Violence in the heart of Toronto

Eaton Centre shooting claims second victim. In its wake, Tamsin McMahon finds defensiveness over Toronto’s safety record

A history  of violence

Rick Madonik/Toronto Star

It was barely 48 hours after a gunman fired a hail of bullets through Toronto’s busiest mall on the weekend, killing one and injuring six others, that the city’s top officials rushed to declare the downtown a safe place to shop. “This is the safest city in the world,” Mayor Rob Ford told a press conference. “I’ve travelled around to other cities and you see the stats. We don’t make these up.”

Shootings are on the increase, noted acting deputy Toronto police chief Jeff McGuire, but mostly in incidents where no one is hurt and bullets instead get lodged in buildings and car doors: “I’m not minimizing those because they absolutely are important to us. But let’s not become too alarmist.”

Alarmism was hardly the prevailing sentiment at the Eaton Centre on the Monday after the shooting, where the chief complaint among throngs of shoppers seemed to be that the food court where the shooting took place was still closed for a police investigation.

Fatima Seedat, a student at Ryerson University, which has classrooms in the mall, was among those who had hoped to grab a bite there. “I’m from Scarborough,” she shrugged, referring to the east-end neighbourhood with a reputation for violence. “Shootings are normal for me.”

Such is the notion of violence in the heart of Canada’s largest city that a weekend shooting inside a food court crowded with families—one involving an alleged gunman said to be out on house arrest and a victim alleged to be a fugitive from serious drug charges in Alberta—would be met with a mixture of apathy and defensiveness over the city’s safety record. “Don’t let this define Toronto,” read one of dozens of Post-It notes in a makeshift memorial at the mall. “To those who were hurt, heal and remember Toronto as a peaceful city,” read another.

The statistics tell a different story. There have been at least 111 shootings involving 133 victims in the city in the past 12 months, up from 79 over the same period last year. Of those, 10 have been within the two downtown police divisions that cover the Eaton Centre.

At just 9.2 sq. km, Toronto’s 52 Division, which covers the Eaton Centre and neighbourhoods to the east, is one of the city’s smallest police zones and yet the most violent. At 3,604 reports of violent crime in the area in 2010—the last year statistics were available—the crime rate is six times the city average. Combined with 51 Division, which patrols the 8.6 sq. km west of the mall, police responded to nearly 90,000 calls to the area in 2010 and spent $56 million.

The city and its downtown merchants have tried to stem the violence. The city itself spent more than $50 million a decade ago expropriating pawn shops and adult stores to build a public plaza as part of a massive public facelift a former mayor promised would rival New York City’s Times Square. Walk a few blocks north of the mall, however, and Yonge Street remains much the same seedy mix of discount shops and strip clubs as it did a decade ago.

The city installed closed-circuit television cameras for the area; Toronto police established a 20-officer foot patrol unit for the three blocks surrounding the mall. The DownTown Yonge Business Improvement Area launched a rebranding campaign, including installing more and brighter street lights. The mall itself underwent a $140-million upgrade, including the food court where the shooting took place. “It’s a bustling, stunning eating environment,” says James Robinson, executive director of the BIA. “It’s not just your regular food court.”

“Several years ago, the Toronto Eaton Centre was somewhat tired and might have attracted more undesirable activity, as was Yonge Street,” Mr. Robinson says. “But there has been a lot of work that has gone into improving the quality of the environment.”

As long as the Eaton Centre remains Toronto’s downtown transit hub and gathering place, it will continue to attract crime, says Carleton University professor George Rigakos, who has studied perceptions of safety. “If you’re going to have something like this happen, it’s actually likely to be somewhere like this because of the sheer numbers of people moving through the area,” he says. “You can put measures in place to prevent most types of criminal activity and incivilities, but it would no longer be an easy-access thoroughfare area for people to meet, to get a bite to eat, to shop. It would become virtually unworkable.”

Mr. Robinson says the mall’s high-tech security system helped police identify a suspect within hours of the shooting. But it also exposes the limits urban revitalization can bestow on a place that is both a tourist mecca and a local hangout, open to everyone, regardless of whether they’re coming to shop.




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Violence in the heart of Toronto

  1. To be fair, it’s easy to become apathetic to nameless statistics. The poorly communicated and irresponsible publication ban on the victims does them a disservice.

  2. The most troubling issue is not the stats, but rather the WILLINGNESS of people to execute this sort of violence (and of course the utter stupidity, carelessness and lack of targeting skills). Where are these people utterly lacking any sense of empathy or care for others coming from? Are we creating them somehow? I remember fist fights, not shootings when I was young. Are we importing them? “Racial Profiling” has become a foolish litany preventing an unemotional analysis of the statistics that might allow us to address this problem successfully. We need to understand what is happening, who is involved, why they simply don’t care anything about others and are so willing to murder. We need to fix the root cause, and sadly deal with the current batch of lost souls, whether it be though punishment, rehabilitation, deportation or permanent incarceration. This is a mental illness, and it may not be treatable once contracted.. in which case, permanent incarceration is called for.

    In the case being discussed, the shooter shot a 13 year old boy in the head – collateral damage the lad was just in the wrong place at the wrong time – a food court for lunch…. Prior to release, this shooter should be maimed so that he can NEVER hold/fire a gun again. The consequences of his barbaric act.

    • Are you religious? It may seem an irrelevant question, but it seems the subtext of your comment is that Armageddon will soon be upon us. Lost souls? Permanent incarceration? Maim the shooter? I would guess you are a fundamentalist of some kind… Perhaps the shooter will find Jesus in prison, and everything will work out because Jesus will forgive him on behalf of those he shot and killed.

      • timothy I think it is you that is out to lunch here. I agree with craig insofar as that the punishment should certainly fit the crime, and reckless endangerment and the shooting of innocent shoppers should be met with an ultimate punishment. You cry baby liberals think crime and violence is an accident and the perpetrators need to be helped, you desperately need a wake-up call. You make me sick. You all need a good trip to mogadishu.

      • Not religious – just a ‘figure of speech’.
        Armageddon? LOL Nope. I just think as a society we’ve made a ‘wrong turn’ somewhere resulting in a increased willingness to murder… (and lack on empathy/sympathy etc)

        As for maiming, well castrating rapists, and disabling trigger fingers for gun criminals would certainly result in less repeat offenses. I’m not suggesting mindless barbarism, but more options need to be available to judges for sentencing. If convicted, I’d certainly support a permanent disabling of his trigger finger(s).

        And precisely WHY shouldn’t “Life in prison’ actually mean life? It’s not like his victims will ever recover.. being dead and all. Again, it should be an option for the judges – as should execution. Not like in Texas, but it shouldn’t be ‘off the table’ either.

    • The murder of Tori Stafford in Woodstock, Ontario, is a perfect example of what you are talking about, Craig. After Terri-Lynne McClintic and Michael Thomas Rafferty were convicted of her murder, they showed no remorse even after they were both sentenced to life imprisonment.

  3. Just thought I’d drop this link into the discussion. Toronto Police Service crime statistics, shootings and homicides year-to-date.
    http://www.torontopolice.on.ca/statistics/ytd_stats.php

    One should keep in mind this simple arithmetic:
    number of shootings
    ————————– = likelihood of being a victim
    number of citizens

  4. Just wondering out loud here – What might have happened if just one person in that food court had a concealed carry permit?

    • more casualties?

      • Yes, +1, Christopher Husbands. If the person with a concealed carry permit was a good shot, maybe the 13 yr. old boy would be fine.

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