TORONTO — The phrase “amid the COVID-19 pandemic “could easily have fit into just about any story that was told over the past year.
Some stories are just too big to fit into a round-up. COVID-19 is undoubtedly one of them. But there were other things that happened this year, some of them inspiring, some of them tragic.
While the pandemic will likely continue to shape our lives for months to come, so will other forces. Here’s a look back at some of the other stories that shaped the life of the city in 2020.
The year started off in tragedy for many people around the GTA and in Canada. Amid sabre rattling between Washington and Tehran, a Ukrainian jet liner was shot down by a surface to air missile on January 8 2020.
Of the 176 people who died in the crash of Flight PS752, 138 were travelling to Canada. Among them were 55 Canadian citizens, 30 permanent residents and many others who were studying in Canada on students visas or visiting family here. Many of those who died lived in the GTA.
Among the dead were school children, newlyweds, graduate students, doctors and engineers. The tragedy set off mourning in the GTA and other parts of Canada — as well as a search for answers.
On Dec. 15, Special Envoy Ralph Goodale released a report summarizing the tragedy and Canada’s response to it. While work continues to support the families of the victims, Iran has so far been uncooperative in negotiating compensation for the families and providing transparency in the investigation. As the year drew to a close, Iran said it would provide $150,000 USD to each of the victims’ families.
Schlatter found guilty in Tess Richey’s murder
In March, nearly three years after 22-year-old Tess Richey was found dead in the city’s gay village, a jury found Kalen Schlatter guilty of first-degree murder in her death.
During the trial, the Crown alleged that Schlatter stalked Richey and later killed her when he refused to have sex with her.
Jurors deliberated for three days before reaching their verdict. The conviction carries an automatic sentence of life in prison with no chance of parole for 25 years.
Schlatter, 23 at the time of his conviction, will be 48 before he is eligible for parole. He is seeking leave to appeal his conviction.
In June, Richey’s family – who found her body themselves after police failed to – filed a $20 million lawsuit against Toronto police and Schlatter for the unnecessary anguish they suffered following her death.
On May 27, police received multiple calls from three family members to attend an apartment at 100 High Park Avenue for a family dispute.
Regis Korchinski-Paquet, a 29-year-old Black and Indigenous woman, had suffered a seizure earlier in the day, which sometimes affected her mood. She and her brother had subsequently become involved in a violent fight.
Police responded to the home to break up the dispute and were with Korchinski-Paquet outside of the apartment when several officers returned to the apartment with her. A short time later, the young woman fell to her death from the balcony.
A public outcry ensued, with some family members alleging that police had pushed her.
In August, a lengthy SIU report concluded that there were no reasonable grounds to charge any of the officers involved in the call.
The family has rejected the report’s conclusions and on Dec. 10, they filed a complaint with the Office of the Independent Police Review Director (OIPRD), alleging misconduct and neglect of duty.
Black Lives Matter protests
The killing of George Floyd on May 25 shook the world. In a gut-wrenching video posted online for the world to see, a white police officer knelt on Floyd’s neck for around nine minutes until he was dead.
The reverberations were felt in Toronto as well. As in many place in the U.S. and around the world, Floyd’s death became a lightning rod for pent-up frustrations over racial inequalities that have persisted for years, particularly when it comes to how people of colour are treated by police.
The protests in Toronto drew thousands of marchers calling for racial justice around the world, but in the GTA as well. Despite businesses around the city boarding up windows for fear that the protests might turn violent, they remained peaceful.
While there is plenty of work to be done, the protests helped bring awareness to the need for more active and ongoing work to help end systemic inequalities. As a start, a number of major businesses committed to hiring more BIPOC people and social media campaigns sprang up encouraging people to support Black-owned businesses.
There have also been calls to defund police services and put some of the money toward community programs that would help prevent crime. While Toronto City Council has agreed to fund community programs, implement body-worn cameras, and to shift some job functions away from officers, it has resisted calls to slash the police budget.
The waterfront and parks became a lifeline
Toronto’s outdoor parks have never been poorly attended spaces in the warmer months. But this year they became a lifeline. As lockdown restrictions gradually began lifting in the springtime, the city implemented regular road closures along the waterfront to allow more space for pedestrians, cyclists and runners. While such programs had been occasionally implemented in the past, they were expanded for a population starved of activities outside of their four walls.
Toronto’s parks also saw throngs of residents gathering from the wee hours until late into the night for outdoor birthday parties, weddings and get-togethers. While the city occasionally had to draw crop circles to make sure that people maintained physical distancing, most people seemed to get the hang of the rules eventually and Torontonians reconnected with their city’s green spaces as never before.
It was a sunny afternoon in June when first responders were called to attend the scene of a collision at Countryside Drive and Torbram Road in Brampton. They arrived the find the sort of scene they hope never to be called to.
Karolina Ciasullo, 37, was driving her three daughters – Klara, 6, Lilianna, 3, and Mila, 1 when their Volkswagen Atlas SUV was struck by a blue Infiniti G35 travelling at a high rate of speed. Ciasullo and her three daughters — properly buckled in car seats in the back — all died in the crash.
The 20-year-old driver of the Infiniti was subsequently arrested. Brady Robertson now faces four counts of dangerous driving causing death in connection with the crash.
In September Peel police further charged Robertson with four counts of impaired operation causing death by drugs in connection with the crash.
He remains in custody at Maplehurst Correctional Complex in Milton as he awaits trial.
Theriault brothers trial
It was an assault whose violence shocked the GTA. Four years ago on Dec. 28, 2016, Dafonte Miller was in an Oshawa neighbourhood when he encountered Michael Theriault, an off-duty cop, and his brother Christian Theriault. Both sides gave differing accounts of why they had any interaction at all. But when the encounter was over, Miller had sustained a life-altering injury, eventually losing his left eye. Still, Miller — a then 19-year-old Black man — was the one who found himself handcuffed.
The brothers were charged with aggravated assault in 2019. A trial followed and on June 26 this year, Michael was convicted of the lesser charge of assault and was subsequently sentenced to nine months in jail. An Ontario court found Michael Theriault guilty of beating Miller with a metal pipe as he tried to run away from the brothers to seek help. Christian Theriault was found not guilty in the incident.
Michael Theriault is appealing his conviction and is pleading not guilty to a separate charge of discreditable conduct under the Police Services Act.
In the meantime, interim Toronto Police Chief James Ramer has issued Miller a public apology on behalf of the force and has vowed that they will do better.
Toronto Puppy boom
With thousands of people spending more time at home than they ever thought possible, pet adoptions and purchases in the city have skyrocketed. One need only take a walk to you nearest park to see throngs of fluffy new puppies learning the ropes of urban living.
The rise in demand for furry companions has also given rise to an alarming increase in gunpoint dog-nappings this year.
Chief Saunders steps down
In June, with five months left on his contract, Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders announced that he would step down from his role at the end of July to spend more time with his family.
Saunders stepped into the role in 2015, becoming the city’s first Black police chief.
He also oversaw the service as it responded to major incidents such as the Danforth shooting and the Yonge Street van attack and investigated high-profile cases such as the murder of billionaire couple Honey and Barry Sherman.
Saunders stepped down at the end of July and Interim Police Chief James Ramer has been at the helm of the police force since then. A search remains underway to find a permanent new chief.
The legal odyssey of chair girl comes to a close
Marcella Zoia, dubbed chair girl for hurling a chair off a downtown high-rise to the busy Gardiner Expressway below in Feb. 2019, finally learned her fate this year after pleading guilty to mischief in 2019.
On July 21, Zoia was sentenced to two years of probation, a $2,000 fine and 150 hours of community service.
While she has managed to stay out of further legal entanglements so far, it’s unlikely we’ve heard the last from Zoia, who cropped up in a Drake video and was then edited out. She also posted pictures from a crowded King Street West bar patio with no distancing over the summer.
Ford nixes ranked ballot voting
A pandemic seems like an odd time to fixate on local voting choices. But tucked into the bottom of a press release about COVID-19 restrictions on Oct. 20 was a quiet declaration from the province that ranked ballot elections for municipalities were dead.
While local activists have been fighting for municipal elections to be held with ranked balloting for years, arguing that it makes voting more representative and inclusive, the government said the timing was “not right” for allowing different types of voting systems. This, despite the fact that London, Ont. had already switched over to the system and successfully used it to pick their last mayor and council, and that other municipalities – including Toronto – were moving toward the system as well.
Critics have charged that the Progressive Conservative government killed local ranked ballot elections for fear that they might eventually make their way into provincial politics, where it would make it harder for Progressive Conservative candidates to get elected.
Karygiannis booted from council
Following a long legal odyssey, Jim Karygiannis, was booted from Toronto City Council in September for a campaign violation he maintains was a clerical error.
The former Scarborough-Agincourt councillor was first removed from office in November 2019 when then City Clerk Ulli Watkiss said a review found that he overspent on his 2018 campaign by nearly $26,000, most of it related to a post-election party for donors at Santorini Grill in Thornhill.
A court then returned him to office in Nov. 2019. An appeal court then booted him again in June 2020. Then in August another judge allowed him to return to council pending an effort to appeal to the Supreme Court of Canada.
(Confused yet? Just one more step)
In September, the Supreme Court declined to hear the case, meaning that the previous appeal court ruling booting him from office stands.
The city has called a by-election for Jan. 15, 2020 to fill the vacant seat. Voters can cast their ballots in-person or by mail.
Ontario Line now expected three years later
With TTC ridership at record lows, one could almost forget that when Toronto is not in the throes of a once-in-a-generation pandemic event, transit is one of the top issues in the city.
And one of the most closely watched projects is the Ontario Line, the provincial reinvention of the downtown relief line. While the province said they could build transit faster when they pried the project away from city hands, the latest plans for the line estimate it will be ready in 2030, three years later than originally envisioned.
In the meantime, the expected cost of the Eglinton East LRT has also ballooned to $4 billion instead of $2 billion.
In November, a judge-alone trial began via videoconference for Alek Minassian, the man accused of mowing down pedestrians on Yonge Street with a rented van in April of 2018.
Minassian stands charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder in connection with the grizzly attack.
Minassian has admitted to planning and carrying out the attack, but his lawyer argued in court that he is not criminally responsible due to his autism spectrum disorder.
The Crown argued that he was a lonely man, scared of failing at his job and never having a relationship with a woman and that he was obsessed with mass murder and achieving notoriety.
The six-week trial wrapped up on Dec. 18.
Justice Anne Molloy is expected to deliver her verdict on March 3.
Conviction would carry an automatic life sentence without the chance of parole for 25 years. Minassian could also face consecutive periods of parole intelligibility due to the number of victims.
COVID-19 (Because you can’t explain 2020 without it)
How do you put a period on a story that is still unfolding? Especially when that story happens to be the most consequential, far-reaching, global crisis many of us have seen in our lifetimes. Simply put, you cannot.
COVID-19 has reshaped our lives: The way we eat, work, learn and interact with one another.
From the milestones of life — birth, death, marriage, divorce — to the mundane tasks of everyday living.
It has brought tragedy, such as the crisis that has played out in our long-term care homes, and heroics, such as that of the health-care workers and other frontline staff who have gone above and beyond to meet the crisis head-on, to help us preserve our humanity and our sanity amid the turmoil.
We are still struggling to describe how this virus continues to change our lives, but some of its effects are clearly visible in our city.
Mainstreet businesses that were already concerned about high rent have been decimated, as the proliferating number of ‘for rent’ signs downtown attest.
With the added constraint of spacing, the city’s shelter system has struggled to keep up with demand, causing many of those experiencing homelessness to flock to encampments in parks and other public spaces.
City revenues — usually buoyed by steady ridership on the jam-packed TTC, parking enforcement and a breakneck pace of development and real estate transactions — are suddenly hundreds of millions of dollars short.
It is bizarre to see subway platforms empty and malls and tourist attractions all but abandoned in what is normally a bustling and vibrant city.
While the restrictions have been difficult, Torontonians have been resilient, adapting however they can to the changing circumstances.
Patio dining, online shopping and porch visits were just some of the ways we adapted to pandemic life in 2020.
With the virus spreading and a lockdown in place for the province, it is likely that further adaptations will be needed in 2021. But the city has shown that it can rise to the challenge. We have no other choice.
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