Thousands of people gathered for a vigil near the scene of the deadliest mass killing in Toronto’s modern history Sunday night, a grieving city united in its desire to find a way forward after the tragedy.
They converged on Mel Lastman Square in north Toronto to honour the 10 people killed and 16 injured when a 25-year-old man allegedly rammed a white rental van into pedestrians who were enjoying one of the first warm days of spring last Monday.
The crowd at the interfaith vigil was sprinkled with politicians and dignitaries, including Prime Minister Justin Trudeau, Governor-General Julie Payette, Ontario Premier Kathleen Wynne and Toronto Mayor John Tory, none of whom addressed the gathering.
Instead, they left the stage to musicians, the city’s poet laureate and half a dozen religious leaders from backgrounds as diverse as the crowd itself.
The vigil began with the placing of 10 lit candles on the stage, one for each of the men and women who died.
“You and I know that no one mourns more keenly than the families of those women and men killed on Monday,” said Rev. Alexa Gilmour, a United Church minister in her opening remarks, “and when the vigil ends and when the media cameras turn away, they will continue to be pilgrims on grief’s lonely road. But you and I have come here tonight to tell them that they do not have to walk it alone.”
The victims, many of them newcomers to the city, included a devoted single mother originally from Sri Lanka, a 22-year-old South Korean student studying in Toronto, a Jordanian man here to visit family, two women in their 80s and one in her 90s.
They have been identified as: 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 Abed Najjar, 85; and Dorothy Sewell, 80.
Although the victims were at the heart of the event, the vigil was about more than remembering the lost.
It was also about the people of a bereaved city leaning on each other, trying their best to recover.
The vigil had three co-hosts, two of whom are television personalities familiar to most Torontonians − CBC News Toronto anchor Dwight Drummond and CP24 Breakfast host Pooja Handa.
The third, Lily Cheng, would be most familiar to her neighbours in Willowdale, the diverse north Toronto neighbourhood whose commercial heart is the stretch of Yonge Street where the van wreaked its havoc.
The mother of two co-founded a group called We Love Willowdale in the wake of the attack and helped to organize a march down Yonge Street that took place before the vigil.
“This neighbourhood is my home. I have picnics here in the summer with my kids. I love Willowdale and I love the people here. We are like a family,” Ms. Cheng told the crowd.
Before the vigil began, thousands of people walked from two parks near opposite ends of the 2.2-kilometre crime scene, reclaiming the part of Yonge Street where the suspect, Alek Minassian, is alleged to have deliberately plowed across the sidewalk and into human traffic.
He has since been charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 13 counts of attempted murder.
When Erin Chapman joined the group in the park, she came to honour those who died and to give thanks that she was not among them.
Ms. Chapman, 34, and her two-year-old daughter Audrey, biked down Toronto’s Yonge Street about four hours before Monday’s rampage. The mother of three and her husband live not far from the area, and they brought all three children out Sunday to support their community.
“I think it’s important to pull together as a community and see that we love each other, we support each other,” Ms. Chapman said Sunday evening. “And we’re not scared to be out, even after something like that.”
Annette Stewart-Smith did not know anyone hurt or killed in Monday’s attack, but she felt compelled to bring a group of young girls from her Seventh-Day Adventist Church in Markham, north of Toronto, to the march and vigil.
“The sadness, that’s what brought us down here,” she said. “We’re a church that likes to be involved in the community. When one of us hurts, all of us hurt, even though we’re from different backgrounds and religions. People are people.”
Ms. Stewart-Smith was among a few hundred mourners who gathered in a parkette south of Mel Lastman Square before the vigil.
Many were volunteer organizers sporting bright orange T-shirts emblazoned with the words “Free Hugs & Prayers” across the front.
Some handed out “We love Willowdale” buttons and others carried fresh bouquets to lay at the memorial that has sprung up on the edge of Mel Lastman Square.
After more than an hour of prayers and music, the vigil drew to a close with the choirs from two nearby high schools singing the national anthem.
One of the schools, Earl Haig Secondary, is where one of the victims, Ms. Amarasingha, spent the last morning of her life working in the cafeteria before she was struck and killed.