Twenty-one years ago, Heidi Rathjen heard the gunshots ring out in the halls of her school when Marc Lepine went on his deadly rampage and killed 14 of her fellow students. She escaped unharmed that day and has been at the forefront of campaigning for tighter gun laws ever since.
Rathjen, who heads a group called Polytechnique Students and Graduates for Gun Control, was on Parliament Hill on Monday at a sombre commemorative event organized by the Liberals. Representatives from the Bloc Québécois and the NDP also attended, but the Conservatives were not included in the ceremony.
"The reason I came to this was because the Conservatives were not part of it. If they would have been part of it, I would not have come," Rathjen said in an interview. "I don't think they have any right to commemorate Dec. 6 because they've done everything they can to destroy one of the main good things that came out of the tragedy, which is the gun control law."
The long-gun registry, created in 1995, was the subject of much controversy this past year because of a Conservative MP's private member's bill to scrap it. The Tories argue the registry has done nothing to reduce crime, is a waste of money and instead penalizes law-abiding gun owners. An effort to halt Candice Hoeppner's bill was launched and came to a vote in the House of Commons in September. The vote was an intensely divisive one and Hoeppner's bill was killed by only the slimmest of margins — 153 to 151.
The campaign by opposition MPs to save the registry won them favour with the Polytechnique victims, who are among the registry's biggest supporters.
"I've never seen so much personal support and effort from members of Parliament to save something they truly believe in, and that's why I wanted to be here in Ottawa standing beside them," Rathjen said.
She said while her group has been fighting since 1989 to make the country safer, the Conservatives have been doing the opposite and she would not have been comfortable attending a Dec.6 event with anyone from the government.
Liberal leader Michael Ignatieff was at the Parliament Hill service earlier in the day and when it was over, he also blasted the Conservatives over their gun control policies and accused them of missing the significance of the Dec. 6 anniversary.
"They just don't understand how deeply wounding this massacre was to the psyche of Canadian women, and Canadian men . . . the Conservatives simply don't understand what that did to us and, consequently, the failure to take action on guns is simply incomprehensible to everyone that was marred by this tragedy," he said.
He and other Liberal MPs continued their attack on the government in question period, saying the Conservatives listen to gun lobby groups more than victims of crime and asking when they would stop trying to scrap the long-gun registry.
"We believe in gun control, gun control that works, gun control that will actually make our communities safer," Conservative House leader John Baird responded. Public Safety Minister Vic Toews also defended his government by saying no other party has been stronger in defending victims than the Tories.
"We continue to support gun control measures that assist law enforcement in protecting our communities and the safety and security of the public," he said.