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I grew up in Toronto or as locals like to call it T.O. (for Toronto, Ontario). I bought my last pair of roller skates on Yonge Street, on the block between Finch and Sheppard where 10 people were killed and 15 injured on Monday. I tutored a young math student who lived in a nearby high rise on that block 40 years ago. I used to transfer from the Yonge Street subway to the Sheppard Avenue bus to visit my first girlfriend who lived north of the city, miles from my family’s midtown home, hurrying back before the subway closed. I am sick this happened in my town.
I am no less sick for the world as we wonder about the motives – terrorism the obvious first thought, but maybe mental illness, social rejection, trying to fit in – though nothing excuses the carnage.
I didn’t feel as sick when 6 people died in a Quebec City mosque early last year, killed by a misguided troll opposed to foreigners and Islam. Nor when a deranged misogynist killed 14 female engineering students in 1992 at École Polytechnique in Montreal, the blackest day in Canadian mass-murder history. I might have shaken my head and shared in the grief, but my stomach wasn’t as tied up in knots, viscerally imagining my home. I could have been on that street. I could be dead.
Nor did I wretch when 58 concert goers were gunned down in Las Vegas last October with over 800 injured as if the shooter was playing a video game, 17 Marjory Stoneman Douglas students in Parkland, Florida, killed in yet another senseless high school incident, or 20 small children and 6 staff in Sandy Hook Elementary School, in Newtown, Connecticut. Okay, Canadians don’t kill each other as often or in the same gruesome way as Americans seem to, but that doesn’t make it better.
I guess I am like most people, wondering why so much violence exists. Of course, I can see the cause and effect of a destroyed Middle East and the blowback in the West, and wonder what we are doing to other people’s worlds in our quest for oil. The sight of Aylan Kurdi’s crumpled-up body on a beach near the tourist resort of Bodrum, Turkey, still makes me sick. I don’t know how anyone kills so easily. Or turns the channel. But I understand. I don’t as easily understand mental illness that draws others into one’s own inner hell, and mows people down with a car.
T.O. is my home, even though I haven’t lived there for over 20 years, a reverse immigrant to Ireland. I don’t have to see the madness of Jerry Springer up close or an emboldened game-show Trump playing everyone for a fool, happy in my distance. But T.O. is no more important than Parkland, Las Vegas, or Santa Barbara. No more important that Baghdad, Aleppo, or Douma. No more important yet no less important.
I watch the news from afar, and see the announcers change from one horror story to another, seemingly without effort. I don’t want to change the channel in ignorance, forgetting with each new click, afraid to see the faces of more refugees destroyed by war, ravaged by pain, or consumed in anger. But I don’t know what else to do, stuck in amber, isolated in my quiet life, despairing for the world in my silent pain. But I am grateful I don’t have to suffer the real effects of war.
In Toronto, one must clear the snow and ice from the sidewalk within 12 hours after a snowfall to allow others to pass freely or face a fine. Since enforcing such a law is time-consuming and counterproductive, the government came up with the slogan, “Be nice, clear your ice,” hoping to appeal to one’s better nature. The television advertisements featured local celebrities such as Wendel Clark, captain of the Maple Leafs, Blue Jays outfielder Lloyd Moseby, and Ben Wicks, a local newspaper cartoonist, all out-of-towners, all from elsewhere like many Torontonians. Soon, the catchphrase beckoned as a popular reminder to all.
That sentiment embodies the simplest concept of civic-mindedness, community, and cooperation, suggesting even a transcendental understanding of one’s place in the world. It is a simple statement of responsibility to one’s neighbour, to one’s self, and to a greater collective. Toronto is a proud multicultural city like the world. I am there with you today.