TORONTO — A close-knit Toronto community was questioning the safety they once took for granted as police searched Friday for a man who sprayed bullets into a local park, injuring two young sisters as they played among other children.
While residents struggled to come to terms with the gun violence that sent the girls aged five and nine to hospital, the city’s mayor pledged “swift justice” for those responsible and said the perpetrators had no place in Toronto society.
The brazen daylight shooting was the latest in a recent string of gun crimes in the city, several of which have taken place in bustling areas.
In the east Toronto neighbourhood where the girls were hit by bullets intended for another target, residents said they were focused on the impact the shooting would have on the community they no longer see as a safe haven.
“This is where they play every day, right next to where they live,” Grace Ballantyne, a longtime resident said of the small park where 11 children were playing around 5 p.m. on Thursday. “I was shocked.”
The playground has long been a hub of activity for the children of the east-Toronto complex, said Ballantyne, adding that the shooting was unprecedented in her nearly 28 years of living there.
The violence at the heart of the community has left the 69-year-old and her neighbours feeling as though they’re “not safe anywhere,” she said.
If that feeling persists, it would mark a drastic shift for a community that resident Albert Tsui views as particularly trusting.
“We are a very friendly community here,” said Tsui, who lives next door to the girls and said he’s accustomed to seeing them and their family members nearly every day.
“We say ‘hi,’ we say ‘bye,’ and honestly sometimes we forget to lock the door.”
Evidence of Thursday’s violence was still visible around the playground. Ten bullet holes, meticulously numbered by police and circled in black marker, dotted the wooden fence that separates the small play space from a condominium parking lot.
The pavement just steps from the playground was stained with what appeared to be dried blood.
Derek Wellwood, a landscaper working at the nearby condo, said the stains were on the spot where he saw one of the girls lying immediately after shots rang out.
“I thought it was fireworks at first. When a co-worker said it was gunshots I stood up but the (shooter) had already fled,” he said. “I decided to walk around to the front to look for any assistance that might be needed. And that’s when I saw the little girl on the ground with six people around comforting her.”
At city hall, Toronto’s mayor had harsh words for the perpetrators as well as anyone else involved in gang activity, which police say has spiked slightly in recent months.
John Tory, who decried the playground attack as “unacceptable” and “cowardly,” said he hopes to see “swift justice” for anyone involved.
“Those who would fire into a playground full of kids playing with so little care don’t deserve to be among us here in the society that we’re building in Toronto and elsewhere in our country,” he said.
“And I say that, too, to all of those involved in … the gang sub-culture and the guns. You will be caught, you will face the full weight of the justice system, and you will not terrorize our city and our neighbourhoods that are within it.”
Ontario premier-designate Doug Ford expressed similar sentiments as he pledged further resources to Toronto and Ottawa police for tackling gang violence.
“That’s a problem, we have a bunch of thugs running around the city with guns shooting people,” said Ford, offering thoughts and prayers to those dealing with the “heartbreaking” situation. “These innocent two little kids, being shot in the streets of Toronto. What’s this city coming to?”
Toronto police spokesman Mark Pugash questioned the portrayal of a city in crisis but acknowledged that there has been an increase in recent gang violence.
Numbers released by the force suggest the recent spike is slightly above levels recorded in recent years.
By this time in 2015, police had recorded 118 shooting incidents. The number surged to 168 by this time in 2016, fell back to 151 last year, and currently stands at 181 as of June 11 this year.
The city has also recorded 40 homicides in 2018, but that figure has been inflated by a deadly van attack that killed 10 people in the space of a few minutes in April, Pugash said.
“Has there been an increase (in gang activity), yes there has,” he said. “We have responded with some success. We will continue to do that, and I am absolutely confident that we will continue to see arrests, charges, and guns off the street.”
Police allege Thursday’s playground attack was carried out by a man who fled the scene in a black, four-door 2007 to 2011 Nissan Versa driven by another man. They said their hunt for both the alleged gunman and get-away driver is ongoing.
The two girls were both taken to hospital for surgery, but are now in stable condition.
Michelle McQuigge and Peter Goffin , The Canadian Press