*Published in the May edition of Streeter Newspaper
On Apr. 23, the iconic CN Tower went dark. Torontonians’ hearts were aching for the families and friends of those whose lives were lost and those whose lives were changed forever in the horrific carnage at Yonge and Finch that day. That night at the Air Canada Centre, a minute of silence was observed. During the singing of “O Canada,” Martina Ortiz-Luis dropped her microphone and we heard the audience belting out “true north strong and free,” followed by heartfelt applause. The Leafs played hard and won.
Friends from coast to coast to coast admitted for one night they were Leafs fans. They supported #TorontoStrong.
I see two important lessons that we all can take from this terrible tragedy.
Firstly, we need to better understand the importance that a sense of belonging has as a determinant of health. We need to do a better job equipping all citizens with the mental health literacy that can help identify those struggling with emotional issues. We need to make the safe spaces for mental health support more accessible, so that all Canadians feel confident helping colleagues, friends, and family navigate their way to help.
We have also learned that excellent training and de-escalation practices can prevent additional mortality and morbidity. Former U.S. Ambassador to Canada Bruce Heyman expressed his pride in the example set by Toronto Police Services (TPS) that day. The world was watching. TPS Constable Ken Lam of 32 Division turned off his siren so he could communicate with the suspect. He identified that the man was unarmed, holstered his firearm, took out his baton instead, and calmly took control of the situation. The suspect was taken into custody.
First-responders, both citizens and professionals, performed in exemplary fashion. The Emergency Department at Sunnybrook Hospital took it all in stride. Tweets revealed that, as other doctors called-in their offers to help, the ER responded that they had it all under control.
Immediately, an ‘In Memorium’ site was set up where heart-broken neighbours could express their feelings and their support.
We all felt relief that this attack had not been an act of organized terrorism. However, we still wanted to know if it could have been prevented. Were there warning signs that we all might have missed? Is there any way to better recognize the kind of desperation and hopelessness that can lead to such a terrible act?
In Toronto-St. Paul’s, we were all surprised when the 2016 census revealed that half the people in our riding live alone. We have an obligation to build real community in our neighbourhoods — a different kind of “neighbourhood watch.” We should not only be watching for outsiders, but also getting to know our neighbours so we can see “who are not themselves today.”
Mental health stigma
The stigma of mental health is still too strong. It is still too hard for people struggling with mental health issues to reach out. Some schools and workplaces have put in place real strategies for wellness and inclusion. We need to be intentional about determining the wise practices, and then implementing them coast to coast to coast.
As we move forward out of this tragedy, we need to be on-guard for those who will begin to show signs of post-traumatic stress. We talk about ‘trauma-informed’ care. We need to understand that when we look at people struggling with mental health problems or addictions, we should be asking a different question. No longer should we be saying: “What is the matter with him?”
Instead, we need to ask: “What happened to him?” From childhood trauma to witnessing a terrible tragedy, we need to address the root causes.
The terrible tragedy at Yonge and Finch has devastated all of us in Toronto, but it has also made us so proud of our neighbours in North York. Now, let us all redouble our efforts to become more caring family members, friends, and neighbours. Let us ensure that #TorontoStrong reflects our resilience and our ability to ‘build back better.’