Saturday 6 December 2014

December 6: A Dark Day in Canadian History

Every nation has one: a date that looms large in the national consciousness as the anniversary of some disaster or tragedy. Oftentimes, there's no need to provide details; those in the know will recognize what happened just by the date. For example, think of how easily we recognize 9/11: no-one needs to explain what took place or why it's important, as it is now simply a part of our culture.

Because of Canada's more behind-the-scenes role in world history, I don't think we have anything that resonates quite so much as 9/11. However, I do believe that Canadians have their own "dark day": December 6.

Not many people talk about it (compared to 9/11 at least), not even in Canada itself. But I would posit this as a suitable candidate for one of the darkest days in Canadian history. Why? Because not one, but TWO tragedies took place on December 6.

December 6, 1917: The Halifax Explosion

Aftermath after the Halifax Explosion (Image (c) Library and Archives Canada; Photographer unknown)
It was, for many Haligonians (i.e. residents of Halifax, Nova Scotia), just a normal day. Yes, Canada was fighting the Great War (aka WWI), and Halifax was a major port city at the time, ferrying supplies and soldiers to and from Canada and Europe.

With such a bustling harbour, perhaps it was only a matter of time before something went wrong. On the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, a Norwegian ship, the S.S. Imo, was scheduled to leave Halifax after spending several days refuelling before heading on to New York. She had originally been scheduled for a Dec. 5 departure, but had been delayed due to anti-submarine nets being placed in the Halifax harbour in the evening. So, by the next morning, she was eager to be underway.

In order to do so, however, she must pass through a channel known as the Narrows. Harbour protocol dictated that ships were supposed to pass each other port-to-port, each taking the starboard side of the channel in order to keep traffic running smoothly. However, to avoid collision with a tug-boat coming into the harbour at the time, the Imo swerved and overshot her turn into the Narrows, ending up closer to the port side than was safe. This combined with her going above the proper speed limit sent her straight into the path of the French ship SS Mont-Blanc that was entering the harbour at the same time.

Map of Halifax Harbour on the morning of Dec. 6, 1917, showing the Imo and Mont-Blanc in their original positions before the Imo began her exit and the Mont-Blanc her entrance. (Image (c)
At 8:45 a.m., the two ships collided.

For all intents and purposes, the collision should have been a mild one. Both ships were travelling at low speed, and had already stopped their engines: it was their continued momentum in the time it took to stop that caused the accident. However, disaster was imminent due to two factors: the collision had caused a fire on the Mont-Blanc, and, being a cargo ship on her way to the European front, she was stocked full of explosives.

The Mont-Blanc's crew fled the ship, but the scene drew a crowd of spectators. It is understandable: on what was just a normal school and working day, a ship caught fire in the Halifax Harbour. It's the same sort of human behaviour that makes motorists slow down upon coming across an accident scene. So many Haligonians stopped what they were doing to go out to the harbour to watch, oblivious to the Mont-Blanc's cargo and what it meant. Even when the Mont-Blanc's crew tried to warn their rescuers about the imminent danger, they were not heard in the confusion.

At 9:04 a.m., the Mont-Blanc exploded, sending white-hot metal debris flying almost 300 metres into the air, which rained down on the city and its inhabitants. The shockwave destroyed the buildings within a 2.6 kilometre radius, but damage stretched far further to nearby communities and was felt in the other maritime provinces. On top of this, the explosion vaporized most of the water in the harbour, and the seawater rushing in to replace it swelled into a tsunami wave 16 metres high.

Halifax two days after the Explosion (Image in Public Domain, found via Wikimedia Commons)
All things told, 1,600 people were killed and 9,000 injured. Not only did this include dockworkers and sailors, but many civilians as well. Particularly horrific in hindsight is the fate of those who watched the Mont-Blanc's fire from their windows as the force of the explosion shattered the glass, blinding many people. The Halifax Explosion was the largest artificial explosion at the time, and would remain so until WWII and the development of nuclear technology. While Halifax has rebuilt itself since then and is now once again a major maritime city, the Halifax Explosion is still a major component of Canada's history: wartime and otherwise.

December 6, 1989: The École Polytechnique Massacre

Chances are, if there's one major Canadian disaster that took place on Dec. 6 that you'll be hearing about on the news, it's this one. Why? Because the events of the École Polytechnique Massacre led to December 6 now being memorialized in Canada as the National Day of Remembrance and Action on Violence Against Women. Perhaps that name alone suggests where this is going, but in short: this is the deadliest school shooting in Canadian history.

The École Polytechnique in Montreal, Quebec, as it appears today. (Photograph by MyName(Slp1) on Wikimedia Commons, Image used according to Creative Commons 3.0)
So what does a school shooting have to do with violence against women? It comes down to the shooter and his actions. On Dec. 6, 1989, Marc Lépine, aged 25, made his way to École Polytechnique, a post-secondary engineering school affiliated with the University of Montreal. There, he entered a classroom filled with approximately 60 students where a mechanical engineering class was in progress. This is where the violence against women aspect becomes apparent. After gaining control of the classroom, he ordered male and female students to opposite sides of the room. Then, after ordering the male students out of the room, he opened fire on the remaining 9 women, saying, "You're women, you're going to be engineers. You're all a bunch of feminists. I hate feminists." Of his victims in that classroom, 6 were killed and the 3 others wounded.

After this, Lépine continued on through the school, aiming his attacks at classrooms, students in the corridors, and a cafeteria, before shooting himself in the head. In total, 14 women (13 students and one employee) were dead, and another 14 people (including 4 men) were injured.

Commemorative Plaque at École Polytechnique listing the names of the deceased. (Image in Public Domain, found via Wikimedia Commons)
In the aftermath of the massacre, a suicide note was found in which Lépine reiterated his anti-feminist rhetoric. His view was that through feminism, women would retain their existing benefits from society and the government as well as claiming those that also belonged to men. In other words, and in my opinion, he confused feminism with misandry, and felt that any woman who sought a higher education (such as these students) or a career outside of what was traditionally feminine was a radical feminist and would ruin his own opportunities in life.

It's no wonder then that the anniversary of the École Polytechnique Massacre has become a day for remembrance, then, as Canadians continue to raise awareness of violent acts against women in general. However, I wonder if Lépine realized the coincidence his choice of date was creating. December 6 was already an infamous day in Canada - and he made it even more so.


"École Polytechnique Massacre." Wikipedia. 6 Dec 2014.

"Halifax Explosion." Wikipedia. 6 Dec. 2014. 6 Dec. 2014.


All images used under Creative Commons 3.0, individual credits in the captions

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