Polytechnique massacre. She has done a great job.
In 1995, the Liberal government decided to adopt the gun control law with the long gun registry. So after 1995, we felt that the main asset of gun control was done, that we would have it and it would stay. But in 2006, the government changed. In 2009, Conservative (MP) Candice Hoeppner (now Candice Bergen) decided to introduce a private member’s bill to go after the long gun registry. Heidi asked me, because I had been vocal with the 20th anniversary and spoken in front of the media, if I could help them.
Before 2009, the families of those who had died at Polytechnique were strongly involved. By 2009, when I came in, some of them were tired and wanted to go to live something else.
Q: On Dec. 3, Quebec Public Security Minister Pierre Moreau introduced a bill that would enact a new long gun registry for that province. You were in the room when it was tabled at the National Assembly. Is that what is needed?
There’s three planks on which we can build a strong gun control system. First is the permit, you have to have people who are able and recognized as able to use a gun. You have to have classification, because there are some guns that are much too dangerous even for hunting and sports. The third is the link between the gun and the owner, because you need to bear the full responsibility of the gun you have. Your guns are linked to you when they’re registered.
Q: The United States has suffered through a series of high-profile mass shootings by people armed with what the New York Times this week called the weapons of combat. As a survivor of gun violence, how does it feel to see the incidents in the United States?
You may find this extreme, but I don’t think they’re acting as a civilized country on this topic. They’re living like it was the Wild West, everywhere. Their first thought when they think about protecting themselves is using a gun. How can a civilized country think like that? That’s incredible to me.
I don’t want to say that the United States is not a great country. But on the gun side, they are totally out of the blue. I cannot understand, and I can imagine the ire of President [Barack] Obama. I can understand how he feels, totally powerless about that. Every shooting is an occasion to go more for guns, and it’s awful. It’s too easy to destroy lives with a gun.
Even in the United States you register your car. You need a driver’s licence. And nobody questions it. They have those for cars because you need to assess the capacity of the owner, because it’s dangerous. A gun is the same. A gun is dangerous. Alone it can do nothing. But a car is the same — it can do nothing without a driver.
Last year, Provost was on hand for the 25th anniversary ceremony at which Ecole Polytechnique announced the Order of the White Rose, a $30,000 scholarship for a Canadian woman pursuing graduate studies in engineering who shows a commitment to the world around her. At an event on Dec. 3, Provost recognized University of Calgary graduate Tara Gholami as the first recipient of the award.
Q: How does it feel to mark the anniversary?
It depends. Sometimes I feel sad. Sometimes I feel anxious. It’s not always the same. Last year, (at the 25th anniversary) it was really emotional but I wanted to be at the ceremony. It was important to me.
This year is much more of a new beginning. We are building something; we are not destroying. I’m really proud of my province. All of the parties representing Quebec are behind Minister Moreau. I was very proud of that. The bill still needs to be approved and there will still be debate, but we are together building something strong and something good for all people in Quebec. And I’m proud of that.
This year it’s more joyful. I’m proud and I’m happy because we’re doing something.
This interview has been condensed and edited.