A month after Florida tragedy, hundreds of protesters demand gun control reform
“A year ago, I was sitting in the classrooms of Stoneman Douglas,” said Cyril Yared as he waited for the rally to begin. “I still have two sisters who are there.”
While millions have heard the horrific story of the Feb. 14 school shooting that took 17 lives in Parkland, Fla., for Yared, the tragedy is personal. Now a first-year McGill student, Yared graduated last year from Marjory Stoneman Douglas (MSD), the high school where 19-year-old Nikolas Cruz opened fire on teachers and classmates. While Yared’s sisters, who were both at school on the day of the shooting, were unharmed, Yared did know Carmen Schentrup, a 16-year-old girl who was killed by Cruz.
“I knew that one day the world would know her name—perhaps because she found the cure for cancer or some other extraordinary reason,” Yared said about Schentrup, whom he says remembers as a bright, ambitious student who took classes several grades ahead of her level. “She was left as evidence of another community shattered by the sound of gunshots.”
Yared was one of three Parkland residents who spoke at the rally in Cabot Square in downtown Montreal on March 24. Debbie Desmettre, a 1997 MSD graduate, and Ellen Malka, a mother of two MSD students, also gave stirring speeches.
“Our community, our peaceful little Parkland, was attacked,” Malka said. “These kids experienced things that nobody should ever have to.” She added that, while her children were not physically harmed in the shooting, one of them was traumatized by the sight of the victims’ bodies during the evacuation.
“Although this is an American issue, we feel it is our duty to stand in solidarity with our neighbours,” said Sophie Saidmehr, a McGill student and one of the two primary organizers of the local protest. “This is no longer a partisan issue; it is simply a question of our humanity.”
After the speeches, protesters marched along Ste-Catherine Street West and René-Lévesque Boulevard. Many protesters brandished signs with politically charged messages, including “Protect Children, Not Guns,” “Never Again” and “We Call B.S.”—a reference to MSD student Emma Gonzalez’s now-famous speech given at a gun control rally in Fort Lauderdale on Feb. 17. Throughout the march, chants among the crowd included “Take no pay from the N.R.A.” and “Vote them out.”
The event, which gathered hundreds, was a sister march to the one held in Washington, D.C., which organizers estimate was attended by about 800,000 people, reported NBC News—300,000 more than originally predicted.
The protest, officially called March For Our Lives, was created in response to high rates of gun violence in the United States. According to Time, there have been 239 school shootings in the United States since 2014, resulting in 138 deaths. Many statisticians, activists and mass shooting survivors believe the astonishing rate of violence is connected to the country’s lax gun laws. In some states, weapons such as AR-15 style rifles can be purchased without a background check or waiting period.
For a long time, the cycle has seemed never-ending: another highly publicized, deadly mass shooting would occur, from Columbine to Las Vegas, and little political action would be taken after the news cycle ended. However, following the Parkland shooting, a number of teenage survivors voiced their outrage on social media and in the press, adopting the role of gun control advocates. In collaboration with the non-profit organization Everytown For Gun Safety, a number of MSD students, including Emma Gonzalez, David Hogg and Sarah Chadwick, organized the original demonstration in the capital.
Since the protest was announced in the days following the Parkland shooting, more than 800 sibling marches were planned across the globe. Other Canadian cities, like Toronto, Calgary, Vancouver and St-John’s, also participated.
Despite the topic of gun control often being labeled an “American issue,” some Montreal protesters handed out flyers opposing the fact that AR-15s, the weapon used in the Parkland and other high-profile shootings, are also legal in Canada. There are, however, tighter restrictions on these weapons here than in the United States, such as mandatory background checks and a cap on the number of ammunition rounds that can be owned at one time, set at five.
After just a few weeks, the Parkland shooting survivors have already made significant progress in passing Florida gun control legislation by pushing Senator Marco Rubio to endorse certain gun control measures. However, Yared said there is still work to be done, and it’s important that Canadian and American citizens who are concerned about this issue register to vote and speak with their government representatives.
“This march is just one step,” Yared said. “We just have to keep going forward […] We’ll have to fight at the polls to get the change that we want.”
Photos by Mackenzie Lad