'We just don't matter,' victim of Toronto van attack says of justice system

·5 min read

TORONTO — Cathy Riddell wants to move on, but the justice system has kept her stuck in time.

She hopes other victims of crime don't have to endure what she and more than a dozen other survivors -- and numerous grieving relatives -- of the worst attack in Toronto's history have gone through.

It's been four years since Riddell was attacked by a man who, angered by women who wouldn't sleep with him and radicalized in the bowels of the internet, deliberately drove a rented van down a busy Toronto sidewalk.

Yet the criminal case stretches on.

"Nowhere along the line is there any true consideration of victims," Riddell said in a recent interview. "We just don't matter."

The 71-year-old is one of 26 victims of the tragedy on Yonge Street on April 23, 2018. Ten people -- eight women and two men -- died that day. Two other women who were struck by the man the victims refuse to name died a few years later. Many others were catastrophically injured.

In March 2021, a judge found Alek Minassian guilty of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder.

Justice Anne Molloy decided last year to hold off on sentencing until the Supreme Court of Canada rules on a 2011 law that gives judges the discretion to stack periods of parole ineligibility for multiple murderers.

Canada's highest court heard the case last month, but there is no timeline for a decision.

"I really have had enough, I carried the burden long enough," Riddell said. "I want to move on from it somehow. I want to get my life back on track and if the court isn't going to help me do that, then I'm going to do it on my own."

She believes the court should have forged ahead on sentencing last year rather than wait.

"If the Supreme Court said we can't do it, then you know what, change it later, but don't make us wait," Riddell said. "Please, just let us be done with it."

Minassian's past two court appearances have been held behind virtual closed doors, shut to the public, media and victims.

But Riddell said the Crown attorney called the victims on April 4 to tell them Minassian will be sentenced for one count of first-degree murder on June 13. That carries an automatic life sentence with no chance of parole for 25 years.

He'll then be sent off to a federal penitentiary and the other counts will be dealt with at a later date, she said she was told.

The court and the Ministry of the Attorney General both said sentencing is set for that day in mid-June, but did not provide details of the plan.

Sentencing is set to be held in person, and victims will have an opportunity to make statements to the court on how the attack affected them, Riddell said.

"One of my motivations to recover was the opportunity to look him in the eye and I better get that," Riddell said. "If that changes, I'll be just absolutely livid."

Court will then wait for the Supreme Court's decision, which means the case may take months, or longer, to conclude.

"I think it's time that this country at all levels and the judiciary need to take a serious look at victims rights because it's basically the last consideration," she said.

Riddell wished the trial was held in person, but it was conducted over Zoom in late 2020 due to the pandemic.

"We're like the extras in a play or something, only this time we weren't even in a play, we were in a separate room watching on video," she said.

Riddell said she forgives court for that decision, but still went down to the physical courtroom every day to watch the proceedings on a screen in a room set up for victims.

She also wishes court had prepared her better for what was to come -- or a helped her find a better way to deal with the facts of the case that are agreed on by both sides.

Riddell has no memory of being hit by the 25-year-old's van that day.

"It's a blessing, it really is, but how I found out about what happened to me is also a curse," she said. "There was no preparation for the victims for the trial."

On the first day of trial, the Crown gave a lengthy presentation that detailed how each person was struck by the van and, if they died, a photograph of their final resting places. Some of the images show victims' bodies covered by orange tarps.

"It was traumatizing for me, imagine what it would be like for a family who lost somebody," she said.

"There was no communication, we had no input, no idea what to expect and that's got to change."

She found out she was blindsided from behind and launched into a bus shelter.

The impact fractured her spine and broke her ribs, scapula and pelvis. She suffered a minor brain injury, massive bruising and internal injuries. She lived through a serious bout of depression and survivor's guilt.

She now uses a walker to get around.

"Other than that, I'm fine!" she said with a chuckle. "If I didn't laugh, all I'd have is anger."

An online vigil is set for Saturday afternoon to commemorate the fourth anniversary of the attack, but Riddell had no idea about it until The Canadian Press told her.

"Again, some communication, or any communication, would be nice," she said.

Regardless, she won't be watching.

"The commemoration, I'm done with that, especially when it's virtual," she said. "There's no feeling there. It would be nice to get word on the permanent memorial, though."

She said there was much fanfare a few years ago about building something at Mel Lastman Square, the site where several people died that day. But other than a visit from a city worker, Riddell said she's heard nothing.

"I'd like to see it before I die," Riddell said.

A city spokesman said consultation with survivors, families and the community are in progress.

This report by The Canadian Press was first published April 23, 2022.

Liam Casey, The Canadian Press

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