Thousands march in Toronto after van attack

People hold signs as they march to a vigil for the victims of Monday's van attack in Toronto, on April 29, 2018.
People hold signs as they march to a vigil for the victims of Monday's van attack in Toronto, on April 29, 2018. PHOTO: AFP

TORONTO (NYTIMES) - Thousands of Canadians turned out for a march and vigil to remember the 10 people killed last Monday (April 23), when the driver of a rental van mounted the sidewalk of Canada's most famous and longest road, Yonge Street, and plowed down more than two dozen pedestrians.

Eight of those killed were women.

On a crisp and sunny Sunday afternoon, people gathered for what organisers called a walk of solidarity and healing near the site where the first victim was struck, which has been transformed into a large memorial, with a stone wall covered with flowers, photos and messages of hope and love.

Maryam Nazemi stood across from the memorial, weeping. She held a sign that said "Toronto Strong". She was at her nearby gym on Monday when the attack began. Since then, she has come here every day seeking solace from others.

"It's a healing place for me," said Nazemi, 57, a social worker who immigrated to Canada from Iran more than 30 years ago. "This is the only place that feels OK. I am with everyone. We are one." As the crowd proceeded solemnly down Yonge Street, filling all six lanes, they were joined by many of the country's top officials. Prime Minister Justin Trudeau melted in with the marchers.

The procession was led by a singing choir, with people behind them hoisting banners that read "Love for all hatred for none". Some of those marching wore orange shirts that said "Free Hugs".

The march ended at Mel Lastman Square, where religious leaders representing Toronto's highly diverse population - Hindus, Jews, humanists, Muslims, Christians, Buddhists and more - delivered short speeches. An Aboriginal group, Red Spirit Drummers, was among those providing music.

"I needed to be here," said Solange Homer, an immigrant from Trinidad. "Race, religion doesn't matter. In times like this, we support one another." Among those listening was Ken Greenberg, 73, an urban designer who has been asked often over the last week about the practicality of erecting protective barricades for the city's sidewalks. But as he looked around the packed square, where people born all around the world were offering hugs of support to one another, he said "the real armor is the connections" among Toronto's residents.

Indeed, while the attack has cast a pall of sadness over the city, it also has given rise to a new saying: Toronto the Good, a sentiment perhaps best encapsulated by the actions of Police Officer Ken Lam, who earned praise around the world for maintaining his composure during the arrest of the van driver, Alek Minassian.

Before his arrest, Minassian held an object in his hand and repeatedly pointed it at the police officer, as if it were a gun. He also shouted he had a gun in his pocket and demanded the officer "shoot me in the head." But Lam made the arrest without incident.

"I'm proud of my city," said Colleen Rooney, 60, a life coach. "How this has brought people together, more than separated us." In addition to the response of the city's emergency services, the Canadian news media has highlighted the actions of ordinary citizens in the aftermath of the attack: people who held the hands of dying victims, who tore off their belts to fashion tourniquets, who performed CPR until the paramedics arrived.

"It says something that we came together like this," said Annie Lee, 28, who lives in a condominium building close to where the attack ended. "No one jumped to conclusions. Politicians did not blame each other like in the United States. It's a testament to our unity," said Lee, 28, who works in marketing.

The city began a #TorontoStrong fundraising effort, which had raised 1.8 million Canadian dollars (S$1.85 million) by Sunday. Much of the money will go to the families of the victims, to help cover funeral costs and trauma counseling.

The attack happened in a once-sleepy inner suburb in the north of Toronto that, over recent decades, has transformed into a mini-downtown, with new condominium towers shooting up, bringing immigrants and bustle to the area. Korean restaurants, bubble tea cafes and small karaoke bars dot the wide suburban sidewalks, along with nods to gentrification - Whole Foods and Starbucks.

During the past week, pilgrims from across the city have ventured to the street, bringing flowers and candles and handwritten cards near the spots where people were struck down.

The victims ranged in age from So He Chung, a 22-year-old molecular biology student, to 84-year-old Mary Elizabeth Forsyth, who had wheeled her walker to a stop, on one of her frequent strolls, to feed the birds and squirrels.

One victim, Renuka Amarasingha, left behind a 7-year-old son. Amarasingha, a 48-year-old school cafeteria worker, was a single mother who had just finished her first day of work at a nearby school and was on her way to get her child. Her Buddhist center has raised hundreds of thousands of dollars to go toward his education and future.

Minassian, 25, faces 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder.

He has been described by acquaintances as a loner, who expressed fear of women.

Police say Minassian posted a message hostile to women on his Facebook page moments before the deadly rampage began. In it, he praised "incels" or involuntary celibates - a term used by an online community of misogynists who blame women for denying them their right to sexual intercourse.

This fact has given rise to another feeling in Toronto, in addition to the sadness and the civic pride: an uneasiness that misogyny might have been the primary factor behind the terrible act.

"It struck in me a kind of terror," said Lee. "How many more people like that are there hidden out here?"