Skip to main content

Duty counsel Georgia Koulis, left to right, Alek Minassian, Justice of the Peace Stephen Waisberg, and Crown prosecutor Joe Callaghan are shown in court in Toronto, in a sketch made on April 24, 2018.Alexandra Newbould/The Canadian Press

The highly anticipated trial of a man who killed 10 people and injured many more in the Toronto van attack two years ago is scheduled to begin virtually Tuesday and will focus on whether he can be held criminally responsible for the deaths.

Alek Minassian is charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder in connection with the April 23, 2018, attack, in which he drove a rented cube van through hordes of pedestrians on busy Yonge Street for several city blocks at lunchtime.

Of the 10 people killed that day, ranging in age from their early 20s to mid-90s, eight were women.

Mr. Minassian has never denied that he planned or carried out the attack, which brought the women-hating “incel” subculture – and the translation of online misogyny and hate to real-life violence – into the public consciousness in Canada. A video of the then-25-year-old’s lengthy police interview hours after the attack, in which he detailed his intentions and motivation, was made public last fall.

His trial will instead focus on his state of mind at the time and whether he is criminally responsible for the attack. The legal threshold for being found not criminally responsible is very high.

“Raising this defence, and raising it successfully, is extremely rare in Canada. It’s … exceedingly hard to prove in court,” said criminal lawyer Daniel Brown, who is not involved in this case. “Very few crimes committed by those with mental disorders will absolve them of criminal liability."

When mounting this defence, Mr. Brown said an accused person must prove that they lacked the capacity to appreciate their actions were morally wrong, or were incapable of appreciating the “nature or quality” of their actions.

Four weeks have been carved out for the proceedings, which will be heard by judge alone, over Zoom. Space will be reserved at the Metro Toronto Convention Centre, where members of the public (who must wear a mask, fill out a COVID-19 questionnaire and abide by physical-distancing requirements) will be able to observe a broadcast of the virtual proceedings.

Because many of the details and timeline of the attack are already agreed upon, much of the evidence at trial is expected to come through expert testimony, including by psychiatrists and health professionals.

It was through a classmate at Seneca College, where Mr. Minassian was studying software development, that he said he was first introduced to incel message boards. Short for involuntarily celibates, incels are self-described “beta males” who feel they have been punished by the unfair social standards that have rewarded sexually active men and woman, known as “Chads and Staceys.”

In his interview with Toronto Police Detective Rob Thomas after the attack, Mr. Minassian explained that he identified with their frustration at “being unable to get laid.”

He could pinpoint the root of his anger with women to a Halloween party he attended in 2013, where he was laughed at by women when he tried to talk to them.

And Mr. Minassian told Det. Thomas it was in 2014 – after an incel attack at the University of California, Santa Barbara by a man who killed six people as well as himself – that he first began daydreaming about his own “rebellion.”

In 2017, he briefly joined the Canadian Armed Forces with a goal of learning how to use weapons, but he was voluntarily released after 16 days of basic training. He was in the habit of spending several hours a day playing first-person shooter video games such as Halo.

At some point in the days leading up to the van attack, Mr. Minassian recalled to Det. Thomas, he logged onto the online message board 4Chan and posted an ominous message: “there will be a beta uprising tomorrow, I encourage others to follow suit.”

By this point, he told police, the idea of an attack had begun to consume him.

He described the morning of the attack to Det. Thomas as being relatively normal. Having just finished his exams, he checked his e-mail for any job offers. He went for a walk to clear his mind. He played some computer games. And then he headed to a nearby Ryder truck rental outlet, where he’d reserved a cube van a month earlier.

Though his father dropped him off, Mr. Minassian initially lied and told Det. Thomas that he’d taken a bus, as he was concerned that police would assume his father was in some way complicit.

Before he pulled out of the parking lot, around 12:30 p.m., Mr. Minassian logged onto his Facebook account to post one more message: “the incel rebellion has begun.”

It took him roughly half an hour to reach the busy intersection of Yonge and Finch Streets in the north part of Toronto, he said. As he watched clusters of pedestrians crossing at a red light, he decided to “just go for it.” The light turned green and he drove straight into a crowd, weaving on and off the sidewalk for several city blocks. It was only when a drink splashed on his windshield that he finally stopped.

He told Det. Thomas that he had “premeditated” the attack as an “attempted suicide-by-cop.” So when police closed in on him, and an officer approached with his gun drawn, Mr. Minassian pulled out his wallet, hoping it would be confused for a weapon. But the officer, Mr. Minassian told Det. Thomas, “unfortunately didn’t react.”

Those killed in the attack were Beutis Renuka Amarasingha, 45; Andrea Bradden, 33; Geraldine Brady, 83; So He Chung, 22; Anne Marie D’Amico, 30; Betty Forsyth, 94; Chul Min (Eddie) Kang, 45; Ji Hun Kim, 22; Munir Najjar, 85; and Dorothy Sewell, 80.

Separate from the criminal case, a number of civil lawsuits have been filed against Mr. Minassian by families of the people he killed, as well as some of the surviving victims – many of whom have suffered catastrophic injuries. Those lawsuits are now collectively under case management by a judge.

Our Morning Update and Evening Update newsletters are written by Globe editors, giving you a concise summary of the day’s most important headlines. Sign up today.