Cree student awarded Order of the White Rose in memory of Polytechnique victims

An Indigenous engineering student is this year’s recipient of the Order of the White Rose from Polytechnique Montreal in memory of the victims and survivors of the 1989 anti-feminist attack on the school.

Brielle Chanae Thorsen, 22, says the lives of the 14 women cut short by the massacre at what was then known as École Polytechnique must never be forgotten, but real work remains in achieving full equality.

“We all need to remember the women who came before us, especially the victims and survivors of the Polytechnique tragedy,” Thorsen, a Cree woman, said in an interview.

“We must all have an equal opportunity to pursue a rewarding career without being the targets of discrimination or violence, regardless of our gender, race, sexuality, or religion.”

That wasn’t the case for the 14 women — mostly students — gunned down. Thirteen others — nine women and four men — were injured by Marc Lépine during a 20-minute shooting rampage at the engineering school on Dec. 6, 1989.

For the past six years, Polytechnique has awarded the Order of the White Rose: a $30,000 scholarship given to a Canadian female engineering student looking to pursue graduate studies in the field.

White roses and ribbons have become the symbol of the annual activities commemorating the massacre.

Thorsen looks ahead

Thorsen intends to pursue a master’s degree in mechanical engineering at Queen’s University in Kingston, Ont. She has a bachelor’s degree in mechanical engineering and mathematics from the same university.

Although she was born after the tragic events of 1989, Thorsen is well aware of what happened that day. And she knows that this scholarship carries a special weight and significance.

“When I think of the lives that were lost in 1989, I often think: What if it was me and my fellow classmates?” she said. “And that thought devastates me.”

Remembering the victims and survivors is important, because “their efforts and their lives have enabled me and my classmates to study safely,” she added.

Barriers still block progress, Thorsen says

But more than 30 years later, barriers remain, said Thorsen, a member of the Saddle Lake Cree Nation in central Alberta.

She noted that while on an internship with the Department of National Defence, she was one of the few women at the base research centre office in Suffield, Alta., and the only Indigenous woman.

She also recalled during group work at university where she was treated differently because of gender — male classmates ignored her suggestions and comments despite listening to the other men, she said.

Women remain a minority in engineering classes, although when engineering and mathematics are combined, they account for 50 per cent of students.

“And although there is more work to do to move toward equality and equity in the profession … our representation is increasing, which is really promising for the next generation of female engineers,” she said.

“Engineers are designing solutions for the world. So why would we only have a small fraction of this population designing solutions for everyone?”

Thorsen intends to specialize in sustainable energy by using her knowledge to work with Indigenous communities in the North on projects aimed at energy sovereignty.

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