As I got off the highway this Sunday morning, the eerie feeling of driving on Yonge Street became really overwhelming. Turning onto Beecroft Avenue (a route I’ve taken so frequently for many years now) and driving north on that road felt almost surreal: I have been watching these familiar roads all over the news in the last few days. Being here, however, made it all that much more painfully real. We attended mass at St. Edward the Confessor Church, the Catholic parish closest to the area where the van attack took place. From the minute the mass started Father (David) Quail immediately addressed the elephant in the room, speaking about the many dead and hurt in the heinous attack that our city— and this area in particular— witnessed on Monday. During his homily he spoke at length about those who died or were injured and what remains for those in the congregation who by mere coincidence, as it were, were spared. For many who had been at the scene that day it was just a matter of seconds. “Why did they die?” Father Quail asked to everyone and no one in particular. “Why did they live? Why does anyone live, for that matter?” He went on to talk about the miracle of life itself and the dark coincidence that meant those 10 people just happened to be in the wrong place at the wrong time. The attacker, Father Quail reminded us, did not know his victims and vice-versa. The victims didn’t know one another and yet their memories will be intrinsically linked from this point on by the mere fact they were all victims of this senseless act. Those 10 faces, coincidentally, so representative of the multicultural fabric of our city, will live in our minds and our hearts forever, as we as a city try to put together the pieces of what remains in the aftermath of this horrific incident that devastated our good city.
Father Quail also reminded us that sometimes for a heart to be open it has to be pierced. It is through knowing pain that we as individuals and as a society can become more sensitive and aware of the suffering of others. I heard the sermon and was grateful to be there to hear this, because this tragedy has not only united our city like no other tragedy ever before, but it also has created a sense of helplessness and, I must confess, anger and frustration at the inability to prevent such abominable and inconceivable acts from happening again. It is only in sharing this pain, frustration and sense of helplessness that we, as a community, must come together to reach out to those who were directly affected by this horrendous act— the family and loved ones of the deceased and those who were injured in the attack; those who witnessed it and passersby who did what they could to help; the first responders who immediately took charge and swiftly and efficiently attempted to help those who needed it; the heroic police officer who arrested the attacker without incident; the doctors who treated the injured in the hospitals and tried to save those who died. We are now left to put together the pieces, grieve the losses and make every attempt to overcome this and to deal with the aftermath knowing that we are just as vulnerable as those other cities who have experienced terrible things like this in the past. We would watch the news and think this couldn’t happen in our city. We were secure in the sense that things like this don’t happen in Toronto. And now they have.
I also feel that Toronto the Good has lost, like Holden Caulfield would say, a little bit of its innocence. We visited the makeshift memorial that area residents erected at Finch and Yonge to pay tribute to those who died in the tragedy. As we somberly stood there, taking it all in– looking at the pictures of the dead, the flowers, the candles, the messages– the sense of dread was almost too painful to bear. At some point a car that was driving by hit the brakes screeching and as I was getting ready to take a picture I watched in that split second how all heads turned instantly, just like I did, painfully aware of the car—perhaps fearful that what had happened a few days ago could be happening again this morning. It may take weeks, months perhaps, and maybe even longer, for that sense of dread to go away. Driving down on Yonge street there are still some physical reminders of the horror that took place just a few short days ago: a destroyed bus shelter, with the broken glass still there, the orange barrier fences that remained while police conducted their investigation, the different points where the newscasts showed all the bodies that lay there waiting for the coroner to identify them. It is all too fresh, too painful and too real still. How do we heal and move forward? How do we let this not damage us as a community, a city? How do we not let anger and hatred overcome us? Perhaps it all begins, like Father Quail said so wisely this morning, by opening our hearts and letting this experience teach us to be alert and vigilant but not jaded and full of hatred; to come together in unity and embrace one another in order to heal together. There was a vigil at St Edward this past week and it was mentioned that almost 800 people from various churches in the area were there, all looking for the same thing: guidance in the path to healing, to understanding this senseless event. Another vigil will take place tonight at Mel Lastman Square seeking to do the same. It is expected that many Toronto residents will attend, but there is no doubt that all Canadians and even beyond our borders (just like they did with the Humboldt Broncos tragedy) will join in prayer and unity for the healing process to begin.