In Toronto’s gay village, safety is a privilege

This article discusses violence against sex workers, racialized people, and LGBTQ2S+ people. It may be triggering to some readers. If you require support, resources will be listed at the bottom of this article.

It was late Jan. 2018, and Justin Ling had taken the day off. Stuck at home nursing a cold, the journalist was shocked when he turned on the TV and saw Toronto police announcing the arrest of Bruce McArthur.

Ling had been doggedly reporting on cases of missing and murdered LGBTQ2S+ individuals in the Church and Wellesley area of Toronto’s Downtown East since 2015. In that time, he repeatedly voiced the concerns of many local residents that a serial killer was targeting their community.

McArthur was the very serial killer Ling had been sounding the alarm on for three years. He’d just been arrested in connection to multiple murders in Toronto’s Church and Wellesley Village, also known as the “Gay Village.” The majority of of his victims were East Asian LGBTQ2S+ men.

Despite being dismissed by the police at every turn, the community was ultimately right.

Photo courtesy of: Evan Aagaard

Ling turned his reporting into the third season of a hugely popular CBC podcast, Uncover, which drew attention to over 40 years of unsolved missing persons cases across Toronto’s LGBTQ2S+ community.

Last month, Ling released his first book, Missing from the Village, which breaks down the McArthur investigation and tells the stories of the killer’s victims. He hopes this work will highlight the systemic failures in the Toronto Police Service’s (TPS) missing persons investigations.

His research joins the flood of community voices that lobbied for the 2018 creation of the Independent Civilian Review into Missing Persons Investigations—known as the Missing Person’s Review—to investigate the TPS’s conduct in the McArthur case. The review is headed by former judge Gloria Epstein and is largely structured around community feedback.

Now, two years after McArthur’s arrest, many advocacy groups and community members say little has changed in the TPS’s relationships with the city’s most vulnerable populations—including those McArthur preyed on.

Many other missing persons cases remain unresolved, and Indigenous, racialized, immigrant, trans, and housing-insecure residents continue to report hostile and dismissive interactions with police.

As the Missing Persons Review prepares to release its final recommendations, advocates are calling for police departments in Toronto and across the country to reckon with the systemic issues behind Canada’s missing persons problem.

Community members gather at a Feb. 2018 vigil for McArthur’s victims. Photo courtesy of: 416Kings

Ellie Ade Kur and Monica Forrester first noticed something was wrong when Alloura Wells stopped attending their local drop-ins at Maggie’s.

Maggie’s is Canada’s oldest sex worker-run organization. It provides services and advocacy work for sex workers in Toronto’s Downtown East.

“The last time we’d seen Alloura was in July,” Forrester said in an interview with The Pigeon. She’s Maggie’s education & outreach coordinator, and a member of the Missing Persons Review’s Community Advisory Group.

“When the months started going on, we [helped her] family file a missing persons report. They were refused [by police]. Then we went to the media.”

Alloura Wells was a biracial transgender woman whose 2017 death sparked outrage in Toronto. Her body, found weeks after her death in Toronto’s Rosedale Ravine Lands Park, was left unidentified for months, while her family and Maggie’s’ requests to file missing persons reports were rebuffed by police.

“She was a sex worker [and] she was homeless,” Forrester said. “She wasn’t a priority [to them].”

In addition to educating other organizations and providing harm reduction and safe sex supplies, Maggie’s creates a space for sex workers through their drop-in services and Indigenous programming, giving them a chance to build community.

That same community mobilized when Wells went missing.

“We had to push [TPS] between July and November of that year before they would even bother filing a missing persons report,” said Ade Kur, a member of Maggie’s Board of Directors.

Kur believes the TPS didn’t investigate Wells’ disappearance because she was a sex worker.

“When the Toronto Police were saying, ‘Oh, maybe she’s not actually missing,’ Monica [Forrester] was out here calling hospitals, jails, mental health facilities. We had to organize our own search parties, we had to do our own flyering of businesses, and pushing media, because Toronto Police refused to look for her.”

Wells’ body was only confirmed as being the one found in the Rosedale Ravine when Rebecca Price, the woman who found the body, contacted Maggie’s. Price had seen Maggie’s reaching out to media about Wells, feeling the TPS response to her discovery was insufficient.

Prior to Price reaching out, the organization hadn’t even known the body had been found.

“We decided to do a search [of the ravine],” Forrester said. “We asked police if they wanted to assist in it. They said no. When we found items of Alloura’s down in the ravine, we contacted police and waited hours, to no avail. They didn’t show up.”

To date, Wells’ cause of death is undetermined.

A screenshot of the Oct. 14 Missing Persons Review Town Hall, where community survey results were released.

Ade Kur and Forrester feel the neglect the TPS showed towards missing persons reported by sex workers hasn’t changed since Wells’ death.

“The police system thinks that sex workers are at fault for their own violence,” Forrester said. “They have this ideology that if you weren’t in that sort of work, that you wouldn’t experience this kind of violence.”

“So how can a community get justice when reporting violence, or even deaths?”

Charges of bias have been consistently levelled against the TPS in the aftermath of the McArthur case.

On Oct. 14, the Missing Persons Review hosted an online Town Hall as part of their community outreach efforts. During the meeting, they released the results of a survey they’d conducted, revealing 45 per cent of respondents had little to no confidence in the TPS to demonstrate bias-free policing.

Similarly, nearly half of respondents had little to no confidence in the TPS to work with immigrant and refugee communities, visible minority communities, or the LGBTQ2S+ community.

This number increased to over 50 per cent when it came to interactions with Indigenous people, or people experiencing mental health issues or homelessness.

These results come amidst the media attention this summer given to the five Canadians who died during police mental health “wellness checks” between April and June this year. Among the five, two were Indigenous, two were Black, and one was Pakistani-Canadian.  

Shakir Rahim, a lawyer and former board member at Toronto’s Alliance for South Asian AIDS Prevention (ASAAP), attributes part of the police’s scattered response to the serial murders to a fundamental lack of understanding about the intersectional communities the TPS serves.

Six of McArthur’s eight confirmed victims were immigrant or refugee South Asian or Middle Eastern men: Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi, Majeed “Hamid” Kayhan, Soroush Mahmudi, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, and Selim Esen.

ASAAP’s advocacy following McArthur’s arrest was instrumental in launching the Missing Persons Review, and they remain one of the only organizations in the Church and Wellesley Village serving LGBTQ2S+ South Asian people. Their executive director, Haran Vijayanathan, is the coordinator of the Missing Persons Review Community Advisory Group.

“The nature of the crime [was] directed towards South Asian and Middle Eastern queer people,” Rahim said. “I think that element of it has been overlooked.”

“I’m a gay South Asian man, and we operate with a lot of people having stereotypes about us; that we live a double life, that we’re ashamed of being ourselves. When you inhabit both of these identities, it’s very easy for other people to arrive at conclusions about your behavior.”

Rahim said the TPS could have made similar conclusions about McArthur’s South Asian victims.

“[These factors] affect how, as a police force, you examine someone who’s gone missing. If you operate with the framework that because a South Asian person who is queer may want to ‘escape,’ then it makes sense that they’ve disappeared […] that’s going to affect whether you properly examine the issue.”

A person deemed ‘transient’ is one that police believe is highly likely to have simply run away or moved and lost touch with loved ones, rather than having been the victim of foul play. A person’s profile, including mental health issues, cultural background, criminal record, or work, can all influence whether their case is deemed high priority or not.

For sex workers, particularly those who are Black, Indigenous, or people of colour, this has long been the case; Ade Kur and Forrester noted that Wells had been deemed ‘transient.’  

Over the course of his investigation, and in his book, Ling noted that many of McArthur’s South Asian victims were also categorized as ‘transient’ because of their race and sexual orientation, including Faizi, a married father of two, who police initially assumed had abandoned his family.

Navaratnam, McArthur’s first known victim, was also suspected of having gone into hiding, despite having recently adopted a puppy, who was left behind in his apartment.

“Bazir Faizi’s wife or Soroush Mahmudi’s wife both, to varying degrees, do not have a great mastery of English,” Ling pointed out in an interview with The Pigeon. “They were left behind by parts of this investigation because there wasn’t enough of an ability from the [TPS] to communicate with them.”

“[In the case of Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam] there were family members in Sri Lanka who I was speaking to throughout this case who told me they didn’t know what was happening.”

It was the disappearance of McArthur’s final victim, Andrew Kinsman, in 2017 that renewed attention to the spate of missing men in the Village. Kinsman, who was white, had a strong network of friends in the community that tirelessly pursued his case.

Their efforts were invaluable towards putting all of these disappearances into the public eye, but for many, Kinsman’s case speaks volumes about whose lives are valued by society, and specifically by the police. McArthur’s only other white victim, Dean Lisowick, was a sex worker. He was never reported missing.

“We see it playing out before our very eyes,” said Rahim. “Certain lives are seen as expendable in our society, whether we want to say it or not.”

Haran Vijayanathan, executive director of ASAAP, speaks at the Feb. 2018 vigil. Photo courtesy of: 416Kings

The TPS has made several changes to some of its operations since closing the McArthur case. In 2018, they created their first missing persons unit within the TPS. The team is reviewing thousands of old missing persons cases, and new ones as they arrive, but likely will not be investigating any, instead serving as an oversight board to detect overarching patterns.

They’re also participating in several committee roundtables with a wide variety of Village stakeholders, like the 519 Community Centre and the Church Wellesley Neighbourhood Association.

The 519, a ubiquitous presence in Church and Wellesley, is a community centre, advocacy organization, and gathering place for residents in the neighbourhood. With the COVID-19 pandemic, the centre has pivoted to an essential services model, which includes providing hot meals and access to hygiene supplies, among other resources.

In 2017, the TPS introduced the Neighbourhood Officer program to the Village to better connect with residents. Four officers from the local 51 Division now patrol the Downtown East on bike to be more accessible and approachable.

Still, Jaymie Sampa, Head of Anti-Violence Initiatives at the 519, notes that the gulf between the community—particularly trans members, members of colour, and the housing insecure—and the police is still hard to cross.

One complicating issue is the increasing gentrification of the Downtown East, widening the cultural gulf between homeless and low-income residents and neighbourhood millionaires.

“[The Village] is, I would say, diverse racially, and also in terms of income,” said Sampa. “You’ve got folks who are living in multimillion-dollar homes, and you have folks who’ve been living in the park for years.”

“I think that has the capacity to make for really healthy communities, but it sometimes breeds tensions around priorities.”

Sampa notes that police, neighbourhood organizations, and residents struggle to agree on certain issues.

“Some days you feel you’ve made progress [with police], that you’ve built some understanding, and the next day, the rug comes out,” they said. “Last week, the police were in public forums on more than one occasion saying that our food security program is a contributing factor to increased crime in the neighbourhood.”

“That analysis is wildly problematic. We’re providing food; we cannot be made responsible for the social conditions of poverty.”

Still, Sampa recognizes that safety does not look the same for everyone in the Village.

“How do you balance and contemplate the diverse realities of what safety means to different people in our community?”

For many marginalized minority groups, particularly poor or racialized peoples in the community, police presence can be a source of immense stress. These factors can lead to a mistrust of police, and in turn a lack of reporting, when it comes to missing persons investigations.

The survey completed by the Missing Persons Review noted that 12 per cent of respondents chose not to approach police about a missing persons case, many citing the belief that police wouldn’t take the report seriously.

Another major concern from transgender and non-binary respondents, who were less likely to report cases overall, was uncertainty about how their information would be used and how they would be treated.

Through their own personal experiences, Sampa shares in that distrust.

“I’m a racialized woman, and I cannot detach the rotten roots of this targeted mistreatment [from police today]. They’re an institution that doesn’t seem to deem [Black, Indigenous and people of colour’s] bodies, or Two Spirit, or queer trans bodies, or poor bodies, as worthy of their service and protection.”

“What actually is the role of police in our community? How are they held accountable to their responsibilities to us? How is this person not worthy, in your eyes, of the same treatment and dignity and safety that you afford to someone in [an affluent neighbourhood like] Rosedale?”

The limitation to the TPS’s ability to access communities and understand intersectional experiences has led many to discuss how missing persons investigations can be expanded across different organizations.

“There are 1000 ways in which police are not the best suited to do every step of a missing persons investigation,” Ling said.

“There are elements of this case that show exemplary police work. They put in time and effort and ultimately cracked the case. I wasn’t going to solve this case—they had to do it, and they did. [But] we can’t expect a quasi-militarized police service to be constantly having a finger on the pulse of [the] queer community, and the same goes for any marginalized community.”

For Ling and many others in Downtown East, the solution is introducing a civilian element into missing persons investigations.

Organizations like Maggie’s, ASAAP, and the 519 agree that inclusion and collaboration with police in missing persons investigations could provide insight and access into the highest-risk communities in the area, and increase the police’s understanding of the people they serve.

Recent calls to defund the police and reallocate parts of police budgets towards addressing root social issues, like housing and food insecurity, have struck a chord in the Village.

This month’s Town Hall, hosted by the Missing Persons Review, saw several impassioned calls for the review’s recommendations to consider defunding TPS.

Many older residents of the Village remember the TPS’s bathhouse raids from the early 1980s, and the more recent Pussy Palace raid of 2000. The raids, at the time, were the largest single arrests in Toronto’s history and were strongly characterized by homophobic and aggressive behaviour from police. These experiences still colour the LGBTQ2S+ community’s relationship with the TPS.

During a public question period, a local resident, Anthony Mohamed, raised the question of whether increased cultural sensitivity education for the police—who already undergo mandatory training on diversity and bias—can continue to be seen as a viable solution.

“I recognize that training is important,” Mohamed said. “But I’m wondering if those are more band-aid solutions—fixing a broken system instead of changing a broken system.”

In response, lead counsel of the Missing Persons Review, Mark Sandler, said the review is taking the defund movement into serious consideration.

In an interview with The Pigeon, Sandler noted that diversifying the approach to missing persons investigations is popular on both sides of the table.

“It is within our mandate to look at whether police should own the entire missing persons portfolio, so to speak,” he said.

“It’s very relevant to missing persons cases to ask the question, ‘Should police be in this space?”

In the Town Hall, Sandler similarly stressed that training alone could not be an effective solution, and that alternative models were being considered.

The 519 Community Centre building in Toronto. Photo courtesy of: The 519

In many ways, organizations across the Downtown East are working to bridge the gap in community safety themselves.

The 519 created its Anti-Violence Initiatives department in 2018, building on what Sampa terms “rapid response models,” including providing immediate support to victims of violence. This ranges from accompanying them to the hospital and providing mental health support, to helping report incidents to police and ensuring that cases are filed.

“We’ve tried to work a little bit around creating alternative reporting mechanisms. And admittedly, I don’t think the police like that we do this,” Sampa said.  “We let people know, ‘if something happened and you want to report it, you can come to us.’ We can then engage our community officers, for example, [and] let them know that somebody wants to make a report.”

Sampa finds that the institutional backing of the 519 can help those who have experienced violence navigate the police system, and ensures police take cases seriously.

“I’ve heard countless tales of, ‘I got laughed out of the station,’” Sampa said. “When I’ve asked, ‘Okay, do you have the report number?’ [I hear] ‘I never got one.’”

“We can follow up [on their behalf].”

ASAAP’s Safe Program was created in response to the McArthur murders. It encourages those entering potentially unsafe situations, including going on dates with new partners or meeting sex work clients, to email ASAAP with their name, the details of who they are meeting and where, and their contact information.

If users don’t email ASAAP within 24 hours of returning, and ASAAP is unable to make contact in 48 hours, they will reach out to police.

Maggie’s network of drop-in programs and support groups provide sex worker in the Downtown East with a similar community structure.

“When people are living in encampments and often moving from place to place, it can be very difficult to track where they are,” Ade Kur said.  

“Because of our regular community space, we do have ways of making sure [they’re around]. […] [We’re] checking in on populations that the city has largely discarded.”

Demonstrated by Maggie’s response to Wells’ disappearance, the organization won’t hesitate to mobilize if they feel a member has gone missing.

Many of these programs seek to form community and social supports around isolated members of society, like refugees and sex workers.

While Andrew Kinsman’s friends and family were able to consistently and vocally advocate for his case to be investigated, Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam’s disappearance, as a refugee with few connections in Canada, went unreported.  

“You’re never gonna have a situation where, given the inequalities we have in our society, people will have the same type of social network to advocate for them,” Rahim said.  

“[We’re] building a collective capacity to hold institutions’ feet to the fire, to ensure that they know they cannot get away with not treating every case as if it’s a priority.”

For Ade Kur, the reallocation of police resources to community support services is a no-brainer. Sex work has had a long history of criminalization in Canada, which has made it more difficult for sex workers to do their jobs, and has often put them at a greater risk of going missing.

“We kind of challenge the idea that police can be reformed,” Ade Kur said. “The police were fundamentally created to police black and Indigenous communities, and to protect wealthy populations. That’s never going to look like the communities that we serve.”

“It’s our community organizations, our grassroots efforts, that really keep people safe. We’re the ones that do that for each other. They don’t do that for us, and they can’t do that for us, because it’s not the job of the police.”

“The Toronto Police aren’t meant to protect and serve black, trans, [or] homeless sex workers. They’re not meant to serve sex workers at all.”

In addition to questions about how the police interact with at-risk communities, police officers themselves face significant structural failings within their institution when it comes to conducting missing persons investigations.

Ling covers the technological and reporting failures of police extensively in Missing from the Village.

Over the course of the McArthur investigation, many police departments and internal projects didn’t adequately communicate with each other. McArthur himself was interviewed in connection to an incident separate from the missing persons investigation years before becoming a suspect himself—something officers investigating the missing men only learned of after they’d arrested him.  

Ling believes one crucial flaw in missing persons investigations is the lack of a comprehensive, public-facing database of missing persons cases. As a reporter, he believes this could have made the connections between McArthur’s victims immediately clear.

“Toronto usually compiles their missing persons cases on the news-release side of their website,” Ling explained. “They catalog cold case homicides on a very clunky, mid 2000s era website that is not accessible, that can’t [be searched], that is not user friendly.”

“I know it seems odd to bet that this would be a significant tool, but it is. There are a lot of people out there who are looking for answers about their loved one who’s gone missing or whose death has been unexplained, and [they] sometimes make connections that can prove very valuable.”

While the RCMP has launched a national database, Ling questions its efficacy, noting that individual police departments decide whether or not to submit cases to the database.

“I’ve been hounding them on it, and they’ve started adding some names to the website, but not all of them,” he said. “At that point, you have to start asking questions, like what would it take for my disappearance to be uploaded to this RCMP website by Toronto Police?”

“You know, would it help that I’m white? Would it help that I’m straight? Would it help that I have four kids? Will I get uploaded to this website if I’m not white, if I’m not straight?”

Rahim sees the power given to investigating officers’ and departments’ discretion as a setback to solving cases.

“We don’t really have a sense of what the procedure is,” he said. “But whatever it is, ultimately, when you are dealing with a community that you don’t have expertise with, I think you have to be very [aare of] the possibility that bias is affecting discretionary decisions.”

These issues, failures in multi-jurisdictional communication, and police use of technology are all coming under the investigation of the Missing Persons Review.

The Missing Persons Review is set to release its final recommendations in Jan. 2021.

It joins other high-profile public inquiries into missing persons and police investigations in Canada over the last decade, including the inquiry launched after the Robert Pickton murders, and the national inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls.

Pickton—one of Canada’s most horrific serial killers—targeted Indigenous sex workers in Vancouver through the 1990s and into the early 2000s. Charged with killing 26 women and claiming to have killed 23 more, he was convicted in 2007, only a few years before Navaratnam, McArthur’s first known victim, disappeared.

The flaws in the police’s investigation of those missing women are strikingly similar to flaws in the McArthur case and those of other marginalized missing persons in Toronto. Those women, too, were deemed transient due to their race and work, and their cases received little attention from police.

“After Robert Pickton was arrested and convicted, there was a public inquiry that I think serves as one of the most important documents for modern policing in Canada,” Ling said.

“Unfortunately, it was consistently ignored in this country.”

Sandler himself noted that the Missing Persons Review has seen many similarities between the two inquiries.

“If one reads Justice Opal’s very extensive report [on the Pickton case], you’ll see some themes that really are common to the themes that people have expressed to us here,” he said.

He said the review is aware of the importance of making sure its recommendations stick. They plan on including an action plan and a public accountability framework in their final report.

“I can tell you Judge Epstein and I have absolutely no interest in being involved in a report that will sit on a shelf,” Sandler said.

In addition to police accountability, advocates like Sampa at the 519 want residents in the Village to remember the diversity of experience that makes up the LBGTQ2S+ community, and to continue to look out for one another across all intersections of identity.

“I really love people in our community, and I see them dying, needlessly,” Sampa said.

“You should be uncomfortable and offended by that. If we don’t take care of each other, what’s the plan? […] I know our community to be wildly resilient. Everything has been designed for us to not exist—and we do. We’re not each other’s adversaries. We’ve got bigger fish to fry.”

If you require resources or assistance surrounding mental illnesses, please visit the Mental Health Commission of Canada’s website. For emergency resources specific to LGBTQ2S+ individuals, please visit the Queer Events’ website.

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