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.
“Today feels very heavy after what happened yesterday at the University of Waterloo,” said Julie Lalonde, a women’s rights advocate and public educator, during an online seminar on bystander intervention in gender-based violence with the non-profit Right to Be.
“I know a lot of folks are feeling pretty bleak.”
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 related to gender expression and gender identity.”
At 3:37 p.m., the time of the attack a day earlier, 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 president Vivek Goel.
“They want us to be afraid — afraid to learn, afraid to share, afraid to speak our truths. But we will not let them deter us from proclaiming loudly our values of inclusion and openness.”
The attack has left the academic community again discussing how to stay safe. Advocacy groups and experts have been watching 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 the suspect, 24-year-old Geovanny Villalba-Aleman, entered the ground-floor classroom of about 40 students with two large knives and asked what class it was before stabbing 38-year-old professor Katy Fulfer. Two students — a 20-year-old woman and a 19-year-old man, both from Waterloo — were also injured. All three were transported to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries after students intervened, some throwing items like a chair, Crowell said.
Police said they found Villalba-Aleman trying to act like he was a victim. The accused is a member of the university community.
“He sought to blend in and essentially, to hide in plain sight (with the crowd of fleeing students),” said Crowell.
“Thankfully because of excellent witness information, we had a good description of who the individual was and were able to identify that was the suspect we were looking for.”
According to the school’s website, the Philosophy 202 course was meant to “examine the construction of gender in the history of philosophy through contemporary discussions. What is gender? How do we ‘do’ 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 under $5,000. He remains in custody after a brief court appearance Thursday.
More than 60 kilometres away in Hamilton on Thursday, Syrus Marcus Ware and his McMaster University community were discussing the incident in 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 is bringing to mind the Dec. 6 École Polytechnique tragedy,” said Ware, an assistant professor at the university’s School of the Arts and a co-founder of Black Lives Matter Canada, referring to the 1989 attack that saw 14 women killed on the Montreal campus.
As a Black trans professor and with a “radical swing to the right” in North American politics, Ware said, he thinks about his safety a lot.
“I think about what it means to be working late on campus and to be teaching content that some rather wouldn’t be taught,” 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 34 per cent of female-identifying faculty at post-secondary institutions reported harassment while just 22 per cent of their male counterparts reported the same treatment. Those who identified as part of the LGBTQ+ community also saw an increased likelihood of harassment compared to heterosexual educators.
“One thing that we do, and we don’t shy away from as professors, is encourage discussions,” said Ethel Tungohan, an associate professor of politics at York University, speaking of online discourse. But, since 2016 “the tenor of the conversations have shifted.”
“It wasn’t just raucous debate … it felt personal,” she said, adding she has received death and rape threats by email because of the work she does.
“Being in the public eye as a professor and being in a kind of non-normative body … make you subject to extra scrutiny.”
It’s been happening often enough lately, she said, that professional faculty associations have been hosting panels on the topic.
“Hearing the news about Waterloo, I was shocked of course, and I’m still reeling, but I would be lying if I said I wasn’t surprised.”
While the current physical threat to students at the University of Waterloo may be over, she said, she worries the psychological harm may continue.
“What about continued threats to people’s classroom experiences … the chilling effect that this will result in?”
Over the course of an hour on Thursday, Lalonde took participants in the webinar through a series of tools geared at de-escalating these types of situations with practical tips like how to distract the harasser while checking in on the victim or documenting the interaction.
“There’s a lot of really targeted attacks happening on women, queer and gender-non-conforming people,” Lalonde said in an interview afterward.
“It can feel like an overwhelming feeling where nowhere is safe.”
Lalonde, who is based in Ottawa, said the constant drumbeat of news about these types of incidents can breed apathy, one of the reasons she made the workshops a permanent part of her work.
“We really have got to start being real about the influence that we have in our own communities,” she said
There also needs to be a recognition that “lone wolf” type suspects find community somewhere and, in that way, do not act alone, Lalonde said.
“These little things do make a tremendous difference and I think people do underestimate how much power they have.”