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Remembering the École Polytechnique Massacre

Today we pause to remember and reflect on Montreal’s École Polytechnique massacre of December 6, 1989, when 14 young women were murdered specifically because they were (almost exclusively) female engineering students. They were:

Geneviève Bergeron Maryse Leclair
Hélène Colgan Anne-Marie Lemay
Nathalie Croteau Sonia Pelletier
Barbara Daigneault  Michèle Richard
Anne-Marie Edward Annie St-Arneault
Maud Haviernick Annie Turcotte
Maryse Laganière Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

They were killed because the murderer could not bear to see women studying to become engineers.

Canadian engineering has made big strides in welcoming women into the profession since this terrible day, and women are making their mark as engineers.

Last year, women made up 19 per cent of new PEO licence holders; and there are more to come: In 2017, there were 6,612 female students enrolled in Ontario engineering schools. According to the Ontario Network of Women in Engineering (ONWiE), women make up 30 per cent or higher enrolment in first-year engineering programs across most ONWiE-member schools—a stat that’s steadily growing. And ONWiE reports that of girls taking grade 12 physics, 40 per cent go on to apply to engineering programs.

That’s the route Dr. Jennifer Drake, PhD, P.Eng. took in her fast ascent to her current position as assistant professor, civil engineering at the University of Toronto and researcher on watershed planning and stormwater systems and management. Drake, who was honoured with the 2018 Ontario Professional Engineers Awards Young Engineer medal, recounted how her high school chemistry teacher encouraged her to enrol in engineering school and thanked the many women engineer mentors who have helped her throughout her career during her acceptance speech.

Drake was one of two women engineers honoured at this year’s awards, along with Dr. Winnie Ye, PhD, P.Eng.—an associate professor at Carleton University and one of the globe’s foremost silicon photonics researchers.

And among my colleagues on PEO Council, there are currently nine elected and appointed women councillors working to guide and direct the regulator and the governance of the engineering profession in Ontario. This includes Nancy Hill, P.Eng., LLB, FEC, FCAE, who will be taking over the PEO presidency next year.

These are all encouraging stats, but there is still much to do to welcome women engineers into the profession’s ranks. The goal of Engineers Canada’s “30 by 30” initiative is to raise the percentage of newly licensed engineers who are women to 30 per cent by the year 2030. PEO and its partners at all provincial engineering regulators and advocacy bodies must commit to achieving and exceeding this goal.

While we reflect on the École Polytechnique tragedy, we are heartened that many in the profession are working for change—PEO chapter volunteers and others educating young female students about STEM careers during National Engineering Month; ONWiE-member engineering schools striving to boost women enrolment; senior engineers mentoring young women engineers; and Canadian engineering regulators confirming their support for the 30 by 30 initiative.

Resolving the under-representation of women in the engineering profession is in the public’s interest because it draws from the entire engineering talent pool in Ontario. It is not just a women-in-engineering issue, but an issue of concern for the entire engineering profession, both women and men.

The engineering profession can only become stronger by embracing all its members.

David Brown, P.Eng., BDS, C.E.T., IntPE, MCSCE
President, Professional Engineers Ontario