Five years later: Memories of devastating Toronto van attack live on for community
TORONTO — On the first unseasonably warm day of the year, a bustling area in north Toronto sees a variety of pedestrians out enjoying the sun: mothers push strollers, teens leaving school chat in groups and office workers in suits gather outside for their lunch breaks.
There are few visible signs that the deadliest attack in Toronto’s history — and one of Canada’s worst mass murders — took place on this stretch of Yonge Street on a similarly sunny day five years ago, when a man deliberately drove a rented van down a busy sidewalk on April 23, 2018.
In a local park, a modest plaque provides one small reminder of the rampage that left 10 dead and 16 injured that day. A permanent city memorial is still in the works.
For some who live and work in the area, however, memories of the attack remain vivid in their minds.
“Every time I work around here, every time I crosswalk, I always remind myself, maybe I’ve got to be careful before I start walking,” says Jiyong Lee, who lives in the neighbourhood and works at a butcher shop on the attack route.
“That’s what I have in my head every time I work here and walking around here. I cannot get rid of it.”
Lee remembers the day clearly.
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He had stepped out of a subway station after attending classes at Seneca College to find covered bodies on the street and a stretch of road closed by police.
The attack had a significant effect on his family and the community, which has a large Korean population, he says.
“They were scared, they were upset about what happened,” he says, adding that the attack isn’t discussed that often among area residents now.
Frank Herbert, who frequents Mel Lastman Square in the area, says he saw multiple pedestrians get hit that day.
The scene, which he describes as “devastating,” has stayed with him.
“I saw the van, people falling down. I ran out to help. It was almost unbelievable that someone would do that,” he says. “It’s like an open wound.”
Ryan Dillon, bar manager at the St. Louis Bar & Grill in North York, was working when the rampage began. He recalls some pedestrians rushing in while others tried to help the injured outside.
The bar stayed open through the day, despite recommendations that all area businesses close.
“Everyone coming in was just shook. It was a weird, somber kind of feeling,” Dillon says.
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“It was a weird decision but we stayed open and people were actually very happy that we did … I feel like everyone needed a friend in that moment.”
The 37-year-old, who grew up in the area, says he feels residents in the community are now more guarded.
“That was the day we realized, you know what, maybe we aren’t as safe as we think we are living in this area,” he says.
That feeling is something that We Love Willowdale, a community organization formed after the tragedy, has tried to address.
Originally formed to support victims, their families and affected community members, it’s evolved to have a broader mandate of maintaining the community connections forged in the aftermath of the attack. It has since joined the NeighbourLink North York charity.
Sebastian Biasucci, NeighbourLink North York’s marketing and event manager, says talking about the van attack can be triggering for some.
“It goes back to that day where suddenly the eyes of the world were on our community,” he says, adding that the anniversary provokes a range of responses among community members.
“Some people remember like it was yesterday and for some it feels distant.”
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In 2021, a court found Alek Minassian, who claimed to be angered by women who wouldn’t sleep with him and radicalized on the internet, guilty of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.
The presiding judge found Minassian carried out the van attack to achieve notoriety. He was sentenced to life in prison last year with no possibility of parole for 25 years. He’s appealing his conviction.
Betty Forsyth, Ji Hun Kim, So He Chung, Geraldine Brady, Chul Min Kang, Anne Marie D’Amico, Munir Najjar, Dorothy Sewell, Andrea Bradden and Renuka Amarasingha died in the April 2018 attack. Amaresh Tesfamariam died from her injuries more than three years later.
The City of Toronto says plans for for a permanent memorial honouring the lives lost are still being finalized.
“The city continues to aim to take direction from the victims’ families, which has meant being purposeful and allowing sufficient time to ensure those impacted by the events have time to heal before making plans for a permanent memorial,” says spokeswoman Ashika Theyyil.
For Biasucci, the attack’s fifth anniversary reinforces the community’s shared history.
“We are linked because of this tragedy, even though our cultures are different or maybe our upbringings or our politics. But at the end of the day, we have to just look after one another,” he says.
“My hope is that it’s not just tragedies that bring us together.”
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