Violence in the heart of Toronto

Eaton Centre shooting claims second victim. In its wake, Tamsin McMahon finds defensiveness over Toronto’s safety record

A history  of violence
Rick Madonik/Toronto Star

It was barely 48 hours after a gunman fired a hail of bullets through Toronto’s busiest mall on the weekend, killing one and injuring six others, that the city’s top officials rushed to declare the downtown a safe place to shop. “This is the safest city in the world,” Mayor Rob Ford told a press conference. “I’ve travelled around to other cities and you see the stats. We don’t make these up.”

Shootings are on the increase, noted acting deputy Toronto police chief Jeff McGuire, but mostly in incidents where no one is hurt and bullets instead get lodged in buildings and car doors: “I’m not minimizing those because they absolutely are important to us. But let’s not become too alarmist.”

Alarmism was hardly the prevailing sentiment at the Eaton Centre on the Monday after the shooting, where the chief complaint among throngs of shoppers seemed to be that the food court where the shooting took place was still closed for a police investigation.

Fatima Seedat, a student at Ryerson University, which has classrooms in the mall, was among those who had hoped to grab a bite there. “I’m from Scarborough,” she shrugged, referring to the east-end neighbourhood with a reputation for violence. “Shootings are normal for me.”

Such is the notion of violence in the heart of Canada’s largest city that a weekend shooting inside a food court crowded with families—one involving an alleged gunman said to be out on house arrest and a victim alleged to be a fugitive from serious drug charges in Alberta—would be met with a mixture of apathy and defensiveness over the city’s safety record. “Don’t let this define Toronto,” read one of dozens of Post-It notes in a makeshift memorial at the mall. “To those who were hurt, heal and remember Toronto as a peaceful city,” read another.

The statistics tell a different story. There have been at least 111 shootings involving 133 victims in the city in the past 12 months, up from 79 over the same period last year. Of those, 10 have been within the two downtown police divisions that cover the Eaton Centre.

At just 9.2 sq. km, Toronto’s 52 Division, which covers the Eaton Centre and neighbourhoods to the east, is one of the city’s smallest police zones and yet the most violent. At 3,604 reports of violent crime in the area in 2010—the last year statistics were available—the crime rate is six times the city average. Combined with 51 Division, which patrols the 8.6 sq. km west of the mall, police responded to nearly 90,000 calls to the area in 2010 and spent $56 million.

The city and its downtown merchants have tried to stem the violence. The city itself spent more than $50 million a decade ago expropriating pawn shops and adult stores to build a public plaza as part of a massive public facelift a former mayor promised would rival New York City’s Times Square. Walk a few blocks north of the mall, however, and Yonge Street remains much the same seedy mix of discount shops and strip clubs as it did a decade ago.

The city installed closed-circuit television cameras for the area; Toronto police established a 20-officer foot patrol unit for the three blocks surrounding the mall. The DownTown Yonge Business Improvement Area launched a rebranding campaign, including installing more and brighter street lights. The mall itself underwent a $140-million upgrade, including the food court where the shooting took place. “It’s a bustling, stunning eating environment,” says James Robinson, executive director of the BIA. “It’s not just your regular food court.”

“Several years ago, the Toronto Eaton Centre was somewhat tired and might have attracted more undesirable activity, as was Yonge Street,” Mr. Robinson says. “But there has been a lot of work that has gone into improving the quality of the environment.”

As long as the Eaton Centre remains Toronto’s downtown transit hub and gathering place, it will continue to attract crime, says Carleton University professor George Rigakos, who has studied perceptions of safety. “If you’re going to have something like this happen, it’s actually likely to be somewhere like this because of the sheer numbers of people moving through the area,” he says. “You can put measures in place to prevent most types of criminal activity and incivilities, but it would no longer be an easy-access thoroughfare area for people to meet, to get a bite to eat, to shop. It would become virtually unworkable.”

Mr. Robinson says the mall’s high-tech security system helped police identify a suspect within hours of the shooting. But it also exposes the limits urban revitalization can bestow on a place that is both a tourist mecca and a local hangout, open to everyone, regardless of whether they’re coming to shop.