Reflections on the University of Waterloo attack
Content warning: this article discusses physical, sexual, and gender-based violence as well as homophobia, transphobia, and queerphobia. Please read with attentiveness to your mental health and wellbeing. A list of queer organizations and supports can be found on this page.
On June 28, a professor and students were targeted in a hate-motivated attack during a philosophy of gender class at the University of Waterloo. The incident occurred during Pride Month which promotes and celebrates the 2SLGBTQIA+ community.
The professor and two students are recovering from severe but non-life-threatening injuries. Investigators on the case believe the armed assailant planned the attack and was motivated by hate related to gender expression and identity. In wake of the incident, the University of Waterloo admitted its emergency response system, tested earlier that day, did not effectively operate to alert the wider campus.
Prime Minster Justin Trudeau called the attack “horrifying and unacceptable” as universities and students are jointly reeling from the events at Waterloo and considering its impacts.
Throughout Canada, and perhaps the globe, we are seeing intensified political movements underpinned by hate and contempt for 2SLGBTQIA+ people. Most notably, recent legislative attacks to gender-affirming healthcare. Moreover, Jordan Peterson, a professor at the University of Toronto, posted a tweet calling members of the Endocrine Society who support gender-affirming care “liars [,] butchers [,] monsters.” Moreover, Elon Musk – owner of the app – tweeted the following: “the words ‘cis’ or ‘cisgender’ are considered slurs on this platform.”
In a similar trend, New Brunswick recently made headlines with provincial changes to Policy 713. The policy was introduced in 2020 to set minimum standards for New Brunswick schools to provide a safe and welcoming environment for 2SLGBTQIA+ students. The current conservative government revised the policy to forbid teachers from using students’ preferred pronouns without parental consent. In doing so, the province’s Premier Blaine Higgs publicly stated that gender dysphoria has become ‘trendy,’ and is not a trend he will be supporting through Policy 713.
Dr. Shannon Dea, professor and Dean of Arts at the University of Regina, explained that these attacks might be best understood as stochastic terrorism. Dr. Dea explained stochastic terrorism as a “useful term coined to describe what happens with the [proliferation] of disinformation.” It refers to events where a person is inspired to act violent in the name of something they perceive as wrong. Such actions are further emboldened through messages they receive, designed to elicit such responses and perhaps culminate into events like observed in Waterloo. Following the events in Waterloo, Peterson tweeted “DIE woke universities And not a moment too soon.” This is a clear example of stochastic terrorism that further encourages violence.
Dr. Dea is a social scientist who researches and teaches within the areas of gender and queer studies. She is also the author of “Beyond the Binary: Thinking About Sex and Gender.” The Dean of Arts also served as the former director of Women’s Studies at the University of Waterloo where she helped to create and teach the course in which the recent attack occurred.
“[It’s] worth noting that if gender studies students and professors aren’t safe, [universities] aren’t safe for anybody,” says Dr. Dea. In conversation she pointed to the student reports on the incident, many of whom aren’t themselves gender non-confirming. This speaks to the larger socio-environment in which gender-based or queerphobic violence is experienced. You do not have to identify as 2SLGBTQIA+ to be the target of a queerphobic attack.
There are connections to be made here with the 1989 death of Alain Brosseau. Brosseau was living and working in Ottawa when he was attacked by a group of teenagers who chased, beat, and then dropped him over the side of a bridge. His attackers later said that they acted on the belief Brosseau was gay, which he was not. Ottawa Filmmaker Carl Stewart, who created a short film on Brosseau’s life, comments “I think the fact that he wasn’t gay meant that it could happen to anyone.”
According to Dr. Dea, it’s “bad practice to extrapolate too sharply” from what occurred in Waterloo and in who we imagine perpetrators to be. In large part she says that sexual, gender-based, and queerphobic violence is experienced within interpersonal relationships and is supported by statistical research.
The caution from Dr. Dea was that if we perceive public spaces to have become ‘unsafe,’ there are further unintended impacts of making spaces more unsafe. One of which is that people are not around and present in public space. In turn, “this makes it harder for everybody to study,” says Dr. Dea.
One element involved in directed attacks like the one at Waterloo is that other classes aren’t teaching gender and queer curricula. To this, Dr. Dea says she “doesn’t expect all profs to teach gender studies,” and rather that universities should be a multiverse in that “gender studies needs to be taught in bustling, lively, active places.”
Last month, the Carillon released its first issue of volume 66. It was bold, and one of the ‘queerest’ issues to date. A quick walk around campus revealed overwhelmingly empty newsstands shortly after they had been filled with issues of the publication. However, there was also an increase in tampered-with newsstands. Holly Funk, editor-in-chief, says “there’s always a chance it can happen when we’re a newspaper printing in favour of things that are being contested like basic human rights.”
When asked about the connection between seemingly small incidents such as the vandalism, Dr. Dea says “it’s difficult to know whether intended or not, [but] they provoke fear. […] People have a responsibility to make others feel safe.”
Likewise, microaggressions operate in a similar manner. Microaggressions occur mostly in commonplace, everyday slights, comments, or reactions toward aspects of a person’s identity such as class, gender, or race. Part of making spaces safer then becomes about making them intelligible as queer spaces. Dr. Dea explained that although there are good critiques around virtue signaling, hanging pride flags and having a visibly queer presence are still examples of queer space establishing that remain important.
Students who are or have experienced gender-based violence, queerphobia, transphobia, or homophobia should “start by reaching out to URSU” says Dea. The University of Regina also has counseling services, and a sexual violence office with the mandate of violence prevention and protection.