Dec. 6, 1989, in Anthony Di Monte’s mind, was the day that Canada changed, when the kinds of violent mass shootings we’d only read about elsewhere, particularly in the United States — the post-office shooting in Edward, Okla., three years earlier, for example, or the one at a McDonald’s in San Diego two years before that — arrived at our doorsteps.
“I think it was the day we all lost our innocence,” he says. “We lost our innocence as a country. We realized that this can happen here, too.”
Recently retired as Ottawa’s general manager of Emergency and Protective Services, Di Monte was a senior officer with Montreal’s paramedic service that day, and attended the early-evening call to the University of Montreal’s École Polytechnique, where Marc Lépine killed 14 women and injured 14 other people, including 10 women, before taking his own life.
“It was the first time we’d had something like this,” Di Monte recalls.
Di Monte clearly remembers details from that day, one involving Montreal’s then-director of police communications, Pierre Leclair. The pair only knew one another professionally; in those days, police handled all the media communications, and so the two would occasionally meet for briefing sessions before Leclair spoke to reporters.
“And in this profession, you need some professional distance,” Di Monte adds. “As health-care providers, you see some horrible things, but you don’t see patients — and I hate to say this — as individuals. You see them as patients: ‘What are my priorities? Okay, they’re not breathing. I’ve got to intubate them.’ That sort of thing. You have this professional distance.”
At an early scrum that day, Leclair told media he would get more information and return. Di Monte, meanwhile, waited in the command post for Leclair, who never arrived.
“He never came back because as he went inside the school, I was advised that his daughter, Maryse, was one of the victims,” Di Monte says.
It was later revealed that Maryse Leclair, who had been shot, was calling out for help, whereupon Lépine returned and stabbed her to death before turning his gun on himself.
“(Leclair) found his daughter with this guy beside her. And that took away that professional distance for me for the first time.”
Earlier during the incident, Di Monte was rattled by another revelation.
Things were different then, with paramedics typically only entering a scene after police tactical units had been through, and not with them.
But as Di Monte went through the building to treat victims — before they reached the classroom where Lépine had separated the male and female students and killed six of the women and wounded three others — one of his paramedic colleagues looked up at him and remarked: My God, this guy’s killing the women.
“And we were all taken aback, because it hadn’t clicked until then that the first five or six patients we had treated were all women. That’s when we realized that this guy had gone in there to kill women. This was something at another level from what we had seen before. It sent a shock wave through all of us.
“What brings a human being to do that,” he wonders. “To this day I still don’t get that.”
The event helped Di Monte, especially when he taught paramedic students in Montreal, advising them to look for signs and ask both themselves and patients more questions when attending domestic incidents.
“I think my index of suspicion went up more, and I probably became a better medic as a result, because I was more aware.”
The Montreal Massacre also led to changes in emergency response tactics and preparation, changes Di Monte believes prevented what could have been a far worse outcome during a 1992 shooting at Montreal’s Concordia University that saw four people killed and one injured.
“It changed how police intervene, and on the medical side, and certainly with paramedic services, we completely changed our models of treatments.”