Heidi Rathjen was just 21 years old when a shooter walked into École Polytechnique with the intent to kill women simply because they were studying in the sciences.
As the carnage unfolded, lasting about 20 minutes, Rathjen, a civil engineering student, hid in a dark room with other terrified students.
She would later learn that one of her close friends, Anne-Marie Lemay, was among the 14 victims killed that day.
In the 30 years that followed, Rathjen has gone on to fight for better gun laws in Canada.
“Six years after the tragedy, we did achieve the main measures that are effective for gun control. We had registration permits for all owners, registration of all guns, and theoretically a ban on assault weapons and large-capacity magazines,” she explained.
“However, over the years, because of the Conservative [Party], essentially, a lot of these measures have been dismantled or weakened.”
That political back-stepping led to the formation of PolySeSouvient in 2009, a leading voice for stricter gun control that reunited survivors of the Dec. 6, 1989 massacre.
“We’re far, far from what we should have. We shouldn’t compare ourselves to the United States, although some of our laws are weaker than those in the United States…Canada fairs very poorly in terms of gun control,” Rathjen said.
“Even though there has been some minor progress, we’re still far away from what we need to have in terms of gun control. Thirty years after the tragedy, we still haven’t banned the weapon that killed 14 women and injured as many others in less than 20 minutes.”
Kathlene Dixon joined the fight for gun control after witnessing her daughter, Meaghan, get shot at the Dawson College shooting in 2006.
“There’s a moment where you question yourself: is this actually happening?” she said. “I got on top of her, shielded her until I couldn’t see him anymore.”
PolySeSouvient is calling on Justin Trudeau's minority Liberal government to pass “comprehensive, bold gun control measures,” including a full ban on assault-style weapons and handguns.
“There is absolutely no sane reason why weapons designed to kill the most number of people in the least amount of time have any place in our society,” Dixon said.
Last week, the group sent a letter to Canada’s federal public safety minister, Bill Blair, urging him to fulfil a Liberal campaign promise to ban military-style assault rifles and crack down on handguns.
“If they don’t do it now, we’ll never get it,” Rathjen insisted, adding that the number of gun ownership in Canada has reached a record high.
“The gun lobby is more powerful than ever. We can ban assault weapons, we can ban handguns, and we have to do it now because if we don’t, the number of these guns will reach a point where we can’t go back.”
To this day, the École Polytechnique massacre is known as the deadliest mass shooting in Canadian history, a devastating event that has sparked a larger conversation about violence against women.
“Most Canadians support gun control, but they’re not really involved in the debate because it doesn’t concern them,” Rathjen pointed out. "You don’t care about it until it affects you."
In addition to the 14 women killed that day, multiple suicides were reported among students who witnessed the massacre, including two who left notes saying their suffering was caused by the shooting.