As the Toronto van attack trial moves into its final phase, with sentencing proceedings scheduled to begin against the 28-year-old killer Thursday, experts are calling for an inquiry into the case to fully dissect the role that misogyny played.
After he deliberately killed 10 people and seriously injured 16 others with a rented van in April, 2018, Alek Minassian admitted to police and psychiatrists that he wished he’d hit more women.
He admitted he’d been fascinated by mass murder since high school, and that in the lead-up to the attack – the deadliest in the city’s history – he’d been particularly fixated on the “incel” (involuntary celibate) subculture, a violent online collective of misogynistic men who blame women for their inability to have sexual relationships.
A psychiatrist testified during the trial that, had the then-25-year-old not saturated himself with this hateful online content, this mass killing might never have occurred.
Mr. Minassian was convicted last month of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder, after a weeks-long trial last fall where the primary issue was culpability. His lawyer argued that his autism spectrum disorder should render him not criminally responsible for the attack, a defence that was rejected by the judge.
As a result, the role that misogyny played in the attack was a secondary issue at trial – which has left anti-violence experts feeling that crucial information remains missing from the public conversation.
The Ontario chief coroner’s office has not said whether an inquest or inquiry will be called in this case, but noted there are no limits on the timeline for when an inquest can be called.
It bothers Deepa Mattoo, lawyer and executive director of the Barbra Schlifer Commemorative Clinic, which provides legal supports and other resources to women experiencing violence, that there is even any debate about the need for an inquiry. If this was an attack “against a country or in the name of a religion,” she said, “We would have reacted differently.”
The choice not to probe these issues, she believes, is a form of violence in itself.
“If we don’t commit to investigating that trauma and that terrorizing action, then I would say that for the lack of a better comparison ... we are doing again the same thing,” she said.
In her ruling, Superior Court Justice Anne Molloy noted that the attacker was motivated by a desire for fame and attention, and refused to utter his name. Ms. Mattoo agrees that notoriety was a motivation. But he was also motivated by a toxic ideology that taught him this was the way to get that.
She notes that as a society we’ve never been more connected to the internet and our phones. While the online world is where so much of this violence is instigated, we know little about how these online communities operate.
“Who are these people he was connected with?” she says. “Who else is out there?”
Molly Dragiewicz, a criminology professor at Griffiths University in Australia who focuses on gender and violence, agrees.
“Looking at anonymous message boards, or looking at people’s online communication – I think that’s really challenging for a lot of police organizations,” Dr. Dragiewicz says.
Ms. Mattoo believes there are lessons to be learned here.
“Clearly, there is a need for us to make a commitment to investigate and make sure that the trauma that the community has suffered, that we have done everything to make sure it doesn’t repeat itself,” Ms. Mattoo said. “But I don’t see that commitment at this point.”
Nneka MacGregor, executive director of the Women’s Centre for Social Justice in Toronto, said it is imperative to look at this violent act through a critical gendered lens. She understands why the van attack trial focused on the killer’s mental capacity – but she believes that focus ultimately failed “to illuminate what propels these men to ... commit these types of atrocities.”
The surviving victims of this attack and the families of those who were killed will never move on, Ms. MacGregor – who is also a member of the Canadian Femicide Observatory for Justice and Accountability – said: “And so it is imperative, for not just us in the gender-based violence sector that we don’t move on, but that we don’t allow society to move on.”
The point of an inquest is to come up with recommendations that could help to prevent future deaths. The information that could be gleaned through this process, Ms. MacGregor said, “would help contextualize for the broader community why this type of violence happens.”
“There are other young men who are on their computers, consuming that same diatribe of hatred,” she said. “And without an understanding of that movement, society … we are all at risk.”
In a report published Wednesday, the CFOJA found that 160 women were killed in Canada in 2020. Thirteen were killed in a single attack in Nova Scotia last April (along with nine men), in a rampage that began with a violent domestic assault by the gunman on his common-law spouse. An inquiry has been called in that case, though the precise scope has yet to be determined.
For the first time in Canada, a terrorism charge was laid by police in connection with a misogynistic killing last May, after a 17-year-old was accused of attacking a Toronto massage parlour with a machete, killing one woman and injuring two others. Police said the attack was “inspired by the ideologically motivated violent extremist movement commonly known as incel.”
Massage parlours were similarly targeted in Atlanta this week with a 21-year-old man charged with killing seven women and one man in two establishments. Six of the eight victims were Asian.
None of these killings occur in a vacuum, Dr. Dragiewicz stressed in an interview with The Globe last month.
“Certainly it’s extreme to commit physical violence against strangers – but where on the continuum of ideas about women, and the use of violence for achieving masculinity, do those groups fall? I would just hate to see a hard line drawn between those attitudes and the attitudes of the rest of society,” she said.
Speaking about the van attack case, she said “something drove him into that group in the first place, right? He was feeling this aggrieved entitlement, and he found a community to advance that discussion.”
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.