By Elizabeth Nyburg
Wendy Cukier never minded opening all those parcels of manure, men’s underwear and bricks.
The “gifts” came from the hundreds of people who opposed her push for stronger gun control laws, but she never let the charming packages affect her advocacy work.
For her perseverance, the Ryerson information technology management professor is being honoured this fall with the Governor General’s Meritorious Service Cross.
The medal, created in 1991, recognizes people who have worked hard in their field or brought honour to fellow Canadians. Past winners include figure skater Elvis Stojko, synchronized swimmer Sylvie Frechette and rower Silken Laumann.
Cukier, president and co-founder of the Coalition for Gun Control, said the killing of 14 engineering students in Dec. 6, 1989, at L’École Polytechnique in Montreal shocked her into her advocacy work.
Marc Lepine used a legal military assault rifle on the women before turning the gun on himself.
“I always assumed, like most Canadians, that we had good gun control,” Cukier said.
It was then that the professor, known mostly for her expertise in the telecommunications field, took on a new cause.
She joined forces with Heidi Rathjen, a survivor of the massacre, in 1991.
Rathjen, who will also receive a Meritorious Service Cross, hid in a dark room only metres from where Lepine executed his victims.
Two years later, she started a student petition for a ban on military weapons.
Rathjen quit her engineering job at Bell Canada to direct the coalition full-time and soon the pair joined fellow gun-control advocate Kathleen Hudson to hold public meetings in Edmonton, Calgary and Vancouver.
The three convinced 300,000 people to write postcards to their MPs demanding that new gun laws include the registration of firearms. By 1995, pressure from the coalition forced federal Justice Minister Allan Rock to introduce Bill C-68, which forces gun owners to register their weapons, controls the sale of ammunition and bans the sale of military assault weapons.
During that time, the associate director of Ryerson’s school of information technology management published more than 50 papers on crime, violence prevention and advocacy approaches.
Although Cukier says she doesn’t pontificate about her “secret life” in class—the only confrontational thing she says is “I’m a real vigilante about plagiarism”—people in the Ryerson community have noticed her work.
Peter Hiscocks, a Ryerson electrical engineering professor, had been working on a camp for Grade 10 girls in 1989 called Discover Engineering, but after the massacre, he couldn’t bring himself to work on the project.
Cukier consoled him, eventually asking him to be treasurer of the coalition.
“One of her strengths is her ability to recruit people,” he said. “I think she’s a genius.”
Not everyone shares that positive attitude about her work though. Ed Quinn, a public health officer who graduated from Ryerson’s public health program in 1972, said he quit the university’s alumni association when he heard about Cukier’s advocacy.
For one thing, he thinks gun control laws are a waste of money. In February, the federal government estimated the cost of implementing and maintaining gun control laws to be $125-million.
“If they took this money,” Quinn said, “and spent it on breast cancer research, multiple sclerosis, shelters for abused women—but no, they want to waste it for limiting one of our elemental freedoms. It’s not gun control. It’s people control.”
“But some students are convinced by Cukier’s arguments.
Hesham Mansur, who took a strategic issues class that Cukier teaches and has seen her on television, said, “If you have a gun, you have to go and register it. If you don’t want to, there must be something wrong with you.”