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The remarkable search for ‘The Joshua Tree’

In this photo from April 20, 2000, Joshua Yasay, left, helps Pierre Robert plant an elderberry bush in Rouge Park.

Steve McKinley/The Globe and Mail

On a damp, foggy Thursday in April, 2000, a group of schoolchildren weathered the cold to plant trees and shrubs in Rouge Park.

Among them was Joshua Yasay, an 11-year-old boy from Scarborough's John G. Diefenbaker Public School, who was photographed by The Globe and Mail as he planted an elderberry bush.

Joshua, 23, was killed last week by crossfire during a shootout at an east Scarborough block party and buried Monday in an Ajax cemetery. Shyanne Charles, 14, was also killed, and 23 people were wounded in the largest mass shooting in Toronto's history.

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A few days after the tragedy, The Globe set out to Rouge Park with the 12-year-old photograph of Mr. Yasay in a bid to locate what became known in the office as "The Joshua Tree."

The search for a single nondescript shrub in a 47-square-kilometre park could have been fruitless were it not for a detail captured near the top of the photo's frame – an electrical tower. The power lines led the search to Gordon Murison Lane in the northeastern reaches of the park. There, at the side of the road, was a small, grassy field dotted with plants and trees, some of them ringed in protective plastic. The area had been planted.

Bill Lewis, an 85-year-old member of the Rouge Valley Naturalists, was there on the day Joshua planted his elderberry bush. The schoolchildren, who were helped by local scouts and guides, had come to the park to plant native trees and shrubs in honour of Earth Day.

But conditions were unfavourable for young growth. The sloped, weed-tangled ground was not ideal, and the month was cold and dry. Jim Robb, the general manager of Friends of the Rouge Watershed, said in such conditions an elderberry might have a less-than-10-per-cent chance of survival.

Remarkably, two healthy, mature elderberry bushes have endured the conditions. One is popular with resting wildlife.

Mr. Yasay's family couldn't remember the day he went on the field trip but were grateful and buoyed by the discovery of the photo.

Joshua's step-father answered the door of the family home in Ajax and, when presented with the picture, called for the rest of the family.

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Joshua's two sisters appeared. They looked out, and then down at the photograph. "Mom, come look, it's Josh," said Jennilyn Yasay, Joshua's eldest sister.

Joshua's mother asked her daughters where the photograph had been found. Her eyes were red from crying, and her daughters held her tightly. "Don't be sad, be happy," Jennilyn said.

JoAnne Paden, a retired John G. Diefenbaker teacher, said she taught Joshua in a Grade 1 and 2 split class. She was not present on the day of the planting, but remembered him as a gentle, vibrant child.

"It makes sense to us that he was so ambitious with his dreams and was able to follow them through," she said, noting his accomplishments.

Over the years, Joshua grew into a York University graduate of criminology, an entrepreneur with a barbershop in Ajax, and a mentor who worked with at-risk youth in Toronto's Malvern neighbourhood. He had also worked as a security guard and aspired to be a police officer.

"I remember him every day coming in with a smile for everyone, with his little baseball cap on his head and his backpack on his shoulders," Ms. Paden said. "He was eager to see everyone every morning, and everyone was happy to see him as well. … It's just a shame that we've lost him."

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A trust fund has been set up to help the Yasay family with funeral costs: Scotiabank Trust Account No. 647820592781; Transit No. 64782; Branch No. 002.

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