Statement on the University of Waterloo stabbing from CIFRS Executive Director Mariel Cooksey and Co-Director of Research, Dr. Amy Mack:
Over the last week, we at CIFRS have grappled with the best way to respond to the stabbing at the University of Waterloo. We have watched as other organizations and institutions have put out strong statements of condemnation and calls for actions and change. In particular, we wish to highlight the statement by the Women and Gender Studies Association, which has garnered over 3000 signatures. We stand by these statements and will continue to amplify them through our networks, and we encourage our members and readers to do the same.
We also watched as news slowly trickled out about the attacker, the motivations, and the trajectory of the criminal investigation. What we saw was an attack that mirrored dozens of acts of violence across North America and Europe that are grounded in homophobic and misogynistic ideologies. As scholars of the far-right in Canada, we have long been attuned to the reality that an attack like what happened at Waterloo was not an issue of “if,” but rather “when.” Out of this understanding, CIFRS was founded to help translate academic knowledge into public-facing scholarship, educational resources, and policy recommendations that are meant to disrupt pathways to violence evinced in this attack.
Yet, attacks of mass violence are not only an analytical object for our members. Rather, many of us hail from communities that are subjected to far-right violence, and we see first-hand how violence moves from a theorized concept to an embodied experience. We work and live in spaces that give rise to violence and radicalization, and we often teach in these spaces.
We now turn to the words of Co-Director of Research, Dr. Luc Cousineau, who teaches at the University of Waterloo, to speak to the realities of experiencing violence on his campus:
On June 28th, a 24-year-old man entered a classroom of 40 students at the University of Waterloo, asked the professor and students the topic of the course, then pulled two knives and seriously injured the professor and two students. The class was a second year philosophy course (cross-listed with the Gender and Social Justice program) titled Gender Issues, and the Waterloo Regional Police believe that the attack “was a hate-motivated incident related to gender expression and gender identity.” Those are the facts that we know, and more information about this attack, its motivations, and whatever issues might be afflicting the attacker will come to light in the weeks and months that follow. But, two things are clear and one thing is likely. What is clear is that this attack was targeted; there is nothing random about entering a space, inquiring about its focus, then doing grievous harm to others. The other thing that is clear is that this attack was carried out by a young man that feels in some way aggrieved by the social and political timeline he finds himself in; a young man who made the decision to take out that aggrievement on a target that he sees as vulnerable.
What is less clear, but likely, based on the best research and information available about this type of terroristic attack on progressive ideas, is that this young man was taken in by violent ideologies in media. The coverage of these rhetorics of violence with continued reference to perpetrators and their acts of violence, at best, acknowledges and legitimizes the hate in certain ways, and at worst are active parts of organized networks of radicalization. As I have written before in The Conversation (French translation), we can and must do better in our coverage and collective discussions. But I am not interested in re-hashing that argument here, as there are more pressing issues that are brought to bear by this act of violence.
The June 28th attack at Waterloo is deeply personal for me. I am currently a contract lecturer at the University of Waterloo, and it is where I completed my graduate work. While I do not teach in the building where this attack occurred, I had taught earlier that day in another building on campus. My teaching (including entire courses on gender and leisure practices) is steeped in the progressive and critical theory that is absolutely part of the course that became this young man’s target. My research seeks to understand what draws men like this into spaces of violence, and critiques the ways that they see the world as dangerous manifestations of gender traditionalisms and misplaced entitlements. With only a very minor change of circumstance, this could have been my classroom, my students, and myself.
Stepping back from the personal, this incident brings to bare something that I, and my colleagues at the Canadian Institute for Far-Right Studies (CIFRS.org), have been saying for a long time – that the violence we have (unfortunately) come to expect along ideological lines from our neighbours to the south is alive and thriving in Canada. This isn’t just because our media ecosystems are so intimately linked - something that pushes the Canadian Overton window to the right, or because there are floods of US money supporting all manner of far-right ideological projects in Canada, but because we have our own breed of far-right extremism here: it has brought us deep public disruption, boarder blockades, and death threats against members of the LGBTQ2+ community and politicians (especially the Prime Minister).
In the coming days and weeks there will be calls for changes at the level of the university to the ways that they police and protect students, staff, and faculty at Waterloo. There will be calls for change, inquiry into the dismal failure of the campus-wide emergency system, and many questions about what could have been done differently. The response from the upper administration has been admittedly good so far, but good responses in the moments after an incident do not necessarily translate into effective long-term action.
What few of these calls and questions will do is to interrogate the root cause of this violence, which is not a lack of policing or protection, but rather a much deeper social issue that we seem loath to confront in Canada – this violence comes from within – the violence is an outlier in severity, not ideology. What extremism studies, and in-depth studies of misogynist violence, teach us is that violence in the name of ideology is an extreme manifestation of beliefs – beliefs that are long in forming and (mostly) slow to radicalize. Extreme acts of violence like those of misogynist incels, or (presumed) gender traditionalist ideologues in the case of this attack at Waterloo, happen through a process of acclimatization and normalization of increasingly radical, extreme, or violent content. The process is almost always slow, and helped along by media exposure, existing ideologues, and internet trolls looking to push social boundaries. The further toward perceptible and acceptable hate-based rhetorics we move in public discourse, through the platforming of far-right, populist, and nationalist ideas and ideologues, the shorter the distance to radical violence becomes for those most likely to commit it.
For now, we know little about the attacker at Waterloo other than his age (24), his name (which I will not repeat here), and the fact that he was an international student at the University but had recently graduated. Likely his specific motivations will come out in time. But I would argue that his motivations are much less important than what lies beneath them – how he got there and what pushed him to do this type of violence. Knowing how he rationalizes his own acts of grievous violence gets us nowhere in preventing future violence, or in diagnosing the deeper social issues that allow for such acts to occur in the first place. Rather than spending our time looking at him and his act, we should use this as motivation to investigate what part we all play in creating the social setting that can allow that act of hate-based violence to occur. As researchers we know some of the reasons, and as people we know it is time to act.
Here at CIFRS, we are focused on actions. For some of us this takes the form of research and writing about issues and the impacts of the social and physical violence perpetrated by those who are situated on the far-right on everyone. For others, this takes the form of creating direct action plans, working with educators and community members, and/or lobbying levels of government to actually do something to help Canadians who are the targets of or victims of violence in its many forms. If this is something that you feel strongly about, please join us and support our work.