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Life in your city after an attack

Toronto is different - yet the same - the morning after a van attack killed 10 and injured 15
Van attack in Toronto kills 10
A couple look down the road after an incident where a van struck multiple people at a major intersection in the north end of Toronto on April 23. REUTERS/Chris Donovan

By Todd Humber

I couldn’t imagine what it felt like to be a resident of Nice, France, waking up the day after a truck plowed through a celebratory crowd on July 14, 2016, killing 86 people and injuring 458.

I wondered what the citizens of Berlin felt like after a truck drove through a Christmas market on Dec. 19, 2016, killing 12 and injuring 56.

I remember the shock of the Barcelona van attack last summer that killed 13 and injured 80 in the Spanish city.

This morning, I woke up in my own bed — knowing too well what it’s like to be in a stunned city who lost so many residents on a beautiful spring day. Toronto has been added to the depressing list of nonsensical, incomprehensible human tragedies caused by someone armed with a driver’s license and a credit card. “Horror on Yonge St. after van driver kills 10 and injures 15,” screams the headline of the Toronto Star this morning.

I can tell you exactly what it’s like in a city beset by senseless carnage — it’s different, yet the same.

Your alarm still goes off in the morning.

You still get in the shower.

You grab your morning coffee and read the news — though this time the headlines, the photos and the locations on the major foreign news outlets are more familiar than usual. I heard Wolf Blitzer on CNN talk about the attack in the heart of “downtown Toronto” and shake my head at the Americans’ lack of knowledge about all things Canadian. (See, some things don’t change.) The attack was in a random section of the city, the heart of North York to be sure but nowhere near downtown — and at the bottom of the list of places you’d expect it to happen if someone did choose to target Toronto.

On my drive in, things didn’t feel any different. I was cut off multiple times on Highway 404 (business as usual)… I saw single drivers cheating their way through traffic in the HOV lanes (aggravating, but predictable)… cars came to a standstill in the same old spots (frustrating, yet familiar).

In my office, where I write this, I sit exactly 11.4 kilometres from where 26 people were mowed down in a white rented Ryder van. On a good day, I can make it there in 10 minutes. And almost nothing feels different.

In other parts of the city, there are palpable differences. On my drive in, I got a phone call from my partner Kathy. She was walking from Union Station to her office in the real heart of downtown Toronto and was marveling at the transformation that happened overnight. Giant concrete barriers that were not there yesterday have transformed the landscape.

She described the police presence as “heavy” and “visible” — and she’s not prone to hyperbole.

“It’s really different down here,” she told me. “It’s kind of crazy.”

I asked her to snap a photo for this column. She tried, but couldn’t get a great shot — because there were simply too many people walking to work and blocking views of the barricades. That’s reassuring, because life does go on. Here's a view of the barriers in front of Union Station she snapped:

When I first heard of the attack, all I got was a quick “Van plows into a crowd in Toronto” headline on my satellite radio tuned to CNN. I immediately fired off a text to my partner to ensure she was OK — I had just chatted with her about 30 minutes earlier as she enjoyed a walk during her lunch on what was really the first warm day in the city this year.

The odds she was affected by this attack in a city of millions are astronomical. Yet, my heart skipped a beat. It didn’t really return to normal until I got that reassuring text back. That was the biggest shock and a new sensation for me — the moments of the unknown, of thinking that a random Monday could upend your universe because of the actions of one person.

Ten families did not get that reassuring text back, and that is devastating. The names of the people we saw covered by orange tarps will come soon — and it will be difficult as we put names and faces behind the statistics. These people are mothers, fathers, sons and daughters.

They are employees, co-workers and friends.

Employers of those affected by the attacks — and this includes bystanders and people who witnessed it — will need to be accommodating in the weeks to come. If you listened to the first-hand eyewitness accounts during the coverage, you’ll know that some of these people will need to seek counselling and help. This is why money invested in employee and family assistance programs (EFAPs) is so well spent.

Years ago, when I was a university student, I was driving down Ouellete Avenue in the heart of downtown Windsor, Ont. My friend Doug Hreceniuk and I watched in horror as a car in front of us jumped the curb, smashed into a couple of Canada Post mailboxes that went airborne and struck some people waiting at a bus stop.

Doug and I pulled over and jumped out of the car to help those injured — and ended up sprinting after the perpetrator’s car, on foot, as she drove away slowly in the wrong lanes of traffic. Not the smartest thing we’ve ever done, but we did manage to stop her on a sidestreet and keep an eye on her until police arrived.

Months later, in court where I was called to testify, the charges against the driver were dismissed because she had serious mental health issues.

It has been more than 25 years since that happened, but I can still clearly see the shocked and pained face of an elderly gentleman — bloodied and pinned by one of the crumpled Canada Post boxes. He survived, but it still had a major impact on me.

What happened on Yonge Street was far worse, and will take a toll on everyone involved — the victims, the witnesses and the first responders — for years to come. As employers, we need to support our workers who were impacted in whatever way they need.

Today Toronto is different, yet the same. Shocked, but moving on. What happened yesterday is still an open sore, and the victims won’t be forgotten. But we still go to work, we shop, we walk on sidewalks and we sit on patios and will head for cottages and campgrounds on the weekend.

This is a great city after all, and one troubled man with whatever beef he has with society can’t come close to destroying it.

© Copyright Canadian HR Reporter, Thomson Reuters Canada Limited. All rights reserved.

Todd Humber

Todd Humber is the publisher and editor-in-chief of Canadian HR Reporter, the national journal of human resource management. Follow him on Twitter @ToddHumber
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