11 min

Mean streets

A resurgence of violence hits downtown Toronto

It was over in a matter of seconds. As he crossed the Glen Rd footbridge near Sherbourne St on the evening of July 26, Blake Michael Ellis heard footsteps behind him and then two men attacked. He felt a grip on his throat and his attackers shouted “fag” and “queer.”

“Frantically, I started emptying my pockets, giving them whatever I had,” Ellis says. “One took it all and the other got me on the ground and started punching and kicked me in the head. The attack was over pretty quick. I blacked out for a little while.”

Ellis was taken to St Michael’s Hospital, where he called police. He later provided a statement, describing the fear and humiliation he felt in that moment.

He is still shaken by the attack. Toronto doesn’t feel as safe as it once did, he says, and he now thinks twice about walking home alone at night.

He is not alone. In less than a month, Toronto’s gaybourhood and its surrounding areas have become ground zero for such attacks. Some stories have surfaced on social media; others have emerged through the gossip grapevine. Two other men who were recently attacked within days of each other near Church and Wellesley streets have declined to speak to Xtra. One was allegedly hospitalized. It is not known whether either went to police.

The stories are all remarkably similar: a group swarms unsuspecting people, using physical violence and anti-gay slurs before stealing phones and other valuables.

David Wootton, manager of the Church Wellesley Village Business Improvement Area (BIA), says he has heard the stories of increased crime in the neighbourhood and worries residents no longer feel safe. A video sent to Wootton in August — which has since been removed from YouTube — showed a woman being attacked and robbed by a group at Church and Alexander streets.

Toronto Police Detective Sergeant Kevin Guest says police recently made 11 arrests following a rash of attacks and robberies in the area.

“Their modus operandi is all pretty much the same,” Guest says. “A group swarms people leaving nightclubs, people who are texting and using their smartphones. One person distracts the person, maybe throws a punch, while someone else picks up the dropped phone.”

Guest says police have increased officer patrols in the area, and none of the arrests are being investigated as hate crimes. “[They’re] looking for people using their phones. None have been marked as hate crimes. They seem to be targeting both men and women.”

This contradicts those who have come forward to Xtra, including another incident on July 25 around 10pm near Church and Yonge streets. Zach says he believes he was targeted because he is gay. He and a friend had just left the 519 Church St Community Centre when they were swarmed by a group of three or four youths.

Zach, who did not report the incident to police and requested that his last name not be used, says his attackers yelled “faggot” as they swarmed him.

The two had bought frozen yogurt and were sitting on a bench on Wellesley St. “The next thing we know, really out of nowhere, we were swarmed. Just surrounded, one after another after another. So we were trapped on this bench. I started yelling, ‘Get out of my face! Go away!’ They just became tighter and more aggressive.”

For a brief moment, the attackers were distracted. “We took that opportunity to get away. We just ran. We jumped down a wall. We ran down Wellesley. They started running after us.”

Zach says he tried to stop a police cruiser. “They wouldn’t stop. They wouldn’t do anything . . . [The officer] just smirked and kept on driving.”

After police drove away, he saw the group again across the street. “They were at the crosswalk yelling, ‘Faggot! Faggot! Faggot!’ I have been around forever and I have never experienced anything like that ever. That was hate.”

While he isn’t interested in going to police, Zach says, he wanted to go public to let queer people know that recent attacks in the area may be hate-motivated.

Stories of violent crime have dominated Toronto headlines this summer. An early-morning attack on June 28 on Dundas St left 22-year-old Daniel MacLeod in a coma. Meanwhile, bullets tore through the Eaton Centre food court on June 2 in broad daylight; one man was killed and another later died of his injuries after the gang-related shooting. On June 18, a man was killed in an execution-style shooting on the patio of an ice-cream parlour in Little Italy. On July 16, shots rang out at a Scarborough block party, leaving two people dead and another 22 injured.

But is violence really increasing?

While Toronto has one of the lowest murder rates in North America, statistics do show a rise in gun violence. This year alone, the number of shootings in the city is up 34 percent from 2011.

However, according to Statistics Canada, hate crimes have been decreasing. Of the 1,401 hate crimes committed in 2010, 707 were motivated by race or ethnicity, while police reported 218 hate crimes motivated by sexual orientation, of which two-thirds were violent. In Canada, Ontario has, by far, the highest number of reported hate crimes.

Almost three years after the murder of Christopher Skinner, police have yet to find his killers, keeping the case on a growing list of cold cases connected to Toronto’s queer community. Skinner was beaten, then run over by an SUV on the way home from his sister’s birthday party on Oct 18, 2009.

James Dubro, a local crime writer and contributor to Xtra, covered the Skinner murder and says police are still actively investigating, “painstakingly,” with few results.

Dubro has been documenting crime against Toronto’s gay community for about 40 years. He says that for 12 years the Village had a dedicated police foot patrol of more than 16 officers from 51 Division working around the clock, but that ended in 2001 because of budget cutbacks.

Toronto’s Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS), launched in 2005 in the wake of the city’s so-called “Summer of the Gun” and the Boxing Day shooting of 15-year-old Jane Creba, has led to 72 officers being deployed to the city’s crime hotspots. Dubro says TAVIS has tied up resources and pushed much-needed officers out of Church and Wellesley and into other areas, such as Regent Park and Jane and Finch. “When we had the foot patrol there were less problems. Less visibility means more robberies, more attacks.”

Overall, Dubro says, the city is generally safer for gay and lesbian people. However, he says, many clearly remember the 1981 bathhouse raids and still have a deep fear and mistrust of police. “There’s still a lot of shame in this community. If gay people are beaten up, especially if they’re beaten up by police, it’s very unusual for those people to press charges.”

Ward 27 Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam says she is surprised and very concerned about the recent reports of gang attacks and thefts in the neighbourhood. “We were not made aware of this escalation of violence,” she says, noting that the latest swarming incidents could be seasonal.

Wootton says some Church St businesses are also reporting incidents, and the description of the suspects is similar to the phone robberies. For the past couple months, the Wine Rack store at Church and Wellesley has been dealing with organized shoplifters.

“Aggressive people enter the store, one distracts the staff, the other steals stuff. The Wine Rack has been doing a good job recording everything, but it’s been tough on them.”

Wootton says the BIA works closely with police to identify problem areas in the Village, such as dark alleyways, parking lots behind buildings and unlit spots in Cawthra Park. “There’s been problems with drugs. We ask businesses to keep a record if they see anything. Write it down, or else [police] won’t move on these issues.”

Some strategies for tackling the problem were proposed at an Aug 14 meeting at Toronto police headquarters focused on issues affecting the queer community. New police LGBT liaison officer Danielle Bottineau, who recently took on the role after Tom Decker vacated the position almost a year ago, suggested holding a town hall to get feedback from community members.

“Overall in 51 Division the calls for service are generally down this year between July 1 [and Aug 17],” Bottineau says. “That could be attributed to the fact people are not reporting crimes. That’s what people are talking about to me, that there are a lot of people not reporting in that area. That’s a real problem.”

She also notes that if an assault happens, police don’t record the incident as a hate crime; it is recorded as an assault, and through the investigation, [hate motivation] will be added to the report. “If someone says the assault included hate-crime related comments, it will continue as an assault investigation,” she says. “The hate crime element relates to sentencing if it should get that far. So I have no numbers on which occurrences were hate crimes because most are entered as assaults.”

Bottineau cautions, “Just because something happens in the gay village doesn’t necessarily mean it’s a hate crime. People are assaulted for their sexual orientation or their skin colour in every neighbourhood. Yes, it still happens, but I personally don’t think hate crimes are on the rise.”

In Canada, four specific offences are recognized in the Criminal Code as hate crimes: advocating genocide, public incitement of hatred, willful promotion of hatred, and mischief in relation to religious property. Other offences, such as assault, mischief and theft, may be classified as hate crimes if the incident is motivated by hatred toward a particular group based on race, sex, sexual orientation or any other similar factor. For these types of offences, sentencing provisions allow for increased penalties beyond the usual range.

A key part of all this, Bottineau says, is addressing the question of why people don’t report hate crimes or other crimes. Recent victims who spoke with Xtra said they did not report the crimes to police. Zach says he does not want to be identified mainly because he does not trust Toronto police. Another victim who suffered a similar attack in the Village told Xtra he “wants to put it all behind him” — the prospect of reliving the experience for officers, media, then later in court, was too horrifying.

Bottineau says there are many reasons members of queer communities may be less likely to report crime, homophobic or otherwise. “There are still many people who are not out, and they fear that if they report the crime they will be outed by police. It may come out that they were even hanging out in the Church and Wellesley Village, which could out them. And there’s the fear that there may be some form of retaliation from the suspect.”

Matthew Kofsky, public affairs coordinator at the Toronto Board of Trade, was one of the organizers of a vigil for Christopher Skinner in Cawthra Park. He says he was gaybashed a couple years ago and like many others, did not report the crime to police.

“I was just walking down the street, and this guy, who was walking with friends, just turned around and punched me in the face. It escalated to slurs and other [homophobic] remarks. I think it’s happened to everyone in the community at least once, maybe a few times, to varying degrees of severity.”

Looking back, Kofsky says, he can’t remember why he didn’t report the attack to police. “I think if I was mugged I probably would have. That night I was out with friends, and I guess I just thought, ‘What’s the point?’ I didn’t want to go to a police station at 3am after having a few drinks. I just wanted to go home, so I blew it off. I didn’t think it warranted going to police.”

He regrets not speaking up at the time. “I’m not in the closet. I came out about 12 years ago. Everyone at work knows that I’m gay. Everyone in my personal life knows that I’m gay. I’m educated, and I understand the importance of speaking up. I’m not a person of colour. I’m not trans. I’m not in poverty. I don’t have the same barriers as others.

“I would hope that police treat everyone the same — gay, straight, women, trans, people of colour. I would hope that they do.”

Andre Goh, diversity and inclusion manager at Toronto Police Service (TPS), says police are making an effort to reach out, be sensitive and make it easier for people to report hate crimes. Police know queer people are least likely to report, he says.

In recent years Toronto police have been working to overhaul the way hate crimes are investigated, with an emphasis on reporting and reaching out to black youth in particular. “Getting the public to come forward has been our challenge. We know hate crimes are still happening to LGBT people in our city. Then someone says, ‘Show me the numbers.’”

What’s holding people back? “Community, embarrassment, humiliation. For some gay men, if they are targeted, they feel they are not butch enough,” Goh says.

Between 2009 to 2011, the Black Coalition for AIDS Prevention (Black CAP) worked with Toronto police to develop ways to better understand hates crimes and strategies to increase reporting, says executive director Shannon Ryan.

“People from the LGBT community, members of racialized communities, HIV-positive people, all experience stigma,” he says. “Often that stigma comes from police. Historically, these people have not had the most positive relationship with police. So sometimes it’s a leap for people to go to that system. It’s hard to rebuild that trust with systems that have not historically protected us, and that’s being generous.”

Ryan says hate crime statistics do not give an accurate picture. “The majority of hate crimes go unreported.”

More police on patrol isn’t necessarily the answer, either, he says. Police and the City of Toronto should be focusing on public education and targeted outreach to communities that are disproportionately affected, he says. “It’s quite a demanding thing to ask people to report hate crime. It’s traumatizing in itself. You have to relive it, explain your story, often multiple times to multiple people. A lot of people just want to get past it, so they let it go. I wish more people understood the depth of this issue and how common hate crimes are.

“In these days of criminalization of HIV and a criminal justice system that is gleefully pursuing charges against people living with HIV, why should they trust that system?” he asks.

Toronto’s new LGBT liaison officer, who has been with TPS for 13 years, says she understands this. She says police are building back trust, being visible and forging relationships in the community. “That’s my priority.”

Bottineau says police acknowledge that officers have not always been sensitive when dealing with members of the queer community. “I believe that is in the past and bridges have been made … All we can do is take it one day at a time. There has been lots of progress made between our police service and the LGBT community.”

If people are more comfortable reporting crime to a queer officer, they can call her directly, she says.

Since being elected, Wong-Tam has conducted two safety walks in the Church-Wellesley Village to identify unsafe areas. Representatives from TPS, Toronto Hydro, the city, the BIA, shelter support workers, local citizens and journalists have joined her on the walks.

“I’m a firm believer in the Jane Jacobs theory,” Wong-Tam says. “If there’s broken windows and graffiti in neighbourhoods, it gives the perception that the neighbourhood is uncared for and neglected. That will attract criminal activity and poor social behaviour. When a neighbourhood is well kept, and there is pride in place, there are very clear civic-improvement strategies. People are more likely to use their neighbourhood. They become more protective of their area to ensure it stays beautiful, safe and clean.”

Danielle Bottineau, Toronto Police Service’s LGBT liaison, can be reached at 416-808-7268 or