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30 Years After Surviving Polytechnique, My Pain Is Starting To Resurface

Nathalie Provost hopes the Dec. 6, 1989 attack that left 14 women dead will never be forgotten.
Engineer Nathalie Provost.
Courtesy of Nathalie Provost
Engineer Nathalie Provost.

Nathalie Provost survived the École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal in 1989, when 14 women were murdered. This account was relayed to HuffPost Québec by Provost in an interview and formatted into a first-person perspective.

I remember Dec. 6, 1989 vividly. Because of all the adrenaline and the stress, I could tell you exactly who I spoke to, how the events unfolded, and what happened in the following hours and days.

I was terrified of going crazy. In the hospital, where I remained for nine days, I asked to speak to a professional. A young psychiatry student handed me three sheets of paper about post-traumatic stress disorder, clearly photocopied from a textbook. It was the first time I had ever read about it. In 1989, nobody talked about that. No one even knew what it was. If you needed psychological care, that was something you kept hidden. It was a much bigger taboo than it is today.

During the shooting, I suffered injuries to my thighs and my left foot. A bullet also went through my eyebrow and brushed against my cranium. It was enough to fracture my skull, but not enough to kill me. I call it my miracle.

For a while now, I’ve been experiencing something new. My injuries are resurfacing. The pain is back. When I try to balance on my left foot during certain yoga poses, my foot hurts. As I grow older, my wounds will ache more and more. I never expected that.

The repercussions of a tragedy like the one I went through are multi-faceted. Back then, my survival instinct prevented me from taking stock of the full extent of what I went through.

Today, three of my four children are between 19 and 24 years old. They could be attending Polytechnique. I was 23 when the attack took place.

Today, it’s the mother in me that hurts. The great sadness I feel when I think of the loss of my fellow students is now a mother’s pain.

Nathalie Provost as a student, before the attack took place.
Courtesy of Nathalie Provost
Nathalie Provost as a student, before the attack took place.

Feminism as a way of life

I’m glad that after 30 years, Montreal officially recognized that what happened in Polytechnique was an anti-feminist attack. Unlike some other mass shooters, Marc Lépine made his motive crystal clear. He told me. He told us. He wrote it.

He did it because women bothered him. And if women bothered him, it’s because we are a society made of strong women. That’s why I don’t think remembering has to be all bad.

I used to think that you needed to be an activist before you could call yourself a feminist. At 23, I didn’t feel like I had fought for anything. I just felt like I was going through doors that had been opened by the previous generation of women. When I applied to Polytechnique, only 15 per cent of students were female. But I didn’t feel like anything was stopping me from studying engineering.

Feminism is a way of life. I had to understand that it has nothing to do with activism. That took a long time. Women’s rights are still a lot more fragile than men’s. I came to understand that later, when I entered the workforce and experienced the harsh realities of work-life balance.

Nathalie Provost speaking to news outlets after the massacre.
Courtesy of Nathalie Provost
Nathalie Provost speaking to news outlets after the massacre.

When I look back, I’m amazed that I managed to finish my engineering studies.

The only explanation I can find is that, since I was a little girl, my mother had been telling me to be financially independent. I was motivated to work full time so that I wouldn’t have to depend on anyone. The other two women in my class who were injured also graduated from Poly. All three of us are now engineers.

People always ask how the events of Polytechnique changed my life. Life trips you up sometimes, that’s just inevitable. Sometimes it trips you up really, really hard. But I don’t think a trouble-free life exists. And if it does, I’m not sure it would be such a good thing.

I think I may be more aware now. My eyes were opened to a lot of things. Could it have happened any other way? I’ll never know.

A tragedy that stays with you

When I started talking about what happened, in the days following the killings, I felt like I just had to share my story once and it would be out there. It took a very long time for me to understand that every time you talk about it, it’s like throwing a stone in the water. It creates new waves.

Those who oppose tighter controls of firearms sometimes tell us to “get over it” or to “turn the page.” That’s not something we can do. When you go through something like I did, you have a lot of pages to turn. It’s a book, and we don’t know what the next page will be made of. I feel like I’ve turned many, many pages.

The Polytechnique attacks didn’t only impact the families of those who died or were injured. It didn’t only impact the people who were there that day. It’s a tragedy that left a scar on our society, but it’s also a product of our society. Because it is us. Because Marc Lépine came from the same social fabric as I did. If he did it, it’s because we are capable of doing it.

It’s important that we keep talking about it. We have to look at our own tragedies, so that we can understand them as a part of our history.

As told to Florence Breton. This story originally appeared on HuffPost Québec. Translation by Émilie Clavel.

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