At first glance, the heart of Toronto’s busiest shopping district looked the same as it usually does Sunday afternoon. Families lined up for matinees, street performers entertained curious passersby on the corners and groups of teens gathered in fleeting patches of afternoon sun at the chairs on Yonge and Dundas Square.
The neighbourhood’s anchor, however, stood empty, guarded by police officers, some entrances roped off with yellow tape. Most shoppers were well aware of the reason why: seven people shot, one fatally, in a crowded Eaton Centre food court in the centre of one of the safest major cities in the world.
But while their surprise was universal, most people seemed nonplussed about coming to the area. In part, they were comforted by the police reassurance that the shooting was targeted; they also acknowledged that the violence was hardly representative of day-to-day life in the nation’s largest city.
“Something like that happening in the centre of my city? Really?” said Sandra Pereira, a 39-year-old computer programmer. “I have no hesitation coming downtown – as with most people. That’s the great thing about Toronto: This happens, but people are still here.”
Clothing salesman Ruben Kahraman, who often goes for coffee at the Eaton Centre, said he was looking forward to the mall re-opening. An Iraqi immigrant who fled war in that country in the 1980s, he had harsh words for the gangs behind the city’s gun violence, but kept it in perspective.
“We have problems in this country,” he said, “but it’s under control.”
“It’s a pretty isolated event – it’s a random occurrence,” said Jordan, 22, who performs with a glass orb outside the mall.
Even Elihja Ampioco, 18, who had to hide in the back of the New York Fries where he works when the shots rang out nearby, and later saw a man with three gunshot wounds as he was escorted out by police, said he wasn’t afraid to go back.
“There’s a lot of cops and it’s crowded. I feel pretty sure it will not happen again,” he said. “I feel pretty safe.”
By mid-afternoon Sunday, a small shrine grew at the revolving doors to the Yonge and Dundas entrance, with bunches of flowers and two teddy bears. People stopped to write condolence messages on a piece of wrapping paper taped to the door.
Other curious onlookers flocked to peer in the windows and snap photos on their mobile phones as a crew in hazmat suits cleaned the front foyer, wiping off yellow-brown stains from the window ledges.
As the afternoon drizzle gave way to a burst of evening sunshine, about 200 gathered for a vigil on the square. They lit candles in plastic cups and observed a moment of silence.
James Le, 24, said he felt compelled to take part to show that the city was unafraid. A native of the Jane and Finch area – the site of past gang violence – he said he never felt unsafe.
“We can’t be hiding in our homes, crouching in the fetal position,” he said. “The reason people are so shocked is because this rarely happens.”
There were, of course, some who were rattled by the events of Saturday night, like stay-at-home mother Kimberley Sturge, who lives just blocks away. She said the violence would make her hesitant to take her own two-year-old daughter out in the area.
“It makes me very scared to live downtown now,” the 26-year-old said earlier in the day. “I thought you would be safe here, with the security guards and police around. But you’re never safe anywhere, apparently.”
Student Sunny Kohli, 24, summed it up succinctly as he and his friends tried to stop by the mall en route to a Blue Jays game: “A shopping mall is supposed to be a safe place. It makes you scared to live in this city.”
For the most part, however, life continued unfazed.
Shops along Yonge Street were open for business, nearby restaurants and cafes were packed and even the escalators near the Queen Street doors of the Eaton Centre were still running behind the locked glass doors.
Two Japanese tourists stopped to pose for a photograph in front of them, the flock of fibreglass Canada geese barely visible over their shoulders.