Thirty-four years after one of Canada’s worst mass shootings left 14 women studying engineering dead at École Polytechnique in Montreal, new generations of engineering students are honouring their memories and continuing to advocate for women in science, technology, engineering and math (STEM).
On Dec. 6, the anniversary of the day 14 lives were cut short by a man who did not believe women had a right to pursue careers in engineering, the University of Guelph holds a public memorial in the atrium of the Albert A. Thornbrough Building.
“It is always an emotional day with a lot of reflection,” says Emma Starratt, co-president of the Guelph chapter of Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE). “It reminds me that I am lucky enough to feel safe at school and my safety comes from the privilege I have.”
Starratt is one of a handful of students and faculty who will read during the ceremony. Fourteen others will lay down a white rose, one for each of the women killed on Dec. 6, 1989. A bouquet of coloured roses will follow marking the fifteenth person who symbolizes everyone impacted by this act of violence against women.
“It makes me so grateful to be able to study engineering safely as a woman at U of G and reminds me to look at how far we have come and how far there still is to go,” says Katherine Haines, president of the Guelph Engineering Society.
Haines is a biomedical engineering student where most of the students in her program are women. Sometimes, she says, she forgets that she is studying in a male-dominated field.
In her role with the Guelph Engineering Society, Haines connects with engineering students in Ontario and across Canada. Of the 16 schools in Ontario who networked this year, 14 were represented by women. “It was great to see all those strong, powerful women coming together voicing the opinions of their schools,” she says.
It is predominantly women who volunteer to be rose carriers for U of G’s annual memorial as well, she says. In her experience, she feels as though some of her fellow male students feel it should be women who take the lead in memorializing victims of gender-based violence. “Men need to be educated on the role they play in this,” she offers. “We want them to come to this memorial and help us remember the victims.”
Building community, promoting gender equality in engineering
Through WiSE, Starratt helps organize events and other resources to support gender minorities in STEM, promote gender equality and do outreach in the community. In her first year at U of G she participated in WiSE’s mentorship program, going on to volunteer at events like the engineering-themed activity day for girls ages 7-12 held each year.
“Resources like this are so important to address the difficulties of working in the field of engineering,” she says. The club also organizes paint nights and yoga classes to help promote a school life balance. “It’s a way of telling women, you are not alone.”
As a mechanical engineering student, Starratt is sometimes the only woman in the room. She estimates approximately 10 per cent of mechanical engineering students at U of G identify as women whereas in other disciplines the numbers are more even.
“This is why I think our outreach events are so important,” she says. “There are young girls in the community we’ve connected with who are already excited to do this.”
Dec. 6, 1989, is a date that lives in infamy for so many, however, Starratt, born nearly a decade later, first heard about the killings in a second-year class. “It was very impactful for me,” she says. “Hearing that story always brings about a gut feeling and physical reactions. It hits hard and sometimes I think there is a generational lapse in sharing it.”
The U of G memorial takes place Dec. 6 at 2 p.m. in the atrium of the Albert A. Thornbrough Building. All are welcome to attend.
Katherine Haines, president, Guelph Engineering Society
Emma Starratt, co-president, Women in Science and Engineering (WiSE)