Hate-fuelled sentiments toward Women and Gender Studies and Sociology students at the University of Toronto (U of T) drew swift reaction from the university on Tuesday. A statement in the comment section of a Toronto Sun article about recent lethal threats to students said: “the only good feminist is a dead feminist.” The university called the comments “deeply distressing and deplorable” and asked that all threats be brought to the attention of the police.
“Death threats are not new to us. Silencing is not new to us,” said Dr. Jamie Magnusson, chair of the Centre for Women’s Studies in Education at the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education, U of T, who spoke against gendered violence at a rally at the university on Monday; there is a long history of death threats against women and feminists on Canadian campuses. Adding, it is a mere political reality of doing feminist work.
Professor Magnusson said instructors and researchers had a right to know about the threats before the emergency meeting that was called by the university administration last Friday, Sept 11.
On Monday, graduate and postdoctoral students, faculty and staff took to the streets to protest what they say is the university administration’s failure to warn workers and students of violent threats against women on campus. The group suggested that U of T withheld information that should have been made known to its constituents earlier.
The protest brought together activists in solidarity from George Brown College, York and Ryerson universities to the downtown campus in an effort to defend the rights of women on campus.
“A threat to feminists is a threat to the entire U of T community, is a threat to the entire city, is a threat to all of us,” said professor Olivia Chow, NDP candidate for Spadina-Fort York, to cheers from the crowd that gathered by the steps at the front entrance of the New College building close to Spadina Avenue.
Messages from professor Chow and other representatives of the student body in the surrounding communities elicited a chill that harkened back to the 1989 Montreal massacre at Ècole Polytechnique, which served as a reminder to take care.
One of the protesters suggested that the threat was made earlier in the summer. In an interview, a speaker referred to the incident as a “series of threats,” as opposed to one comment as outlined in the Police Service release.
Further investigation revealed that Carly Stuart tweeted police on Sept 5 after noticing comments on blogTO by a user called “Kill Feminists,” who said “Next week when a feminist at the University of Toronto tries to ruin your life with false sex rape allegations, rent a gun from a gang and start firing bullets into these feminists at your nearest Women’s Studies classroom.”
@StuartCarly tweeted the following on Sept 5:
.@TorontoPolice Person threatening to shoot feminists @UofT on @blogto article. This warrants investigation!! (Image on Twitter).
BlogTO founder and editor Tim Shore pointed Core Magazines to an online statement which says that the two comments were removed from the site as soon as they were made aware, however, an archived copy is lingering on the web.
The site collects email addresses and names but the user can submit any information they want to when making a comment. The IP address can be identified and linked back to the device used to make the comments. Shore said that they have made information available to local law enforcement “that may be useful in their investigation.”
Commenters in a U of T Reddit forum discussing the issue were hesitant to cause panic after they found out about the threat five days later but were more concerned that students on campus would be too relaxed if they were uninformed. Mostly, they expressed shock that the university did not alert them considering recent school shootings in the US.
Students found out that a series of threats were made on June 26 by a user called “PHD.” referring to a knife, guns, firecrackers, pushing people into traffic, oncoming trains or off overpasses and suggested ways that Toronto Mayor John Tory should kill feminists if they showed disrespect or acted rude.
A screen capture of the comments is housed on Imgur.
PHD. wrote: “If a Toronto feminist whore confronts you on the streets, hire John Tory to follow her. She might be attending the nearest Women’s Studies classroom at the University of Toronto…slit her throat in the classroom. If the other feminists react negatively, John Tory will pull out his Tech-9 gun and aim it recklessly shooting as many Toronto feminists as he can. RIP Marc Lepine.” Lepine is the gunman who killed 14 students at Ècole Polytechnique.
Nickie Van Leer, a representative from the U of T Graduate Students’ Union, addressing the crowd at the rally on Monday made it known, on behalf of the students, that “the university has a responsibility for the safety and well-being of its community members well before its own reputation.”
“We’re committed to fighting for a safe campus,” she said.
“We are adamant in our belief that it is the university’s obligation to ensure that this work, this research, this teaching, can happen safely and we were very troubled by the delayed nature of the university’s notification to its community and by the fact that the targeted nature of these threats, the gendered nature of this threat, was completely left out of this communication,” added Lear.
U of T president Meric Gertler denounced the threats as a “despicable reality in Canada and around the world” in a message to department chairs on Friday, Sept 10, adding that he was disturbed “at news of anonymous online threats targeting women at our university.”
He said the university “increased the presence of our own police on all three campuses” in response to the threats, shared information with the community “about how faculty, students and staff can ensure their own safety and where to call if they see suspicious activity.”
Toronto Police Service issued a news release dated Sept 11 at 2:00 p.m., six days after the date of the incident, which stated that they wanted “to make the public aware of an internet threat investigation.” The release said “comments were posted under an online article” on Saturday, September 5, 2015 and that “the comments made threats toward the University of Toronto, specifically faculty and students of the Women’s Studies program.”
The release said that since that time, officers from 52 Division and the Service’s Cyber-Crime section, with the cooperation of the university, have been actively investigating the case.
The Police Service assessed the case as low risk, saying, “To date, no credible threat has been identified,” but U of T would take “whatever steps it deems necessary to provide information to faculty, students and visitors.”
“The way that U of T responded to this particular series of threats wasn’t okay.”
A campus safety alert email was sent to students, faculty and staff from professor Cheryl Regehr, U of T vice-president and provost, on Sept 10 at 1:23 p.m., the same day as president Gertler’s message and one day before the Police Service release, notifying them that the university was cooperating with police on “an investigation into anonymous threats made on a public blog against the University of Toronto. We take these threats very seriously and want to ensure that we have a safe campus community.”
After meeting with university administration in the morning, Colleen Burke, USW Local 1998 president, sent out an email update in the evening on “Campus Safety & the Right to Refuse Unsafe Work.” In it, she expressed concerns over the safety of workers on campus. The notice referred to the alert from the vice-provost. The USW made it clear that the threats were advocating violence against women and feminists, adding that “It is always difficult to know how real the threat is from such anonymous, online hatred, but all precautions must be taken to ensure that staff, students and faculty are safe on campus.”
In a one-on-one interview, protest leader Ellie Adekur reaffirmed that they were there to get the point across that “The way that U of T responded to this particular series of threats wasn’t okay.”
Van Leer said that the lines of communication between student unions, activists and the university administration have been open for years and therefore “there is absolutely no excuse for the continued implementation of safety measures on campus that fail to meet the needs of a very diverse university community.”
We wanted to “come together to build community at U of T in a way that points out that misogyny is alive and well on campus but U of T is a feminist space, and so we should be able to come together as a community and squash those kinds of perspectives,” adds Adekur.
Monday’s rally saw about 500 students, faculty and staff members march from the Sociology building at Spadina and Bloor streets holding union flags and placards, shouting slogans denouncing violence against women to publicly proclaim that university property is a feminist space. The group, some wearing buttons, others dressed in purple clothing or wearing purple swatches secured with pins, proceeded to the New College building, which houses the Women and Gender Studies Institute.
The event had the full backing of the various unions but was organized by the Women’s Caucus of CUPE 3902, the union that represents academic and postdoctoral workers on campus.
In her letter, Burke confirmed that under the Occupational Health and Safety Act, workers have “the right to know” about hazards in the workplace. Under this policy employers must make sure workers are provided with the information they need to work safely and be allowed the right to refuse to participate in work activities if they feel unsafe in their environment.
Despite the low-risk assessment by police, the administration held meetings with faculty and staff in key departments on Friday afternoon, followed by a university-wide alert offering support and contact information.
The rally ended with a reading of the list of names of those who died in the Ècole Polytechnique massacre.
Public notices are housed on the U of T Safety website.