Toronto honours Yonge Street van attack victims, heroes with special vigil

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Toronto honours Yonge Street van attack victims, heroes with special vigil

One year after a man tore down a stretch of Yonge Street in a van, cutting short 10 lives and leaving a city forever changed, Torontonians gathered to remember those lost — and break bread with strangers who might ultimately become friends.

On Tuesday at 2:15 p.m., the city of Toronto marked at Mel Lastman Square the anniversary of a day still seared into the memories of so many — from those in north Toronto as the attack unfolded, to first responders, to the families and friends of the victims and those who watched in horror as tragedy transformed their city. 

The ceremony was originally scheduled to begin at 1:30 p.m. but was delayed and moved indoors due to weather.

Once inside, Toronto fire chaplain Hugh Donnelly read the names of the 10 victims killed in the attack. Family and friends of the deceased placed white roses in a vase during the ceremony.

Outside, dozens wrote messages on the sidewalk in chalk — messages of hope, love and inspiration. Others laid flowers next to a plaque that was erected temporarily.

The Toronto sign outside city hall has been dimmed and flags there and at the North York Civic Centre have been lowered to half-mast for the remainder of Tuesday to honour the victims.

It was at 1:30 p.m. on April 23, 2018 that police were called to the Yonge and Finch area for reports that a van driving southbound had mounted the curb, plowing down pedestrians along a nearly kilometre-long strip.

Alek Minassian was arrested 26 minutes later. But the impact of that day remains.

Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders tweeted early Tuesday that members of the Toronto Police Service are keeping the victims and their families in their thoughts and prayers, and noted that "the healing process continues" for the public, as well as for first responders.

"The response of everyday citizens who rushed to the aid of victims that day, comforted strangers at a makeshift memorial site and brought food to police and other first responders is an extraordinary example of who we are as Torontonians," Saunders said in a series of tweets posted to the force's main Twitter account.

Here's how friends and family are remembering the victims:

He encouraged "anyone who is still experiencing negative effects from that day" to seek help with family and friends, or with counsellors such as those available through Victim Services. 

"You are not alone in feeling the pain associated with this day," Saunders wrote.

Mayor John Tory said he still feels "sick" thinking back on that day a year ago. He was heartened, however, by the fact that so many strangers came together to help each other as the tragedy unfolded, and in the weeks and months afterward.

"That just really showed the strength and resilience of the city, and long should it remain so," Tory told CBC Radio's Metro Morning on Tuesday.

The city, he said, "healed itself."

Premier Doug Ford issued a statement Tuesday morning, marking what he called "a series of shocking moments of evil" during which "loved ones were lost and lives were shattered forever.

"This senseless and monstrous attack shook our sense of security and our identity as a free and peaceful society. But even in our darkest moments, we always remain strong and united," Ford said.

'Let's not just let a tragedy define us'

Sean Huh, pastor at Circle Faith, is among those organizing the commemoration, which will feature a community dinner at 6 p.m.

The intent? "To share a meal together. There's something very engaging about that," he said.

"Number one, who is my neighbour and number two, how do we love them?" he said. "There's going to be conversations ... People will engage with people they don't know."

It's part of a larger goal Huh has for the community, where he's also a member of "We Love Willowdale," a group that sprang up in the aftermath of the attack "to ignite our community to care for each other the way we did in the weeks that followed that difficult day."

The commemoration also comes ahead of consultations held by the city with survivors, bereaved families and the communities affected by the attack on how to create a memorial in the space where the tragedy unfolded.

In the hours and days following the attack, signs and flowers overwhelmed yellow tape where investigators worked — a reminder of both the carnage seen by the city and its resilience.

The makeshift memorial was eventually taken down just over a month afterward, with the promise that the city would be looking to erect a permanent memorial in its place.

But even if no physical fixture exists at the site just yet, Huh says the community has already been transformed — he's seen a marked rise in civic engagement since, a sign of positivity out of pain.

"I really do believe that the positive outcome is, let's not just let a tragedy define us. Let's look beyond that as well ... We desire to go beyond just this tragedy."