A city that has long prized diversity is grappling with new security fears after Monday’s vehicle attack that killed 10 pedestrians.
Over a few terrifying minutes on Monday afternoon, a man in a rented cargo van committed one of the worst mass murders in Toronto’s history. Aiming the vehicle down crowded sidewalks for more than a mile, 25-year-old Alek Minassian struck and killed 10 people, many of them women, in Canada’s largest city; 13 more were seriously injured.
Minutes later, an extraordinarily composed Toronto police officer named Ken Lam managed to successfully apprehend an agitated Minassian on a side street without using his weapon—a feat of policing that has earned Lam considerable praise.
It was the first day of bright sunshine and warm temperatures after a longer, harsher than normal winter and the street was busy with people taking lunch along Yonge Street, Toronto’s central spine. The street serves as the dividing line between its east and west ends, and the strip where the attack took place—part of a former suburb called North York that amalgamated with the city of Toronto in 1998—is lined with high-rise apartments and offices, shops, and restaurants.
Downtown North York is also an area that—like much of Toronto—is notably ethnically diverse, home to people from all over the world but in particular those of Chinese, Korean, Vietnamese, South Asian, and Middle Eastern descent. It’s a place where the city’s official motto, “Diversity Our Strength,” rings particularly true. The sidewalks there are wide and inviting to strollers, lined with little green spaces and seating areas. Minassian killed at least two people on the edge of Mel Lastman Square, the large public space at the center of North York.
Vehicle attacks have become an increasingly common weapon of terror in urban spaces, but in Toronto and Canada in general, residents and authorities are largely unaccustomed to violence on this scale. As the attack unfolded there was a sense of confusion and disbelief, especially on social media, where many turned for updates. Some initial reports suggested the incident may have been unintentional: The growing number pedestrians and cyclists struck by vehicles in Toronto has been a focus of concern lately. But soon images of orange blankets covering the victims revealed the attack’s true dimensions.
On Twitter in particular, there was immediate speculation, much of it overtly racist, about the ethnicity of the attacker. A tweet from a CBC News reporter, quoting a witness, that described the attacker as “wide-eyed, angry and Middle Eastern” was immediately shared widely and picked up by right-leaning sites like Breitbart and Infowars, fueling more racist comments online.
Less attention was paid to the corrected information. As soon became clear, Minassian wasn’t racially motivated and did not belong to any established terror organization: Instead, he appeared to be driven by a hatred of women. In a Facebook post shortly before the attack, he praised the 2014 Isla Vista killer Elliot Rodger and identified himself as an “incel” or involuntary celibate, a term that’s been adopted by a hateful fringe community of violent misogynists. In a statement, Canada’s Department of National Defence confirmed that Minassian had joined the military in August 2017, but had been asked to leave before completing his 13-week basic training.
While Canada grieves for the victims of the deadliest mass murder in decades, it’s also reckoning with the fact that radicalization can happen here, too. Sometimes in plain sight.
Despite the horror of the afternoon, the immediate impact on the functioning of the city was surprisingly light. The main subway line, which runs directly under the route of the attack, was only partially closed; nearby streets remained open to traffic, and most buses, streetcars, and commuter trains operated as normal during the evening rush hour. But signs of possible longer-term change are already beginning to appear on the city’s streetscape: Before a Toronto Maple Leafs game at the Air Canada Centre on Monday night, large concrete barriers had been installed around the arena and in places where crowds had formed. City garbage trucks and other large vehicles were parked nose-to-tail across the street as makeshift protection. The next morning, more concrete blocks appeared outside Toronto’s main train station.
This fortification of the urban outdoors is an increasingly familiar ritual, one that many other cities undergo in the wake of similar vehicle attacks. Like Barcelona, New York City, Berlin, and London, Toronto will now be forced to re-examine the dangers that its cherished public gathering spaces might pose to pedestrians. Barriers, protective bollards, and security checks will likely become a more familiar sight, at least for a while. For a city that prizes its multiculturalism and tolerance—and its sidewalks, patios, and parks during the brief warmer months—these are ominous signs that this summer might be different.
Near Yonge and Finch streets, the intersection where the attack began, a makeshift memorial has been steadily growing since Monday afternoon. People have brought flowers, candles, and written tributes in multiple languages, encouraging the city to remain strong and not give in to hate.
Knowing Toronto, it won’t.