Where were you when you heard about 9/11?
I was sitting with my fourth-grade classmates, at a primary school in a suburb of Toronto, mere hours from the American border. Barely two weeks ago, I’d seen the mighty Twin Towers, during an exciting family holiday to the Big Apple, where Harry met Sally, where you might meet Tootsie on the street. It was a break from the sleepy, slightly boring Toronto; New York reminded my parents of the busy Bombay they’d left behind.
As an immigrant child, I’d never before considered the difference between Canada and America. Perhaps I was not alone in thinking that they were mostly alike, except that the US was more famous, and everyone chased the American Dream. But on that dreadful September day, with its endless horror loop of crumbling buildings and mushroom clouds, I knew the unique value of my unglamourous hometown – a safe, quiet Switzerland that surely, no one would even bother to notice, let alone attack.
Around the turn of the century, the greatest danger I knew growing up in Toronto was when the snow would threaten to pile up higher than my six-year-old self, and my definition of gang violence consisted of a few knife-wielding teenagers at the local high school. In my old building where all the flats looked the same, I have accidentally walked into other people’s homes more times than I can count, because even in the heart of downtown, Torontonians often don’t bother to lock their doors. I’ve spent summer nights sleeping at parks and beaches without a second thought, confident in the security of this utopia.
But over the years, the nightmare has come to haunt the Toronto street.
In the past four months, Toronto has seen three unprecedented incidents of public terror. On Sunday night, there was a mass shooting at a piazza in the city’s Greektown, a popular hangout spot for locals. A 10-year-old girl and an 18-year-old woman were killed and 13 other people were injured in the attack. The gunman, 29, was found dead nearby after an exchange of fire with the police.
On May 24, a Mississauga restaurant, ten minutes away from my middle school, witnessed a devastating bomb blast. And on April 23, a deadly van attack mowed down pedestrians in a case of incel terrorism.
Three attacks in four months in one of the safest cities in North America. How did we get here?
Toronto only recently has become a major city. In the nearly two decades since 9/11, Toronto has boomed, and its public profile has changed dramatically. Where people used to ask “where’s that?”, they now ask about Drake, the Weeknd, and Lilly Singh. They dream of Rupi Kaur and When Harry Met Meghan, and they obsess over The Handmaid’s Tale. New York’s mousy little sister has grown up to be the cool kid. Being metropolitan naturally brings with it the problems of a metropolis, including higher crime rates.
But this shift in perception is precisely why it’s hard to ignore the crushing significance of attacks on Toronto. In an age where the democratic liberalism of the US, UK, and Europe has largely given way to right-wing authoritarianism, and when this dynamic has echoed around the world, from India to Turkey to the Philippines, Canada has so far resisted this wave. The election of Prime Minister Justin Trudeau was celebrated the world over as a rare win for the values of diversity, and his multicultural, gender-equal cabinet, along with unwaveringly open policies on refugees and immigration, suddenly set Canada apart. From a country that has traditionally played the role of polite-neutral, whose default facial expression has been a nod and a smile, Canada has woken up to find itself cast as the radical left.
And what could embody the brave new Canadian identity better than a city whose majority population, like me, is neither white nor native-born; whose top news story is more likely to be about a pavement memorial to a dead raccoon than a terrorist attack? After all, this is a city that has seen the benefits of diversity and inclusion when its very own version of 9/11 was foiled in 2006 by a former Taliban sympathiser-turned-Canadian intelligence spy.
Of course, Toronto is far from perfect, and the cracks in the city’s determined commitment to liberal values have been widening. There was the infamous crack-smoking mayor, Rob Ford, whose casual bigotry was fodder for schadenfreude around the world. There’s the right-wing darling and my former university professor, Jordan Peterson. Just like in Trump’s America, incidents of hate crimes have been on the rise, and the same brand of extremism that has taken hold all over the world is a growing threat.
In an age where the democratic liberalism of the US, UK, and Europe has largely given way to right-wing authoritarianism, and when this dynamic has echoed around the world, from India to Turkey to the Philippines, Canada has so far resisted this wave.
Is this sudden spate of attacks a part of this creeping culture of polarisation and dissent? Is Toronto just, as usual, an ocean away and a few years behind the curve? In the only city where I have walked down dark alleys in the middle of the night, is fear the new normal?
Perhaps this is the price to be paid for going against the shifting tide, and I worry that my secure, sheltered hometown may never recover from its debut onto the global stage. But like most Torontonians, the values that have made our city a target have also allowed each of us to truly be a part of it, regardless of where we began life.
Next month, Greektown will host its annual Taste of the Danforth, a massive celebration of the city’s Greek community and their culture. This year, it will also serve as a test of Toronto’s stubborn refusal to bow to the global politics of fear.