The Pius X High School Tragedy

27 October 1975

Warning: this story may be disturbing to some readers.

Perhaps the greatest horror of a parent is something evil happening to their children. Sadly, on the afternoon of 27 October 1975, evil strode into Pius X High School causing mayhem and death. At roughly 2:30pm, Robert Poulin, a Grade 13 student, arrived at the school on his 10-speed bicycle carrying a large, army duffel bag. He entered the building located on Fisher Avenue in suburban Nepean and walked to classroom 71 on the ground floor. There, Father Bédard was conducting a religious instruction class. After pausing briefly at the lockers located outside the room, Poulin calmly took out a sawed-off, pump-action shotgun from his duffel bag and threw open the classroom door. With a smile on his face, he fired several shots into the crowded room. At first, students thought it was a joke. But the awful reality quickly became apparent as shotgun pellets shattered bodies, and peppered the back wall of the classroom. Students threw themselves to the ground or hid behind desks in a desperate attempt to protect themselves. Poulin then backed out of the classroom. In the hallway, he put the shotgun to his head and pulled the trigger, blowing his brains over the walls and lockers. The whole affair lasted just ten seconds.

Robert Poulin, Ottawa Journal, 28 October 1975.

It took several minutes for the teacher and the students to realize that the attack was over. School principal, Father Leonard Lunney, who had been in his office at the time of the attack, rushed to the classroom to find the shattered remains of Robert Poulin in the hallway in front. He told the students that they were safe and ordered another teacher to stand guard over the body and wait for the police. To avoid passing by Poulin’s body, the traumatized children broke the classroom’s windows and evacuated to safety through them.

Six students were wounded in the attack, one grievously. Shot in the head, Mark Hough, age 18, was later to succumb to his injuries after a five-week battle for his life. Also wounded were Marc Potvin (18), Terry Vanden Handenberg (18), Barclay Holbrook (16), Kurniadi Benggawen (16) and Michael Monette (17). Thankfully, they all recovered. The psychological wounds inflicted on the entire class were, however, long lasting.

As Robert Poulin was entering the school, firemen were entering his house at 5 Warrington Drive in Ottawa South. They had been called to the scene by a neighbour who had gone to Mrs. Stuart Poulin’s assistance after the latter had arrived home from shopping to find smoke billowing from her home. In the basement, the firemen make a horrifying discovery. Manacled to a bed was the charred body of a semi-clad girl.

The body was quickly identified as that of a 17-year-old neighbour, Kimberly Rabot, who lived less than two blocks away. Poulin and Rabot knew each other, having been in the same Grade 10 class at Pius X High School before Rabot changed schools three years earlier. Rabot had also gone to Poulin’s house on one occasion to play the boardgame Risk. Poulin had also reportedly asked her out, but she had declined. Kim Rabot, an avid swimmer, had a sunny disposition and abhorred violence.

In the days leading up to the tragedy, there had been little indication in Poulin’s demeanour to suggest anything was awry. To all, including his family, classmates and teachers, Poulin was a quiet, studious kid. His passions were war board games and the militia. He had joined the Cameron Highlanders, and was hoping to go to officer training school one day. Poulin also had a job delivering newspapers. He was, however, a loner with few friends. He typically arrived at school just as classes were about to start and left immediately afterwards. His write-up in his school yearbook was “Rob takes the cake for this year’s ‘Briefcase of the Year award.’” He never showed much emotion.

The Friday before the attack, Poulin had asked his principal Father Lunney about the chances of him being able to leave school prior to the end of the school year the following June. Poulin wanted to work with the militia on security for the upcoming Montreal Summer Olympic Games. Father Lunney assured him that with his marks and record there would be no problem. That Sunday evening, just hours before he snapped, Robert Poulin had played cards with his parents and three sisters. The only thing unusual to occur was that he quit early to go to his bedroom in the basement.

Second from top, Robert Poulin’s advertisement for companionship, Ottawa Journal, 7 October 1975.

Police worked diligently to trace Poulin’s actions in the days leading up to the attack. They discovered that he had purchased a 12-guage, single-barrel shotgun with the serial number L877371 from a Giant Tiger store on George Street in the Byward Market a few days earlier. Poulin subsequently sawed off the barrel in his home’s basement so that it would fit in his duffel bag. He had also placed an advertisement for companionship in the personals’ column of the Ottawa Journal newspaper. The ad ran the first week in October.

On the fateful Monday morning, he left early, ostensibly to go to school. His mother asked if he wanted breakfast but Poulin said he had already made himself a peanut butter sandwich. Shortly afterwards, his mother heard a door slam and heavy steps on the stairs going down into the basement. She did not investigate. The basement bedroom was her son’s sanctum where neither she nor her husband ever went. She later went down to another part of the basement and called out to her son who was in his room behind a curtain. He said everything was fine. All seemed normal. She could hear nothing unusual above the sound of a radio and an operating washing machine.

What came out at the inquest held in early December, was that poor Kim Rabot was also behind that curtain. She had left her home at about 8:00am to go to the bus stop to catch her bus for school. Her brother was with her. Fifteen minutes later, Poulin approached her and said “I’ve something to show you.” She initially refused to go with him, but then relented when he said that he would drive her to school so she wouldn’t be late for class. She went back to his house with him. That was the last anybody other than Poulin saw her alive. An autopsy showed that she had been raped, then asphyxiated with a plastic, dry-cleaning bag and stabbed eleven times.

After killing the girl, Poulin laid a trail of Playboy magazines throughout the basement and doused them with gasoline. His intent was to destroy his home. The police were later to find more than 250 pornographic magazines and books, some of which portrayed graphic scenes of women in bondage. Unknown to his parents, Poulin had rented a post office box for the delivery of the pornography, which he purchased with the earnings from his paper route. He also had a large collection of women’s undergarments.

Amongst Poulin’s other effects in his bedroom, police found a diary, from which excerpts were read out loud at the inquest. While there was no reference to a pending school attack, there were some very disturbing entries. Poulin fantasized about suicide. He also thought about killing his parents and sisters, but changed his mind. He thought death “was the true bliss” and that he didn’t want them to be happy. He also wrote about burning the house down in a way that would cause maximum hardship to his father. As well, he described his sexual fantasies and his fear of women. He ordered an “Everything doll” from an ad in one of his pornographic magazines, but it didn’t live up to his expectations. Not wanting to die a virgin, he considered buying a model revolver to abduct a neighbourhood girl and rape her. If the girl caused any trouble, he wrote that he would kill her because he had nothing to lose since he was planning to kill himself anyhow. Ominously, the police found a list of girls who lived in the area; Kim Rabot’s name was underlined.

Two psychiatrists at the inquest testified that Robert Poulin was “almost two people,” and that his sudden burst of violence could not have been predicted. They also absolved his parents for responsibility for his deviant behaviour. With this school attack coming just months after a similar attack in Brampton in which a student and teacher were killed, the psychiatrists recommended the complete abolition of hand guns, and tight controls on other firearms. They also recommended additional controls on pornography.

The three-man, two-woman coroner’s jury deliberated for six hours. Their main recommendations focused on guns and pornography. While they dismissed calls for a complete ban on all firearms, they urged the government to ban all hand guns and limit sales of other firearms to only people with valid reasons to own them, such as hunters and target shooters. In addition, they argued that there should be a 30-day cooling off period between gun sale and gun delivery. They also called for a complete ban on pornography which they defined as “anything showing or representing the genital parts of the human body.” As well, the jury castigated the media for sensationalist reporting, a charge the coroner disputed saying that the news coverage had been responsible—the public had the right to know. Other recommendations included schools making periodic, random searches of lockers, and for secondary schools to know where all students are within the first thirty minutes of the school day, and to inform parents of any absences within an hour.

Following the tragedy, Mayor Lorry Greenberg initiated a voluntary, “no-questions-asked” turn-in of weapons. More than 178 guns of which 68 were restricted weapons were handed in to the Ottawa Police, including one from a convict out on parole.

The Liberal Government of Pierre Trudeau tightened controls on guns in 1977, two years after the Pius X High School shooting though not as far as the coroner’s jury recommended. Firearms were divided into three categories, unrestricted (rifles and shotguns) and restricted, such as handguns and semi-automatic weapons, and forbidden, such as sawed-off weapons. Fully automatic weapons were prohibited the following year, though existing weapons in private ownership were grandfathered.

While mass shootings, particularly in schools, are rare in Canada, they have occurred on several occasions since the Pius X High School attack. The most infamous was the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal when Marc Lépine killed fourteen women in an attack on feminism. This massacre led to further tightening of gun controls. In 1995, the Canadian Firearms Registry came into effect which required the registration of all firearms, including non-restricted weapons, such as rifles and shotguns. However, the Conservative government of Stephen Harper repealed the “long-gun” registry in 2012 and required all the information collected to be destroyed. While Quebec filed an injunction against the destruction of the data, the Supreme Court of Canada ruled against the province in 2015.

While there is no constitutional right to bear arms as there is in the United States, gun control remains a contentious issue in Canada. The issue broadly pits rural against urban interests and east versus west. Following the killing of twenty-two persons in Nova Scotia in 2020, the Liberal government of Justin Trudeau banned 1,500 different types of assault-style weapons. In 2021, the federal government introduced further measures, including giving cities the ability to ban hand guns. The draft legislation is viewed as insufficient and unworkable by gun control advocates, and is opposed by gun enthusiasts.

Since the 1975 Pius X High School shooting, Canada’s laws on pornography have been liberalized, except in two important areas. Child pornography is prohibited. Pornography that involves crime, horror, cruelty and violence is also illegal.  

Sources:

CBC, 2020. “Trudeau announces ban on 1,500 types of ‘assault-style” firearms – effectively immediately,” 1 May, https://www.cbc.ca/news/politics/trudeau-gun-control-measures-ban-1.5552131.

CNN. 2021. “Canada backs away from national hang gun ban and will leave it up to communities,” 16 February, https://www.cnn.com/2021/02/16/americas/canada-handgun-ban/index.html.

Ottawa Citizen, 1975. “Rob – ‘a quiet lad’ says it all,” 27 October.

——————, 1975. “Two dead, six wounded,” 28 October.

——————, 1975. “Relationship with militia ‘psychopathic,’” 28 October.

——————, 1975. “Seconds of terror related by witness,” 28 October.

——————, 1975. “Still no legislation enacted to toughen gun control laws,” 28 October.

——————, 1975. “So precious, so loving,” 29 October.

——————, 1975. “Three of St. Pius injured to go home this weekend,” 29 October.

——————, 1975. “Kimberly stabbed—coroner,” 29 October.

——————, 1975. “Mayor invites Ottawans to turn in their guns,” 30 October.

——————-, 1975. “Poulin looked ‘INSANE,’” 2 December.

——————-, 1975. “Poulin inquest,” 2 December.

——————-, 1975. “Kim didn’t like to hurt feelings,” 2 December.

——————-, 1975. “Poulin’s Diary,” 3 December.

——————-, 1975. “Poulin almost 2 people,’” 4 December.

Ottawa Journal, 1975. “Student guns down classmates,” 28 October.

——————-, 1975. “His best friend was his bicycle,” 28 October.

——————-, 1975. “Poulin told Kim: ‘I’ve something to show you,’” 29 October.

——————-, 1975. “Robert’s room his castle,” 2 December.

——————-, 1975. “Pornography surprise to father,” 2 December.

——————-, 1975. “Porn, gun control a necessity – jury,” 5 December.

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6 thoughts on “The Pius X High School Tragedy

  1. I moved to Ottawa in 1972. This incident was horrific. Unfortunately, people that do these things are so skilled at hiding 😕 their malicious thoughts & actions so never get caught while something can be done. (Admit to Royal Hospital)
    Then the tragedy at OC Transpo. Never should have happened.

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  2. As a family member of Mark Hough who was killed in this attack, there has always been incredulity that there is no memorial to mark the significance.

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    • Mark was my home room rep and a great inspiration to all of us in the class. He was like a big brother. I couldn’t agree more. Can we still consider a memorial appropriately?

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  3. I was the new administrator of the school and went into the classroom within minutes of the shooting. I told the students to break the windows and cleaned out anything with blood on it. Father Lunney had told me as I was heading down the hallway that he wanted the room ready for early next day. I also was relieved when he said that the school board was sending janitors to help clean up. The head boy was the only one who left that room through the door and was at my door a couple of seconds after Poulin had committed suicide. Once the students were out through the Window I got Preston glass to repair the window. I asked the nuns to prepare a large pot of coffee for the police, students and teachers. I also checked the parking lot to make sure the ambulances could get in. That was a long day for me I had started at 7:00 am and left the school at 8 pm. I was in the next day at 7:00
    Am and ended scraping some of Robert’s remains out of the cracks on some of the lockers.

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