Monday morning, all we could talk about was the weather: Toronto woke up to a bright and warm day. Just a week earlier, as a nasty coda to a very long winter, an ice storm had battered and smattered the city for three days. Yards were strewn with debris and broken branches, and streets were clogged with snow and water and ice. Seven days later, and at last! — the weather turned. Toronto’s bike lanes and patios and sidewalks were full again.
By bright and warm Monday afternoon, the city’s conversation had changed, and it won’t go back to easy weather chatter anytime soon. The midday attack on pedestrians along a northern stretch of Yonge Street, the city’s main drag, was terrible and terrifying. This is the case whenever and wherever such things happen in the world today. But it’s fundamentally shocking in this city, for this city. This is not supposed to happen here. After all, this is Toronto.
With 10 dead and 15 injured by a man who — while his motives are not yet determined — clearly found inspiration in weaponizing a rental van to run down innocent civilians, the city has experienced the sort of horrifying event that we have long since accepted happens in the world, only elsewhere. Indeed, in a profoundly felt if rarely discussed way (we retain at least this part of our British heritage), that’s the point of Toronto itself: Whether it’s the Great Irish Famine in the 19th century or Syria’s civil war in the 21st, tragic events and traumatic histories happen elsewhere, and that’s why you come here, to make a life for yourself and your family in peace.
In doing so, and in accepting that you’re doing so alongside people from all over the world committed to the same idea, you contribute to and benefit from being part of a success story now in its third century and going strong — a flourishing, cosmopolitan urban center in a country committed to peace, order and good government. We argue about how we’re doing with those second and third components, but very rarely about the first. In a world brutalized and shredded by sectarian conflict, Toronto can feel at times like an urban amusement park: It’s the most ethnically diverse and pluralist city on the planet, and also, as residents and visitors alike have long both assumed and experienced, the friendliest and safest.
It remains so.
You can see as much in the immediate aftermath of the attacks. Ordinary citizens and organizations alike, of backgrounds so typically variegated it feels patronizing to parse them, have come forward to offer whatever assistance is needed; the police officer who arrested the suspect without firing his weapon is being praised for his stunningly calm approach; and on Monday night, thousands gathered downtown, in Maple Leaf Square, both to cheer on our beloved hockey team as it won its latest playoff game and to show one another and the watching world that even hours after such unprecedented carnage in this city, thousands still gather together. That may seem romantic to people living in harder parts of the world, but here, it’s real. Only now some of that hardness from elsewhere has become real here, too.
We don’t know yet whether the attack was a deliberate act of terrorism or a random and senseless act of violence. In geopolitical and public policy terms, the former is obviously the more disturbing. But in plainer terms, for the three million people of this city, establishing a motive for the attack matters less than its certain effect: Toronto can no longer take itself for granted.
Once the immediate responses to the attacks subside and well beyond the investigations and public deliberations that are already taking place, it will be harder to live out Toronto’s extraordinary — because it’s so damned ordinary — civic convictions about the baseline pluralist harmony and secure, free movement that make this city what it is. I am confident we will keep living these out, if now with a genuine and credible wariness that will be foreign to us, initially. But like so much else from around the world that comes to Toronto, in time this wariness will also become part of this fluid and fixed city’s life and identity.
As the next long winter begins to descend in late fall, my wife and I will take our four daughters to the city’s annual Santa Claus parade, along with thousands of others who always fill the downtown’s major arteries for a joyful Sunday in the city. This past year, officials lined side streets with buses and garbage trucks to avoid attacks on civilians. I didn’t notice. After all, this is Toronto. This year I will pay more attention. We all will. But this is still Toronto.
Randy Boyagoda is a novelist and professor of English at the University of Toronto, where he is also principal of St. Michael’s College.