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Reflecting on the Ecole Polytechnique Massacre

A message from President Christian Bellini, P.Eng., FEC


Today we pause to remember and reflect on Montreal’s Ecole 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
Hélène Colgan
Nathalie Croteau
Barbara Daigneault
Anne-Marie Edward
Maud Haviernick
Maryse Laganière
Maryse Leclair
Anne-Marie Lemay
Sonia Pelletier
Michèle Richard
Annie St-Arneault
Annie Turcotte
Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz

I remember this tragedy well because I was an engineering student myself in 1989 at the University of Waterloo. While we still have a long road ahead to achieve gender equity in engineering, in those days the numbers were even more stark. In my class of 60 there were only two women. I remember when I first heard the news, and even without today's instant communication networks, the news travelled quickly and left us shocked and without words. It was incomprehensible.

The victims were engineering students across many disciplines – mechanical, civil, chemical, materials – and could very well have become friends and colleagues if they had lived to fulfil their dreams and career aspirations.

However their lives were cut short by a misogynist who couldn’t bear to see women studying engineering – a supposedly “male profession.”

Much has changed for women in engineering over the past 32 years. In my professional life, as a principal in a Canadian structural engineering firm, and my volunteer roles as PEO president and councillor, I have witnessed how far the engineering profession has come in welcoming and removing barriers to women engineering students and engineers.

These strides were illustrated at PEO’s recent 30 by 30 task force annual check-in. The group, of which I’m vice chair, is charged with working towards achieving Engineers Canada’s goal of raising the percentage of newly licensed engineers in Canada who are women to 30 per cent by 2030. During the check-in we shared best practices and metrics and were very happy to share the good news that women now make up 20 per cent of newly licensed engineers across Canada.

And we saw even bigger gains in several other PEO-specific categories that approached or exceeded the 30 per cent target: 28 per cent of EITs who participated in PEO’s Licensure Assistance Program and obtained a licence are women, 30 per cent of PEO committee and task force chairs and vice chairs are women and 32 per cent of P.Engs on Council are women.

While the task force is being stood down this month, this important work will continue by PEO staff, chapters and key stakeholders.

A key element of this work includes a gender audit of PEO’s licensure process and internal operations that will examine PEO’s existing licensure process for potential gender biases and any barriers impeding women from getting licensed. Researchers will engage PEO staff to review licensing documents, assess data and interview applicants, staff and volunteers involved in the licensing process.

And other action items include:

  • Targeting women graduates to pursue licensure through programs such as the Licensure Assistance Program;
  • Encouraging women engineers to run for PEO Council and serve on and lead PEO committees, task forces and chapters; and
  • Tracking the progress being made in reaching the 30 per cent goal and provide annual reports to PEO Council.

As we reflect on the Ecole Polytechnique tragedy, we can celebrate the progress that’s been made. But we’re still 10 per cent short of the goal, with nine years left to make it happen, and we need to be intentional about it going forward. We need to study our regu­latory structures and processes to ensure they do not present systemic barriers to women’s repre­sentation in the profession.

And more broadly, we must work to defeat hateful and misogynist attitudes in the profession and workplace.

Making the profession a better, more inclusive place for women engineers to succeed, thrive and contribute their talents, expertise and perspectives is the best way to honour the memory of the Ecole Polytechnique victims.