The University of Waterloo campus has been reeling since a hate-motivated stabbing attack on a gender studies class last month left a professor and two students injured. Members of the local queer community say a climate of hate may have made the attack inevitable.

“It’s heartbreaking and devastating to see,” said Fae Johnstone, executive director of LGBTQ+ advocacy group Wisdom2Action. “I wish it was more of a surprise than it is.”

The incident occurred on June 28, when a 24-year-old recent graduate allegedly attacked a gender studies class with a knife. The alleged attacker reportedly confirmed the subject of the class before lunging at the professor. Witnesses said the attacker was thwarted from causing further harm by students who threw chairs and other objects in self-defence. The attack is reminiscent of the 1989 misogynist hate attack at Montreal’s Ecole Polytechnique that left 14 women dead.

Johnstone said that while the outpouring of support has been heartening, many reactions fail to appreciate how serious the situation is.

“I think many of them aren't recognizing that it's no coincidence that this is targeting the gender studies class,” she told The Maple. “It’s an intersection here of rampant misogyny in the world around us, and also this rhetoric around ‘gender ideology.’”

Zara Phukan, an organizer with the activist group GroundUp that connects groups on and off campus, said this disconnect can be seen in the university administration’s immediate response to the attack.

An email sent to all students the day after the attack urged them to “be patient and have confidence in the judicial process” in regards to speculation about the alleged attacker’s motivations. But, Zara said, queer students “really knew from our proximity to this that this was likely rooted in hate.”

Initial information supported this explanation, with the local police investigating the incident as a hate crime. Geovanny Villalba-Aleman, who was arrested and charged over the attack, allegedly disliked the school’s pride events and came from a conservative religious background.

Friends said that while his alleged act of violence is shocking, Villalba-Aleman was prone to isolating himself and spent much of his social life on the internet, a profile similar to that of Alek Minassian, who carried out a van attack in Toronto in 2018.

Zara said the Waterloo incident has already had a deep effect on queer students’ sense of safety on campus. In particular, this is being felt in the campus’ Glow Centre, one of the oldest queer and trans student organizations in Canada.

“Before this attack, it felt like (the Glow Centre) was a safe space where people could all come to and feel like they weren't directly in harm's way,” she said. “A lot of that opinion has changed … events are getting cancelled because of issues concerning safety. Glow Center isn’t the safe space it used to be.”

Both Johnstone and Zara agreed that the local political climate was ripe for a hate-motivated incident, noting that Kitchener-Waterloo has recently been a hotbed for far-right political organizing.

A Christian group called Trinity Bible Chapel has played an important role in some of these organizing efforts. There is no evidence to suggest the alleged attacker was involved with or motivated by that organization in any way. But the group has published anti-LGBTQ+ content that contributed to a broader climate of demonizing queer activists.

On its blog weeks before the incident, the group railed against “free love, easy divorce, abortion, and sodomy” and “the homosexual movement,” before claiming that queer activists might one day embrace “pedophiles.” The blog post continued: “June is Pride month, and fires devoured Sodom, which was an official 2SLGBTQIA+ city.”

Last October saw school trustee elections in the area swarmed by “anti-woke” candidates and supporters, who have since taken to disrupting school board meetings to push transphobic policies.

Zara said GroundUp has had issues with non-student protesters from Trinity Bible, which runs a shuttle from its church for members to attend protests. Queer student groups say they have received little to no support, or even acknowledgement, from the school’s administration.

“People are really frustrated with how (the university) has historically responded to traumatic events on or off campus that really affects students, which is really just to shove things under the carpet,” she explained. “The hate that they've been spreading on campus … (has) not been addressed.”

Johnstone said her work in advocacy has taught her that this lack of institutional pushback against transphobic rhetoric is a key factor in enabling further harm.

“I think it's way too easy to minimize the risk and to willfully look away from the potential of violence targeting gender studies classes,” she said. “It actually creates a context that encourages violence, because it taps into this idea that we need to protect children, or protect the public, from conversations around gender and sexual identity.”

Zara said the most concerning part of the administration’s reaction was an Instagram story posted on the school’s official account that contained a far-right dog whistle. While the statement itself condemned the attack and claimed support for LGBTQ+ students, it said the attack was “motivated by gender ideology.” Interpreted generously, this shows a lack of basic understanding from high up in the university.

But, said Zara, it’s “certainly a possibility” that it was intentional.

“(At best) it shows that they really don't have an understanding of our communities, and aren't willing to work with us,” said Zara. “If they were that supportive … they would actually reach out to community members and organizers and activists in the area to put together a response.”

Nick Manning, associate vice-president of communications at the University of Waterloo, emailed the following statement when contacted by The Maple for comment:

“The University is committed to encouraging an inclusive, safe and welcoming environment for members of our community, denouncing all forms of hate, discrimination and violence. The attack came near the end of Pride Month during which we demonstrated our solidarity with members of the 2SLGBTQ1A+ communities through a number of visible shows of support and love on our campus … We are not aware of what you describe as regular, far-right protests on our campus. We encourage anyone who feels they have experienced harassment or hate to inform law enforcement."

The statement added:

“We regret that the use of an inappropriate term appeared in a social media post expressing support for our community. The error was unintentional and as soon as it was pointed out to us, we swiftly removed the post. We apologize to everyone offended by its use.”

Zara said the school’s broader response to the attack has been equally ineffective, with seemingly no appreciation for how traumatizing and terrifying the attack has been.

Students were sent back to Hagey Hall, where the attack took place, for exams the very next day, and have been directed to existing support resources which are “already in a critical state of disrepair.” These mostly constitute wellness and counselling programs, but also include police-centred services that many queer students consider inherently unsafe.

Now, said Zara, the task for organizations like GroundUp is to persevere in spite of the school’s administration. The first step is restoring queer students’ power and safety on campus.

“Attacks like this are meant to make us shut down and isolate,” she said. “I understand the hopeless feeling about it … but we need to be action-oriented and reaching out to each other to negate that feeling of isolation.”

Zara said joining GroundUp was a source of empowerment for her and can similarly help other students in the wake of the attack. She pointed to programs like Wilfrid Laurier University’s student-sponsored foot patrol program, which escorts vulnerable students around a potentially unsafe campus environment, as blueprints for immediate action. Assembling this kind of program means connecting queer students to organizations, and connecting these organizations to each other in solidarity.

“There is hope and community, and there is hope in organizing,” she said.

Meanwhile, Johnstone stressed the need for action outside of schools to cut off the root causes of misogyny and transphobia that fuelled this attack.

“We know this is a symptom of hate taking root, and it requires a whole-of-government and whole-of-society approach to respond and make sure that the progress that we've gained isn't put at risk,” she explained.

Johnstone said this kind of approach is something that Canadians are especially reluctant to accept: “It’s easy to imagine that there's something unique about Canada that means hate can't come here too, but hate has been here for centuries. There’s a willful naivete to pretend that we’re different.”

Johnstone said that Canadian governments have shown they are unwilling to take rising hate seriously, and broadly ignore the threat that far-right extremism poses, choosing to “see it as an anomaly, rather than fundamental.” And while organizations like Wisdom2Action are committed to pressuring the state to fulfill its mandate and protect LGBTQ+ communities, it’s not something we should expect.

“We know we can’t depend on governments,” she conceded. “We need to build community safety capacity, to support local queer organizations, and to work alongside sibling movements to ensure a robust, community-led response to hate.”

Cass Kislenko is a non-binary settler journalist working and writing on Treaty 13 territory in Tkaronto.

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