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Building upon a legacy of women engineers: SFU students honor the victims of the 1989 École Polytechnique attack
For the members of SFU’s Women in Engineering (WiE) club, their mandate of uplifting women in STEM is often about paving the way: learning from those that came before, and teaching those who will come next. As the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women approaches, a day marking one of Canada’s deadliest local attacks in recent history, the idea of intergenerational connection becomes all the more relevant and important.
On December 6th, 1989, a gunman entered the École Polytechnique engineering school at the Université de Montréal. Declaring himself to be “fighting feminism”, he murdered 14 women, 12 of whom were students studying in STEM fields (science, technology, engineering and mathematics). 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, and Barbara Klucznik-Widajewicz, are lovingly remembered worldwide.
Since 1989, SFU WiE has hosted an annual ceremony to honour the women and educate the community. Rose Epstein and Samin Moradkhan, SFU WiE’s co-vice presidents of communications and social media, took on co-organization of the memorial for the first time last year. Though more than 30 years have passed since the tragedy, they still felt its impact.
“Putting together materials last year and reading the biographies of the victims, it was really heartbreaking to realize that some of them were only 20 years old,” reflects Moradkhan, a third year systems engineering student.
“My mom is an engineer and was in school when it happened,” says Epstein, a second year student. She describes her mother as one of her inspirations for entering the engineering field. “When I got involved with the memorial event, I spoke to her about the shooting for the first time. She still remembers it like it was yesterday – every girl in the world was sent a shock.”
For Adlin Alwyn, who recently joined SFU WiE as director of communications and social media, learning of the attack motivated her to disprove anyone who believes women don’t belong in STEM: “These women lost their lives to study engineering. It makes me so angry, but that anger motivates me to show up and advocate for myself and others.”
“They were just like us,” Alwyn adds. “There’s no difference except the timing.”
This year, SFU’s Women in Engineering, Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Office, Human Rights Office, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Academic Women SFU, and the SFSS Women’s Centre will host a number of speakers at Convocation Mall to commemorate the lives lost. Attendees are invited to join in reflection.
For the first time, the organizers will also exhibit a tribute display at the SFU Surrey Mezzanine, alongside an information booth to educate others on the events of 1989. Through these events, the team continues to remember the victims of the attack and spread awareness of the tragedy in the university community.
“I think it’s important for everyone to learn about what happened, both men and women,” says Moradkhan. “When it comes to ending gender-based violence, women are often the ones who have to speak out. But the responsibility is on men too, they need to be aware so they can prevent it.”
Advocating for women engineers today and tomorrow
For many of the team members, joining WiE has been a transformational experience. Alwyn, now a master’s student in mechatronics, recalls that the Mechanical and Civil Engineering building at her previous school didn’t even have a women’s washroom. After joining that school’s WiE chapter, she successfully advocated for the installation of three new facilities. “It showed me the power of women in engineering, and WiE as an organization.”
In addition to advocacy, SFU WiE encourages women in STEM and creates networks between women engineering students, their peers, and professionals in the industry, helping students find social, academic and career supports. The team also guides the next generation of women engineers, facilitating STEM workshops for and mentoring girls in grades 7-12, an activity the group agrees has been particularly rewarding.
Ultimately, though, WiE provides a safe space for women in STEM at SFU. “The club is really so welcoming,” Epstein says. “We want women to know they are not alone, their voice matters, and they are supported.”
SFU’s annual memorial event takes place Monday Dec 6, at 12:30pm. Since 2018, the memorial has been organized in collaboration with SFU Women in Engineering, Sexual Violence Support and Prevention Office, Human Rights Office, Equity, Diversity and Inclusion, Academic Women SFU, and the SFSS Women’s Centre. View full event details here. For other ways to participate visit the SFU SVSPO website.