The outbreak of violence in a public space inevitably inspires us to question our security. But the numbers don’t lie: our streets are becoming less mean.
The Eaton Centre and Yonge-Dundas Square were both poorly conceived as city landmarks—the iconic 1970s mall and the 21st-century concrete-park-as-advertising platform each commemorate their own era’s push towards monumental commercialism. And yet landmarks they are, well used and collectively embraced by Torontonians as a gathering space—our communal living room.
It’s where we go to celebrate sports victories or hold protest marches. It’s a place we go Christmas shopping. Whether we consider it beloved, blasphemous, or bemusing (or all three), the Yonge-Dundas intersection takes up a lot of space in the mental map of most Toronto residents, no matter where they live. Be it ever so tacky, it’s home.
I think this is why the shooting of seven people in the Eaton Centre’s food court last weekend—like the shooting of Jane Creba less than a block away, seven years ago, and the murder of shoeshine boy Emanuel Jaques a generation ago—felt so personal to so many people in Toronto. It hit close to home; the victims could have been any of us, or a member of our families.
Visiting the scene this past Monday, when the food court was still closed, I looked down from the balcony above on the empty tables where the shooting occurred and saw a bouquet lying on the floor as a tribute to the victims. I thought about the times I have sat with my wife and three children in the table next to that memorial, right where the bullets flew.
Giving uncharacteristically eloquent voice to Toronto’s reaction, Mayor Rob Ford hinted at this shared experience when he noted in remarks on Sunday that his City Hall office is next door to the site of the shooting. His brother Doug’s family had been shopping at the Eaton Centre when the violence broke out. “It’s in the heart of Toronto,” he said. “And every heart in Toronto was torn last night.”
The mayor also put his finger on another of the stages of grief—and causes of shock—Torontonians were going through as he noted that this is generally a safe city. “For a brief, tragic moment, that food court was a terrible, dangerous place to be. And that brief flash of horror will forever change too many families,” he said. “But I also know that Toronto is a safe city. Yesterday’s crime was extremely unusual. Things like that do not happen very often in our city—and we plan to keep it that way.”
At a time when fear, anger, and sadness were welling up inside us, “Is Toronto safe?” became the question of the moment. “Toronto is safe” was the reassuring answer.
You could hear people saying that to themselves again and again—on social media, in newspaper columns, on the street—in the days after the shooting. And it’s true. By the standards of big cities—by the standards of cities of any size—Toronto is a remarkably safe place. There were 45 homicides in Toronto last year, while Los Angeles had 298 and Chicago had 433.
A few cynical opportunists claimed otherwise, including Julian Fantino, Giorgio Mammoliti, the opinionators of the Toronto Sun—those few who stand to gain by ramping up the fear quotient. But an impressively large number agreed with the mayor that ours are not mean streets; in fact, they are becoming less mean as time goes on. The shock of this shooting spree—which shattered the normal, peaceful nature of our everyday experience—underscored that perception of our security rather than undermining it. This is not to say it didn’t wound us. Instead of panic, the emotion we felt, appropriately, was grief, for a variety of reasons.
Of course, there’s grief for the victims, whose lives were changed in an instant by the actions of a career criminal apparently settling a personal score of some kind. There’s grief because as rare as these types of incidents are in Toronto, they’re still not rare enough, especially in the less affluent corners of the city that are not charted in the mainstream consciousness. And there’s grief that some people in our city hold the belief that lethal violence is an option for settling disputes.
Accused shooter Christopher Husbands is in custody. One victim is dead, while the others recover. By lunchtime on Tuesday, the food court at the Eaton Centre was again filling with people talking, laughing, and eating. We won’t soon forget what happened, but we move on, forward, together.