[This article was updated in January 2019]
In the wake of a wave of murders that shook the Church Wellesley neighbourhood in 2017, the City and federal government, local organizations and the Toronto police are working hard to make our community safer.
A Year of Fear and Anger
The urgency for action was obvious following the chilling events of 2017:
The community was shaken to the core, as a sense of fear and vulnerability led to anger and questions about how the police had dealt with the cases. Did the sexual orientation, gender-identity and race of the missing and murdered affect the level of attention these crimes were given by investigators?
Compounding the sense of vulnerability on the streets of the Village: an ongoing epidemic of opioids, crystal meth and other drugs, combined with mental health issues, resulting in bizarre and sometimes threatening behaviour and an increase in property crimes.
A Review of Police Procedures
In March 2018, the Toronto Police Services Board approved a proposal by Mayor John Tory for an independent, external review of police missing person procedures. The review will also look at barriers that could lead to someone not being reported missing and the relationship between police and the LGBTQ community.
Police Chief Mark Saunders had earlier voiced his support for such a review. "My hope is that such a review will consider not only our investigative processes, but take a hard look at systemic issues of bias of any kind. I believe these issues are serious enough to warrant a review," he wrote in a statement released on March 9.
In June 2018, the board announced a budget of $3 million for the review, which will include consultations with the community.
While a full public inquiry could not be held into the serial murders as long as the McArthur case was before the courts, in January 2019 Justice Gloria Epstein, the head of the external review, requested that her mandate be broadened to include it.
Changing Local Policing
In October 2017, the CWNA and the Village BIA met with 51 Division Superintendent Tony Riviere, the Mayor’s Office, Councillor Wong-Tam and numerous City and social service agencies.
In that meeting, Superintendent Riviere confirmed that four additional foot patrol officers would be allocated to St James Town and the Church Wellesley neighbourhood. Foot patrols allow officers to build relationships with residents, better understand local issues and deal with individual cases complicated by mental health and shelter issues.
A Safety Action Plan for Downtown
In November 2017, Counsellor Kristyn Wong-Tam coordinated a Healthy Neighbourhoods Summit, bringing together residents, businesses, City of Toronto staff and community partners. Following feedback from the event, the Councillor led the creation of the Downtown East Action Plan.
Taking into consideration the complexities of addiction, mental health and shelter availability, the aim of the plan is to reduce harm and create welcoming public spaces for all residents.
The immediate 12-month and 5-year Downtown East Action Plan includes increasing city service and staff levels to respond to the addiction and mental health crises we are experiencing downtown. This includes improved front-line staff training for overdose prevention and mental health and new peer-to-peer and harm-reduction hires to do direct outreach with vulnerable community members.
The action plan includes increased park maintenance operations and more Parks Ambassadors to maintain order and connect vulnerable populations to services. The City has also increased laneway cleaning, including needle collection, and stepped up street sweeping operations.
A new community services coordinator will integrate the work of municipal and community agencies in the Downtown East to work with residents, communities and City staff. The 5-year action plan will address root causes, including the failings in housing, shelters, and social supports that have contributed to the current addictions and mental health crisis.
Coordinating the Response to Violence
Over the past several months, the Village Critical Incident and Emergency Response Network (The Village Network) has been created to coordinate the response to an event that threatens the health, security or safety of the Village and surrounding community, such as assaults, serious injury or death.
The Village Network is made up of City agencies, service providers and resident representatives. When a critical incident occurs, The Village Network will coordinate the delivery of services to the neighbourhood from city departments and community service providers, aiming to restore neighbourhood safety, security, well-being and a sense of community.
In addition to responding to specific incidents The Village Network will be meeting on a monthly basis.
In November 2018, Toronto Centre MP Bill Morneau announced the federal government will invest $450,000 in improving the safety of Canada’s LGBTQ community.
Pride Toronto will use the grant to lead an initiative that aims to improve the relationship between the LGBTQ community and the criminal justice system.
“We know there has been a long and turbulent history between the criminal justice system and LGBTQ2 Canadians. Certainly residents of Toronto Centre know about this issue here locally,” Minister Morneau stated.
Olivia Nuamah, executive director of Pride Toronto, said the federal funding will initially go towards nation-wide consultations with LGBTQ agencies and leaders to determine how to improve community safety. The second step will be research and analysis to come up with solutions.
Challenges and Cause for Optimism
Our neighbourhood has been witness to a perfect storm of sorts. The apparent mishandling of the cases of missing and murdered men and women by police weakened trust in those whose duty it is to protect. Lack of funding to deal with the root causes of addiction, mental health issues and inadequate housing culminated in a less safe and secure experience of our streets and parks. But governments, community agencies, the police and others have taken action on multiple fronts and are working together to find solutions.