Archive for the ‘Dawson College’ Tag

The Dawson College Shooting ten years on

Ten years ago I had just left Montreal’s Dawson College where I teach English on my way to pick up a book I’d ordered around the corner when I heard the shooting‘s opening salvo strafe the entrance I’d just left.

On the tenth anniversary of the shooting (I won’t probe the logic of the anniversary-as-such, here) I repost this  reminiscence and reflection that was solicited by the University of Regina’s alumni magazine Degrees and published in the Spring 2007 issue. The photograph at the post’s end is of Dawson’s Peace Garden, planted “as a living testament” to that day, its wounded, and sad, single mortality.

Asked about my experience of what I have come to call “9/13”, I always tell the same story. I’d just left by the same door the shooter was to walk through and hadn’t gotten more than ten metres when I heard what sounded like a string of firecrackers. I turned, ready to give someone a lesson about setting off fireworks in front of the school. Students scattered in every direction. One lay on his back on the street near the curb, his friend crouching over him, one hand on his stomach, her cell phone in the other, screaming for an ambulance. A tall lanky fellow all in black slouched toward the door with what to me looked like an Uzi. A police cruiser pulled up, doors flung open, cops already halfway out, guns in hand. I’d heard gunshots do sound like firecrackers, but before I knew whether I was seeing a joke or a student film project or the real thing, the shooter—and police—were already in the school.

What to do? I wasn’t so much disoriented as unoriented. What was clear was there was nothing I could do, so, as strange as it seems in retrospect, I continued the way I was going, to pick up a book I’d ordered from around the corner. Around that corner, another two police stood over another youth, cuffed, face down on the asphalt. Had a drug deal or bank job gone wrong and one of the suspects fled into Dawson? I walked on. Seeing my office mate and some friends through the window of an Indian restaurant, I went in and told them I thought there’d been a shooting at Dawson, gave them my tentative explanation, then carried on to get my book.

I went back to Dawson to see how things turned out. A crowd of students, many I recognized and some I spoke to, milled about, uncertain, bemused, shocked. Many teary-eyed, frantically tried to call friends or parents on their cell-phones, the sheer number of their calls jamming the network. There were rumours of another shooter in Place Alexis Nihon, the mall across the street. My theory seemed confirmed. I talked with teachers and administrators, trying, like everyone, to figure out what exactly was going on. Marked and unmarked police cruisers and emergency vehicles roared by. A police or news helicopter chattered overhead.

I wasn’t to get “the full story” until I got home, turned on the television and checked the internet. Not two hours after I’d heard those first shots I came home to emails and phone messages from friends and relatives as far away as Europe. Though a witness, I had, like anybody else, to access the news media to find out what had happened. At the speed of light the entire planet knew something had happened at Dawson College in Montreal, and only an on-going buzz of speculation after that.

The next day, Thursday, when what had basically happened had been determined—one student killed, twenty wounded (three who had studied with me)—I was briefly interviewed by a talk radio show in Saskatchewan. One question stands out. I was asked how I felt as I witnessed the event, “did everything start to go in slow-motion?”. No, because I wasn’t watching TV or a movie: there were no special effects, no jump-cuts, no soundtrack. I didn’t know what I was seeing. Unless one has had first-hand experience of this kind of violence, one lacks the context to even perceive the event for what it is. Though we “witness” countless hours of violence on the news, on television and cinema, the stereotypical depictions we absorb are not “the real thing”, which, surprisingly, is impressive for its underwhelming banality. One of the wounded was so distanced from the event that he stood on a balcony overlooking the scene and took half a dozen shots with this cell phone while the shooter fired back.

Seven days, to the minute, after the first shots were fired, in a widely-reported rite, the students took back their school. All their actions—the memorials inside the school, their returning when and how they did—all seemed, mostly, to express a healthy resentment toward this murderous intrusion by an absolute outsider. 9/13 was in this and every respect uncanny, “out of our ken”, outside our acquaintance and beyond our grasp. Despite the on-going police and journalistic investigation, it remains so, and should.


Photo: Shawn Apel/CBC