Polytechnique: Male survivor talks about guilt and lessons he'll pass on
Alain Perreault was head of the student association at École Polytechnique and was in the school on Dec. 6, 1989, the night of the Montreal Massacre, where 14 women were slain.
Now a nut farmer in the Joliette area, CTV News Montreal's Caroline Van Vlaardingen sat down with him at his Outremont home to reflect on that night, 30 years ago.
He speaks about survivor's guilt, how the shooting shaped his views on feminism, how he grieved, as well as what he's told his children about the tragedy.
Van Vlaardingen: Alain, you were at the university when all this happened, right?
Perreault: Yes, I was at the university when the events started. I was in the student association rooms and there was this noise and commotion coming up. We were running and people were hiding and trying not to be in harm's way and so, I found a small room and a small office where I could hide during the shooting.
Van Vlaardingen: What floor were you on?
Perreault: I was on the main floor when it started. I'm not sure if I came close to the shooter, but I went downstairs on the ground floor to hide and he actually came down on that floor during his rampage. I stayed there until it got quiet and I could walk out and there were policemen. I don’t remember the aftermath, but I remember the moment I was hiding and it was very scary.
Van Vlaardingen: How long did that last?
Perreault: To my knowledge, maybe 30 to 45 minutes. I was in this small room with other people and eventually, it died down. There was no more noise and so, we could walk out, but I think it was about 45 minutes.
Van Vlaardingen: Did you hear the gunshots?
Perreault: I didn’t hear the gunshots. I heard a lot of people running and screaming, but I didn't hear gunshots.
Van Vlaardingen: At that point, you realized something terrible was happening?
Perreault: Actually someone said, 'Someone is shooting at everybody!' So I was basically going towards the dangerous area and saw people running away from it, so I decided to run away as well, from the main area where it happened. So, I ran away and went downstairs to a place I thought was quiet.
Van Vlaardingen: How many were you in that room?
Perreault: I think four or five, but we didn’t speak to each other that much. Or I don't remember what we said, but we were all wondering what was happing. We had no information. Only after, we went back to our place and opened up the TV and the reports that we got were the same as everybody else. It was hard to get the information, but we understood it was a unique event.
Van Vlaardingen: When you heard what had happened, what was your reaction?
Perreault: I could not believe it. I could not first make sense of it and understand why it happened and happened to us. It was very unusual. A mass shooting in Quebec had never happened. Targeting women was probably a unique event in the world. So, [for it] to happen in our area, in our daily space, was really hard to grasp, really difficult.
In the student association, a lot of women studying at Polytechnique were involved in one committee or another, so in our daily activities, we were really equivalent to any other faculty. But as a general rule, Polytechnique back then was 80 per cent male or around that number. In the student body itself, there were probably half women.
It was not a topic – the place of women in the profession itself. Not a topic of discussion for us, it was taken for granted, so for us, it was a shock. We did not associate the issue of feminism with our field of study at all back then.
Van Vlaardingen: So, it was shock that someone would feel that kind of anger for women wanting to be at Polytechnique?
Perreault: For sure, it was completely. It made no sense at all to us and it was hard to understand why there were not more women in engineering. It was natural to us that it was accessible to anybody.
Van Vlaardingen: These were bright women in the department, right?
Perreault: For sure, it was a nontraditional field of study or path. When you walk in the school now there are many more women than there used to be and it's a constant progression.
Van Vlaardingen: Whatever message he was trying to send, it didn't work?
Perreault: It didn't work at all and I understand there was no deceleration. There's a constant progression of women in the field of engineering and science in general, I would say.
Van Vlaardingen: After the Polytechnique massacre there were questions asked to some of the men and boys that were in the room: why they didn't do more to protect the women. Did you ever have anyone ask you that or have male students talk to you about that?
Perreault: Yes, for sure, because that was a question asked from the outside: well he was targeting women, why didn't you do anything? But obviously, it was not obvious to us at that point that he was targeting women and if it were, we would have acted differently.
That’s probably part of the problem for some of the males to say 'I could have done something. If I had known, I could have done something.' This is a difficult thing to overcome, a difficult feeling to overcome – the fact that you could have had the power to do something, but didn't. Were there opportunities for some of the boys to do something? It's very hard to tell. It’s a very individual story.
In any case, it's very difficult to attack somebody that is armed and you have no training or ability to confront such a situation. The natural instinct is to flee, and so that's what we all did, basically, fleeing for our lives.
Van Vlaardingen: Did that blame or guilt weigh heavily on some students more than others?
Perreault: I would say so. Some felt the guilt and actually had trouble overcoming it, but I didn't come into contact with any of the men who ...(clears throat).
Van Vlaardingen: Was there anything to help them?
Perreault: Yes, some men had more trouble to get over that and the school offered quite a lot of support. The services were accessible. The problem was admitting you need help, or understanding you need help. Sometimes, you suppress the guilt and don't understand this feeling, this challenge of grieving.
Van Vlaardingen: How did you grieve in the days and months after? How did you handle it?
Perreault: We were bombarded by requests for interviews. It was an international event. There were networks from all over the world asking for interviews and we were asked what we could have done, and also questions about security and a need to do something after that to focus our efforts in a positive way. We decided to put a lot of our efforts into changing access to firearms. As a student body, we tried to convince, and we successfully convinced other engineering faculties, to support a petition for stricter gun control laws.
Van Vlaardingen: Were you active in that?
Perreault: Yes, I was active with Heidi Rathjen and others with gathering support in Quebec; with the anti-violence movement, together with Heidi to get stricter gun control laws.
Van Vlaardingen: Did you feel you succeeded at all?
Perreault: I think so. I think we can say for the awareness. It's a partial solution, but we realized that access to firearms is the cause of multiple deaths and so, at least if we can do this part, it's something positive.
Van Vlaardingen: Are you frustrated by the dismantling of the federal registry?
Perreault: For sure. Police told us the registry was a very useful tool. For us, it was hard to understand the backlash against this tool that police were using in Canada.
Van Vlaardingen: Did any of it change your attitude about relationships between men and women? Did it make you reflect on it differently?
Perreault: I think I have a greater sensitivity to the place. Sometimes, there's a natural tendency to leave things as is and not actually push for change, but you realize that for women, access to positions of power in boards or companies is inherently more difficult. It's an old boys club and we still realize that today. It's a very long road to having access for women that is equal; to positions of power.
I have a much greater sensitivity now to this and every chance I have the opportunity to promote the place of women, I try to do it in my own small way. This is something that is very important to me.
Van Vlaardingen: Did you know any of the victims personally?
Perreault: Yes. Anne-Marie (Edward) was a good friend. She was in our graduating group, the same department as well: mechanical engineering. She was a lovely and bright and lively person as well and everybody loved her.
Van Vlaardingen: When you talk about how you now promote women whenever you can, is it to pay homage to these women? Is there anything you do differently now because of it?
Perreault: It's hard to tell, but my experience has forged me as a different person, for sure. I think I’m more sensitive now than before. That sense is very present. I have a young daughter now and that has a special meaning. If she loves science, I will instill that love of science in her and I will be very, very attentive to her that if she wants to go in that direction that she has everything she needs.
Having a daughter and living through that those two things combined made me a better male, possibly more attentive. That's the positive aspect. I have more sensitivity to the difficulties women face in their professional mobility.
Van Vlaardingen: How many children do you have?
Van Vlaardingen: Have you talked to them about this? Have they ever asked you about it?
Perreault: Well, to my boys, yes. My daughter is a bit young. I still don’t know how to address this with her. It's a bit evil. It's difficult to talk about this, especially now that we're coming to the 30th anniversary, so I will have to find a way to talk to her in words that will not be too disappointed in human nature. That's going to be difficult. My boys are aware of what I've been through and are very sensitive to this as well.
The tragedy is very difficult for me to make sense of, but I had a few ideas and I will – when the time comes – be able to tell them a little bit of what I think went wrong. And in their relationship with women, I observe that they are doing a great job. Basically, I'm very happy with how they interact with women in general and I feel they are sensitive to the same aspect as I am.
Van Vlaardingen: Do you think we, as a society, learned anything that day? Because there was a lot of anger and sadness. People said we didn't have enough security, things didn't work the way they should have worked. People were looking for lessons. Did we learn anything that day?
Perreault: I think it probably has helped us as a society in Quebec and Canada. To have such an awful thing happen raised the debate about the place of women in society. In a professional way as well: what is the role of women in non-traditional roles. What can we do with, for example, access to firearms, and so these two topics were useful for us as a society to address.
And if you look, for example, to access to daycare in Quebec, it's a bit unique to Quebec. I think we're not doing that bad in Quebec in that sense. We're sensitive to the issue. We could do much better, though, I’m sure, but it seems we are on the right path. I’m optimistic. Even though we would like progress to move more quickly, we are moving in the right path. I see progress definitely.
Van Vlaardingen: The killer’s mother has written another book and her message is that we've mourned, it was awful, let's move on. Should we?
Perreault: I understand from her perspective she would want that to be left behind, but I’m not sure we can say that everything is solved, that we can forget what happened. It's like forgetting your past or where you come from. It's useful to have such an event happen because it reminds us of the fragility of our society and cohesion we can have as different groups, whether it's men versus women, or newly-arrived immigrants. How do we manage to live as a society and make the necessary compromises to work together towards a better future? So, this is a case of someone not accepting those compromises and the damage this can do. What we can do together, what we can do to improve our relationship with other people who are not exactly like us in terms of belief or gender?
Van Vlaardingen: Do you think we should continue to commemorate this event past the 30th anniversary?
Perreault: For sure. For sure. We have to. Such an important event and you see the motivation to remember is very strong, even from people who were not directly affected by it. So, it has meaning for us as a society and it forged us and hopefully, it will allow us to build something stronger and more encompassing, more welcoming.
Van Vlaardingen: What will you do on Dec. 6 this year?
Perreault: I will definitely go to the mountain and try to live the moment personally with my family and reflect on this – and think about those who are left behind.
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