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'This tragedy forced the light out:' Willowdale marks anniversary of van attack

Last Updated Apr 23, 2019 at 11:22 pm EDT

A chalk message for the victims of the van attack on Yonge Street in Toronto's north end on April 23, 2019. CITYNEWS/Ginella Massa

As family members, friends and strangers braved the rain Tuesday to honour the victims of the Yonge Street van attack, one man stood by the memorial marking the one-year anniversary of the horrific event making sure the flowers laid there looked pretty.

Omar Hassan couldn’t help it.

The 25-year-old student didn’t witness the attack on April 23, 2018, and he didn’t know any of the 10 people killed and 16 others injured when a white rental van plowed into pedestrians along the busy street in north Toronto. But he took it upon himself to keep a growing makeshift memorial that popped up after the attack clean and tidy.

With the help of a few friends, he would spend time every night in Mel Lastman Square making sure flowers and tributes the wind had blown away were back where people had laid them. That went on for 40 days until the impromptu memorial was removed by the city.

“Even in the darkest of times, there’s some light that comes out,” he said. “This tragedy forced the light out.”

That hope and positivity was everywhere Tuesday as dozens of people wrote messages about love and inspiration in chalk on the sidewalk at the site of the attack. Others painted canvases with messages about peace, growth and restoration.

Esther Linetski placed an orange carnation by a temporary plaque. Linetski, who works in the area, said she meant to go out to the square for lunch on the day of the attack but was too busy to escape her office.

“I could have been out here,” she said, fighting back tears. “Thankfully I wasn’t one of the unlucky ones.”

Alek Minassian, now 26, is charged with 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder. He is set to face trial next February.

For the neighbourhood of Willowdale, where the attack took place, the tragedy led to people like Hassan and others banding together to help the community with its healing process.

One woman donated hundreds of flowers so others could place them at two main memorial sites. Another woman came by every day to keep the candles lit and replace the ones that had burned down.

A year later, members of the community hope they can keep that small-town-style spirit going, which can be difficult in a busy city like Toronto.

Jesse James, a longtime community organizer, said he and his family have committed to learning languages spoken in the area in an attempt to further bring the neighbourhood together in the aftermath of the attack.

The 31-year-old had been sitting at a nearby library when last year’s attack took place. After hearing the news from the friend, he went to pick up an 11-year-old boy he was mentoring. As the pair walked home they agreed on one thing – they needed to get everyone together.

They put out a call out to various churches and Christian groups in the area. Seven of them got together that night and eventually started a Facebook group called “We Love Willowdale,” deciding to make music a central theme.

“We framed it as helping turn our cries of sorrow into songs of healing,” said James.

They asked Melissa Davis, the chair of the music and worship arts department at nearby Tyndale University, to co-ordinate a 100-strong choir that would get together for a vigil in six days. She also organized the choir for the one-year commemoration of the incident.

“I hope through music people will receive that hope and healing they’ve been longing for and wrestling with the last year,” Davis said. “I really believe that music is able to inspire, console and heal and really speak to the soul of human beings.”

Marion Goertz, a psychotherapist with the nearby Family Life Centre that provides counselling and mental health support, said she and her colleagues have spoken to many who were affected in one way or another by the events that day.

Eight therapists went out the next day and each day for the next two weeks to makeshift comfort stations. Most who stopped by were witnesses, she said.

“Many people just wanted to talk and tell us where they were that day,” Goertz said. “People like order in their lives and this has made people ask questions: How safe can I be? Can this happen to me?”

That feeling was so prevalent that the group decided to organize an event dubbed “Reclaim Yonge” – about 6,000 people walked Yonge Street six days after the tragedy to a vigil held at Mel Lastman Square.

On Tuesday, many continued to reclaim Yonge Street, determined not to let last year’s devastating attack hold them back.

Jim Ba was one of them. He credited the community with giving him strength to deal with ongoing visions of the dead and injured – lingering effects of what he saw in the wake of the attack.

“It’s important to be strong,” he said. “Not afraid.”