The Sick Days: Part 18
Covering the events of December 6 at L’École Polytechnique was a formative experience, and one a seasoned reporter now thinks she got all wrong.
By Shelley Page
The moment my editor told me to get to the airport, my stomach fell as though I was on the down slope of a rollercoaster. I stood in the middle of the newsroom, as a few deskers and reporters stared at me expectantly, wondering if I could possibly decline. I think reporters often dread the unknown of a story and the difficulties that lay ahead to nail it down, but I feared I just wasn’t up to the task.
I’d been feeling tired, lupus tired, for days and I was walking like an elderly woman whose joints lacked lubricant.
How could I not go?
In the Beaches areas apartment I shared with my absentee boyfriend, who worked in Ottawa on Parliament Hill, I threw clothes into a bag, grabbed mitts, hats a brown leather coat that was not warm enough and boots of some manmade material that would later harden into breakable toffee in the minus 20 weather. I took Montreal for Canada’s most fashionable metropolis, but forgot it was also one of the coldest.
My paper in Toronto sent me, age 24, first. Then, a few hours later, another female reporter, also in her 20s. None of the male reporters working the night shift could say more than bonjour. My French was marginally better.
There was immediate anxiety on the news desk about having sent two young women to cover the massacre of other women. Some editors worried junior reporters like us weren’t up to the task; my assignment editor told me he worried we wouldn’t cover the story objectively, being female and all.
I’ve written about the events surrounding the Dec. 6 massacre at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal. First, 25 years ago, when I was a young reporter sent to cover it as a news story. Last year, I wrote a remembrance about how national reporters declined to write about the feminist anger following the event, sanitizing the tragedy so it was more palatable to readers—and editors.
And now this blog, again from another perspective. Covering that event was one of the formative experiences of my budding journalism career. I want to write what it was like to be sent to cover the biggest story of the day, in the midst of a lupus flare.
I stood in the middle of the newsroom, as a few deskers and reporters stared at me expectantly, wondering if I could possibly decline. I think reporters often dread the unknown of a story and the difficulties that lay ahead to nail it down, but I feared I just wasn’t up to the task.
When I arrived in Montreal four hours after the killing had ended, yellow tape wrapped L’École Polytechnique like a macabre Christmas present. It was past deadline and there wasn’t much for me to do, other than grab a few quotes from lingering onlookers to file to the Toronto Star’s news desk, and then return to my hotel room.
By this time — five years into my illness — I was used to struggling through the pain of inflamed joins and hardened muscles. A shower always made me feel temporarily better. Afterward, I climbed under the covers to watch the CBC National’s coverage. Only men were quoted: Eyewitnesses. Professors. Police. Survivors. I revisited that footage 25 years later and my recollection is correct. It was still a man’s world on TV, even when events cried out for a female voice.
I awoke the next morning to minus 20 and questions of who was the killer and why had he targeted female engineering students. My joints were arthritic, worse than the day before. I decided to quadruple my dose of prednisone in the hopes it would dampen the inflammation. But I couldn’t find the bottle. I’m certain I’d packed my pills.
By then I’d taken prednisone every day for five years in doses as high as 80 milligrams. When you take prednisone even for a few months it can hamper the functioning of your adrenal glands, which produce cortisol, which corticosteroids like prednisone replace. If I went off the prednisone cold turkey — say because I lost it somewhere — I could have an adrenal crisis. The symptoms could include abdominal pain, confusion, coma, dehydration, dizziness, fatigue, headache, high fever, loss of appetite, low blood pressure, profound weakness, rapid heart rate, sluggish movement, vomiting.*
Only men were quoted: Eyewitnesses. Professors. Police. Survivors. I revisited that footage 25 years later and my recollection is correct. It was still a man’s world on TV, even when events cried out for a female voice.
I’d been warned to never to skip a dose of prednisone.
My boyfriend in Ottawa said he’d make the two-hour drive the following day to bring me half a bottle I’d left there.
At a press conference at the Montreal police headquarters the identity of the killer was disclosed, along with a hit list of feminists. I scrawled a story in my notepad with my arthritic fingers, then called the rewrite desk in Toronto and dictated my story.
I then took a cab to the suburb where the killer grew up to interview his childhood neighbours and found out he had been beaten by his father, liked to play war games, and had been turned down by the military. I helped brand him as an abused madman instead of just a murderous misogynist.
By late afternoon, I could no longer take notes because my fingers were so stiff, knuckles inflamed. I had little sausage fingers. I hobbled into a drugstore and begged the pharmacist to give me a handful of prednisone tablets to hold me over until the next day. He looked at me skeptically, until I showed him my deformed hands. Without a word, he put five prednisone tablets into a small envelope.
I washed down all five tablets with coffee. I wrote what I knew about the killer and filed another story. There was a vigil being held by young feminists. I didn’t go near it. Instead, I returned to my hotel room to await my Ottawa visitor and my prednisone package.
On CBC’s The Journal, Barbara Frum, one of Canada’s most respected journalists, questioned a panelist while refusing to admit that the massacre was indeed an act of violence toward women.
“Why do we diminish it by suggesting that it was an act against just one group?” Frum asked.
Frum seemed puzzled that so many women insisted the massacre was a result of a society that tolerates violence against women. “Look at the outrage in our society,” Frum said. “Where is the permission to do this to women?
“If it was 14 men would we be having vigils? Isn’t violence the monstrosity here?”
Last year, when I was rewriting my blog, I watched the video. Frum refused to even utter the word feminist. Then, her neutralizing of feminist anger must have resonated, and perhaps was reflexive.
Filmmaker Maureen Bradley later asserted in her 1995 film, Reframing the Montreal Massacre: A Media Interrogation, journalists were “social gatekeeping.” Male and female producers, news directors, reporters, anchors subtly changed the meaning of the tragedy to one the public would get behind, silencing so-called ‘angry feminists.’
Bradley, in her documentary, wondered about Frum’s stance: “Was it necessary to deny any shred of feminism in herself in order to get where she was in this bureaucratic, media institution, boys’ club? “
She also pointed out that the national media did not cover that emotional vigil the day after the massacre, (the one I also skipped) where there was an angry confrontation between Montreal feminists and male students from the Université de Montréal. It would have made great TV content. Intelligent women voicing their outrage. But the story didn’t make it out of campus newspapers and local TV coverage onto a national stage. This story was not allowed to resonate with angry women.
Years later, when I reviewed the stories I wrote for the Star, I almost never used the word feminist; I never profiled the achievements of one of the slain engineering students or the obstacles she’d toppled. I never interviewed a single woman who was angry, only those who were merely sad. Why? No one told me what not to write, but I just knew, in the way I knew not to seem strident in a workplace where I’d already learned how to laugh at sexist joke and to wait until a certain boss had gone for the day before ripping down Penthouse centerfolds taped on the wall near his desk.
I’m not sure we reframed the murders intentionally, as Bradley suggested.
I chose whom I interviewed and how I wrote the stories based largely on my own experience covering attacks on women (my stories about the Scarborough rapist, later identified as Paul Bernardo, got about the same attention as stories on an arsonist who torched garages). My reporting was, no doubt, coloured by the response I got from male editors —and I had only male editors—when I pitched stories on women’s issues (not exactly front-page news in the 1980s) and by the way I’d had to negotiate minefields of gender politics just to get hired.
I felt lucky to have been sent to cover the tragedy at all.
After just three days, my editor said one of us would stay to cover the visitation and funeral for the women, while the other would be sent home.
I took more prednisone. Eventually the artificial energy would find me.
The following morning, I headed to a private viewing of the caskets laid out in the large entranceway of the University of Montreal’s administration building, temporarily renamed the Chapel of Rest.
Beside Nathalie Croteau’s graduation picture was a hardhat embossed with the school of engineering logo. At least twice during the afternoon, Croteau’s father Fernand appeared and draped himself over her coffin crying. The night she was shot, he pounded the university walls until his hands bled.
That day, 8,000 people stopped before each woman’s coffin. I stood in line and went through the building twice, each time staring numbly at the pictures of the dead women.
It’s impossible to know how to cover a story like this adequately.
I put a line in my story: “One woman had brought a homemade card offering her sympathy, but shoved it self-consciously into her purse once she realized the people she wanted to console most were dead.”
That woman was me. The homemade card was a message of sadness scrawled on hotel stationary. I wrote myself into my story, perhaps a nod to my editors’ initial concerns that I might be biased or at least a junior reporter who would dare to write herself into the story. But I wasn’t biased, I was just shocked to numbness, in pain and hobbling through my tasks.
If I shared anything in common with the young women who had been murdered, it was determination.
For years, I remembered one of my sentences in that story with particular pride. Reading it now, it shows everything that was wrong with how I covered the event:
They stood crying before the coffins of strangers, offering roses and tiger lilies to young women they never knew.
I wrote in my remembrance that year, that I’d turned the dead engineering students into sleeping beauties who received flowers from potential suitors. I should have referred to the buildings they wouldn’t design, the machines they wouldn’t create and the products never imagined. They weren’t killed for being daughters or girlfriends, but because they were capable women in a male-dominated field.
No one told me what not to write, but I just knew, in the way I knew not to seem strident in a workplace where I’d already learned how to laugh at sexist joke and to wait until a certain boss had gone for the day before ripping down Penthouse centerfolds taped on the wall near his desk.
By the time of the mass funeral at Notre-Dame Basilica in Old Montreal, I bounded up the huge stone steps, so giddy I almost forgot that young women had died.
The Toronto Star entered my coverage in the spot news category of the National Newspaper Awards that year. I did not win. But 25 years later, I won a National Newspaper Award in the short feature category for my remembrance of my coverage in the Ottawa Citizen. By that time, I was no longer a journalist and I’d written the piece as a one-off. I’d finally stopped working because my health challenges had become too challenging and incompatible with a newsroom.
The Sick Days continues… in The Ex-Press. To read past instalments, click here.
THE EX-PRESS, December 2, 2015