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Polytechnique: Massacre still haunts CTV journalist 30 years later
MONTREAL -- Journalists often have that one story that haunts, and perhaps, even changes them. Mine came early in my career. It was the Polytechnique massacre.
Thirty years ago, I was a young reporter at CTV Montreal -- then known as CFCF TV.
On Dec. 6, 1989, I had just wrapped up a story for our 6 p.m. newscast when someone said there was a possible fire at Université de Montreal.
Since my shift didn’t end until 7 p.m., our assistant news director told me to go.
I won’t lie. I wasn’t thrilled to go back out into the cold to cover a fire at the end of a long day.
I thought: Maybe someone had just pulled the fire alarm to get out of going to class or doing an exam?
Still, I grabbed my notepad and a large, heavy Motorola mobile telephone – one of only two we had in the newsroom back then – and along with a technician, headed out to École Polytechnique.
Our evening cameraman, also a junior, was already on his way to the scene.
As we drove up the long, winding road to the campus, just on the other side of Mount Royal, I remember being struck by the sight of several young men standing, shivering in the cold in only their shirts -- no jackets.
It was strange, but without a camera to film them, we continued driving up to the school.
Once we got there, I saw our cameraman and several fire trucks, along with police and older women, rushing around in what seemed like a panic.
I joined a very small group of reporters outside the school’s side entrance and we began to compare notes. There appeared to be no fire, but a fire alarm had been pulled.
There was now also word of a possible shooting inside. The hair on my neck stood up. The story had just moved into another category.
It was almost 6 p.m. and I had to do a live hit for our newscast.
With the few details I had, I called into the station live on-air with our anchor, Bill Haugland.
He asked me what was happening and I believe I said something about a fire alarm being triggered, but that it was possibly not just a fire – that there was word of possible violence inside.
Of course, we couldn’t confirm anything yet.
A police spokesperson had talked to us briefly before going into the building to find out more information, but had not come back.
After I finished my live hit, I grabbed our cameraman and we headed back over to that group of young men I remembered seeing on the drive up.
By now, other reporters had met up with them, too. It was clear that they had witnessed something dramatic.
I spoke to one of them in English. He told me he was giving an oral presentation in a classroom when a man with a gun walked in and ordered him to stop.
He said they all thought it was a prank, but the man then fired a shot and ordered the men to leave. He had no idea what happened to the women who were left in the classroom.
Within minutes, first-responders started rushing people out of the building on stretchers.
They seemed to be mostly women, but some of the injured were men. It was confusing and the number of stretchers coming out of the building seemed endless.
Other reporters and cameramen were now on the scene; police and officials were shouting at us to move out of the way.
When the last ambulance finally departed, we were all in shock. What had just happened? What had we just witnessed?
Later in the evening, a police officer finally came out to talk to us.
We bombarded him with questions: Had there been a shooting? Yes. Were there any injuries? Yes. Were they students? Yes, he said, adding that most of the injured were women.
So, the shooter or shooters were “targeting” women? Yes, it seems so, he responded.
My blood froze.
The confirmation that 14 women had been killed came much later that night. I remember one female police officer telling me, “Honestly, we are all sickened by this.”
To be honest, the rest of the night is a bit of a blur, but one image remains etched in my mind.
The university had set up a temporary morgue in the Polytechnique auditorium so families of the victims could come and identify their daughters.
Very late that night, we were standing in the atrium outside the auditorium, trying to keep warm. There were only a few other people there. We knew why they were there, so we left them alone.
I remember seeing a man in his 50s and another, younger man – possibly his son – talking softly. An official came out of the morgue and crossed the atrium to where they were sitting.
There was a short exchange, and then the young man put his hand on the older gentleman’s back as they slowly stood up, walking stoically towards the temporary morgue.
It struck me that we were bearing witness to an incredibly intimate, devastating moment…confirmation that a family had lost a daughter and a sister.
I have thought of them often since.
The Montreal massacre happened on a Wednesday; I stayed on the story for the rest of the week.
On the Friday, my news director – probably realizing I was tired and personally impacted because I was not much older than the murdered women – asked me if I was OK.
I was sleep-deprived and felt fragile, but said, ‘yes.’
Still, he gave me the following Monday – the day of the funeral – off. I planned to watch the coverage on television, to mourn with the province from the comfort of my apartment.
But as I saw the hearses pull up, I knew I couldn’t do it. I got into my car and drove to Notre-Dame Basilica of Montreal and stood outside, crying with everyone else.
I felt I just had to be there to say ‘good-bye’ to those young women.
In the years since, I’ve interviewed the survivors, the victims’ families, gun control advocates and feminists about the tragedy.
I’ve reunited ambulance technicians with survivor Nathalie Provost, who famously spoke from her hospital bed a few days later.
I’ve talked with employees of the university, police officers, teenagers to hear their thoughts, and even the mother of the killer.
I’ve remained connected with some of the victims’ families and still keep a picture of Anne-Marie Edward at my desk.
I am in awe of the strength of the families who have transformed this devastation into something more resilient, life-affirming and, at times, even beautiful.
I still get shivers when I think of that night. It was so horrible, confusing and shocking.
So, again on this day, 30 years after I drove to École Polytechnique thinking I was covering a fire, I will do my duty and tell the story.
We owe it to those 14 young women. We need to keep honouring them, remembering them and learning from what we all went through. We owe it to ourselves, too.
And I will never forget.