‘People are feeling pretty grim’: Academic community on edge after ‘hate-motivated’ attacks on U of W professor and students

Members of the academic community were on edge Thursday, a day after a knife attack left a professor and two students injured on an Ontario campus.

“It feels very heavy today after what happened yesterday at the University of Waterloo,” Julie Lalonde, a women’s rights advocate and public educator, said during a webinar on bystander intervention in gender-based violence. with the non-profit organization Right to Be.

“I know a lot of people feel pretty down.”

Waterloo Regional Police said investigators believe the knife attack, allegedly committed by a recent graduate, in a gender studies classroom on Wednesday afternoon was a “hate-motivated incident involving gender expression and gender identity”.

At 3:37 pm, the time of the attack the day before, hundreds of people gathered on the Waterloo campus to denounce what they saw as hate and violence.

“There are those who would like to intimidate us,” said university rector Vivek Goel.

“They want us to be afraid: afraid to learn, afraid to share, afraid to speak our truths. But we won’t let them stop us from loudly proclaiming our values ​​of inclusiveness and openness.”

A community event is held outside of Hagey Hall to focus on supporting each other and making everyone feel safe in Waterloo, Ontario on Thursday June 29, 2023.

The attack has left the academic community again discussing how to stay safe. Advocacy groups and experts have been observing a rise in gender-based violence in Canada and across the border, where anti-feminist and anti-LGBTQ sentiments have led to changes in access to reproductive health care, such as access to safe abortions and an erosion of gay rights.

On Thursday, Waterloo Police Chief Mark Crowell alleged that the suspect, Geovanny Villalba-Aleman, 24, entered a ground-floor classroom of about 40 students with two large knives and asked what class it was before. of stabbing the 38-year-old teacher. Katy Fuller. Two students, a 20-year-old woman and a 19-year-old man, both from Waterloo, were also injured. All three were transported to the hospital with non-life-threatening injuries after students intervened, some throwing objects such as a chair, Crowell said.

Police said they found Villalba-Aleman trying to act like a victim. The defendant is a member of the university community.

“He sought to blend in and essentially hide in plain sight (with the crowd of fleeing students),” Crowell said.

“Fortunately, due to excellent witness information, we had a good description of who the individual was and were able to identify the suspect we were looking for.”

According to the school’s website, the Philosophy 202 course was intended to “examine the construction of gender in the history of philosophy through contemporary debates. What is gender? How do we ‘make’ gender? How can we ‘undo’ gender, and do we want to?

Villalba-Aleman has been charged with four counts of aggravated assault, three counts of assault with a weapon, two counts of possession of a weapon for a dangerous purpose, and mischief for less than $5,000. She remains in custody after a brief court appearance on Thursday.

On Thursday, more than 40 miles away in Hamilton, Syrus Marcus Ware and his McMaster University community were discussing the incident at Waterloo and how to build safer spaces where “activist scholars” and their students can thrive.

“We’ve seen incidents like this definitely on the rise, but of course this reminds us of the tragedy at the École Polytechnique on December 6,” Ware, an assistant professor at the university’s School of the Arts and co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, said in a statement. reference to the 1989 attack that killed 14 women on the Montreal campus.

As a black trans professor and a “radical shift to the right” in American politics, Ware said, he thinks a lot about his safety.

“I think about what it means to work late hours on campus and teach content that some would rather not teach,” he said.

“I really hope that, if anything, this moment reminds us of the need for our programs.”

A 2019 study published by Statistics Canada found that 34 percent of female-identified teachers at post-secondary institutions reported harassment, while only 22 percent of their male counterparts reported the same treatment. Those who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community also saw a higher likelihood of bullying compared to straight educators.

“One thing we do, and don’t shy away from as teachers, is encourage discussion,” said Ethel Tungohan, an associate professor of politics at York University, speaking of the online discourse. But, since 2016, “the tenor of the talks has changed.”

“It wasn’t just a raucous debate…it felt personal,” he said, adding that he has received death and rape threats via email because of the work he does.

“Being in the public eye as a professor and being on a kind of non-normative body… makes you subject to additional scrutiny.”

It’s been happening quite often lately, he said, that professional teacher associations have been organizing panels on the subject.

“Hearing the news about Waterloo, I was surprised, of course, and I’m still reeling, but I’d be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised.”

While the current physical threat to University of Waterloo students may be over, he said, he worries the psychological damage will continue.

“What about the continued threats to people’s experiences in the classroom…the chilling effect this will have?”

Over the course of an hour on Thursday, Lalonde walked webinar participants through a series of tools geared towards de-escalating these types of situations with practical tips like how to distract the bully while checking in on the victim or documenting the interaction.

“There are a lot of attacks really targeting women, gay and gender non-conforming people,” Lalonde said in a later interview.

“It can feel like an overwhelming feeling where nowhere is safe.”

Lalonde, who is based in Ottawa, said the constant blare of news about such incidents can breed apathy, one of the reasons she made the workshops a permanent part of her job.

“We really have to start getting real about the influence we have in our own communities,” he said.

There also needs to be a recognition that “lone wolf” suspects find a community somewhere and thus don’t act alone, Lalonde said.

“These little things make a big difference and I think people underestimate how much power they have.”

With files from Cheyenne Bholla, Brent Davis and Terry Pender of Waterloo Region Record

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