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‘Disaster is what brings us together.’ Greektown community united after tragedy

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greek town united after tragedy

TORONTO — The doors at St. Barnabas on the Danforth are always open, but the people seeking solace inside the Anglican church the day after a deadly shooting wanted to bolt them shut.

Less than 24 hours earlier, gunfire had shattered the cheer of Toronto’s Greektown where the church is located. In the melee, a troubled man had sprayed bullets indiscriminately through the bustling neighbourhood, killing two people, injuring 13 others and leaving countless more questioning the safety of an area they’d long seen as an oasis.

Rev. Jeanette Lewis understood the calls to lock St. Barnabas’ doors rather than make the church available for anyone needing to discuss the tragedy, but she felt denying entry would send the wrong message.

In short order, she said, residents came to agree. The neighbourhood resumed business as usual mere days after the devastating shooting, and on the one-year anniversary of the tragedy, she said the community has emerged as strong as ever.

“Disaster is what brings us together and brings the best out of us,” Lewis said in an interview. “It’s like when there’s a terrible snow storm and you’re standing at a bus shelter. You’ll talk to somebody whereas you won’t on a nice day.”

Efforts to recover from the deadly shooting spree focused on vigils and tributes in the days immediately following the rampage.

Makeshift memorials sprang up to honour the lives of 18-year-old Reese Fallon and 10-year-old Julianna Kozis, both of whom died in the violence.

The Danforth, a long-time hub for Toronto’s Greek community, is now home to dozens of diverse businesses and a popular destination for Toronto residents and visitors alike. Some of those businesses experienced a downturn in traffic in the days immediately following the shooting, Lewis said, citing wary restaurant patrons opting to grab takeout rather than dining in public.

Local campaigns to encourage visitors to return appear to have worked, Lewis said, noting neighbourhood hot spots are still doing brisk business and attendance at community festivals was at or slightly above levels seen in more peaceful years.

Beneath it all, however, community members say scars remain.

Roula Panagiopopoulos, who’s called the Danforth neighbourhood home for more than 20 years, said safety concerns dominate much of the chatter among her fellow residents.

As co-founder of the newly minted Danforth Residents Association, she said her efforts have focused on meeting with politicians at all levels of government, raising concerns with city police, and debating the merits of installing more cameras along the stretch of street where the shooting took place.

Gun control, too, has become a hot topic, with at least one community yard sale doubling as a fundraising vehicle for a national organization in support of limiting access to firearms.

Panagiopopoulos herself said the shooting lies at the heart of her personal safety concerns, adding it’s permanently changed her interactions with her neighbourhood.

“I ensure now that I don’t come home after dark any more,” she said. “I personally will have a hard time going on the Danforth on a Sunday night. I know it is irrational, but it’s just something that will always stop me.”

A local arts organization also said safety and gun violence were prevalent themes among participants in a series of workshops meant to spread messages of love, acceptance and strength in the months following the shooting.

Shana Hillman, executive director of East End Arts, said participants often raised concerns about feeling safe in public spaces, though their anxieties encompassed areas like racism and intolerance more than the specific events of July 22, 2018.

The posters they created in the workshops, many of which now appear throughout the neighbourhood, were envisioned as messages meant to reaffirm the values of the community and express support to anyone spending time there.

“It’s not our job to solve these problems, but as a local arts service organization there is a way that we can … give the community the tools to talk about or deal with issues,” she said.

For Alexandra Kaklamanos, tools for discussion would be welcome.

Her daughter, Raphaella Zymaras, was among a group of eight friends capping off a birthday celebration on the Danforth when shots rang out.

Half of them, including Zymaras, escaped injury by seeking shelter in a local cafe. The other half were caught in the gunfire, resulting in serious injuries for three of them and Fallon’s sudden death.

Kaklamanos said her daughter cannot bear to revisit the neighbourhood where her friend was killed, insisting on taking detours around the area when travelling between her home and university campus.

Kaklamanos herself, however, has found comfort in the resilience of a community where she spent many happy hours as a child and young adult. She returned to the area for the first time since the shooting a few weeks ago, compelled by a need to try and reconstruct what her daughter endured.

What she found, however, was an unexpected sense of peace and reassurance as she enjoyed lunch at a local restaurant and saw the community functioning much as she remembered.

Kaklamanos hopes her daughter, too, may one day feel safe in the streets where she once felt terror.

“When I went there it did me good,” Kaklamanos said. “For her it will be more important to go and say, ‘You know what? It’s still safe. It’s still okay to be here.”

Michelle McQuigge, The Canadian Press

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RCMP plane chases fleeing helicopter as part of major cross-border drug bust

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PENTICTON, B.C. — RCMP east of Vancouver were involved in a cross-border drug bust this summer that involved nearly 300 kilograms of meth, more than 100 guns and an aerial chase between a police plane and a helicopter.

Details of the bust are in paperwork filed at the Penticton Law Courts to support multiple search warrants for a property near Chilliwack, B.C., where a helicopter at the centre of the chase is alleged to have landed with an RCMP plane on its tail.

Documents filed on behalf of the RCMP Federal Serious and Organized Crime Section in Osoyoos say the office was alerted in early June by U.S. Homeland Security about a planned cross-border drug deal involving nearly 200 kilograms of methamphetamine.

U.S. officials staked out a landing site in Washington state about 110 kilometres south of Princeton, B.C., where they believed the drugs would be transferred to Canadian buyers. Something spooked the pilot of the helicopter, and it fled north into Canadian airspace.

Two men who tried to leave the landing site in Washington were arrested by U.S. agents who seized 188 kilograms of methamphetamine.

In Canadian skies, an RCMP plane was patrolling near Princeton hoping to intercept the unmarked, black helicopter. Mounties spotted it in a shadowy landing site on a remote mountainside in E.C. Manning Provincial Park.

The helicopter lifted off and headed west.

The chase was on.

“The helicopter took deliberate evasive action, attempting to lose surveillance,” the documents say. “The helicopter flew at very low altitudes, near the tops of trees and up narrow draws. It repeatedly changed direction, and made rapid ascents up towards the mountains.

“The helicopter varied its speed in an attempt to outrun the RCMP aircraft, and slowed down to have the RCMP aircraft overtake it.”

The dogfight continued for 45 minutes, the documents say. On two occasions, the chopper pilot tried to lure the RCMP aircraft to a lower altitude and then rapidly ascended, in a vain effort to shake the pursuers.

The helicopter eventually landed at a rural property near Chilliwack.

The court documents say searches of that property turned up 72 long guns, 35 handguns, ammunition, cellphone jammers, U.S. government helicopter decals, drones and currency from Canada, the U.S. and Mexico.

RCMP have not said if anyone has been charged and referred a request for comment to Homeland Security.

Homeland Security spokeswoman Tanya Roman said the investigation turned up an additional 84 kilograms of drugs, bringing the total amount of drugs seized to 272 kilograms.

“This sizable amount is indicative of the possible involvement of a large and sophisticated smuggling organization,” she said in a statement.

“Due to the ongoing investigation and law enforcement sensitivities, we are unable to provide further comment at this time.”

Authorities believe the pilot was one of two men arrested at the Chilliwack-area property.

The Canadian Civil Aircraft Registry shows the helicopter’s registration was cancelled last May. (Penticton Herald)

Joe Fries, Penticton Herald, The Canadian Press

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Third-party buys billboard to promote Bernier’s anti-mass immigration stance

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maxine bernier billboard

OTTAWA — Billboards with Maxime Bernier’s face and a slogan advocating against mass immigration cropped up Friday in several major Canadian cities.

The ads, which were seen in Halifax, Regina and Vancouver, prompt people to vote for the People’s Party of Canada and read “Say NO to Mass Immigration.”

A third-party advertising group, True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp., paid for the billboards.

According to a filing with Elections Canada, the third-party group is run by Frank Smeenk, the chief executive of a Toronto-based mining exploration company.

The group filed interim financial returns with Elections Canada that show it spent $59,890 on billboards in “select cities in Canada” and received $60,000 from Bassett & Walker International Inc., a company that specializes in the international trade of protein products.

Earlier this week, Smeenk declined to comment on the billboard beyond what appeared in the Elections Canada filing. The Canadian Press attempted to reach Smeenk again on Friday, but he did not respond.

Similarly, messages left at Bassett & Walker were not returned.

The People’s Party of Canada also did not immediately respond to a request for comment Friday, but it said in a statement to other media it is not associated with the group that has put up the billboards and that they had not been in contact with the third party.

Bernier has advocated lower immigration to somewhere between 100,000 to 150,000 people per year, much lower than the current target of 330,800 for 2019 set by the federal government. He’s also said he would impose a values test on people trying to immigrate to Canada.

Local politicians in Halifax weighed in as images of the billboards spread Friday.

Nova Scotia Premier Stephen McNeil said on Twitter, “I welcome everyone to Nova Scotia — but I don’t welcome this negative, divisive tone.”

Local Liberal MP Andy Fillmore was more direct: “How about no to Maxime Bernier, instead,” he wrote. “There’s no place in Nova scotia for the PPC’s politics of fear (and) division.”

The purchase by the True North Strong & Free Advertising Corp. is the latest is a series of ad buys from third-party groups.

Before the start of the pre-election period June 30, several groups spent hundreds of thousands of dollars on TV advertising, notably during the NBA Finals.

Earlier in the summer, other billboards targeting Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale popped up in his Regina riding, also the product of a third-party group, the Canada Growth Council.

Christian Paas-Lang, The Canadian Press

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august, 2019

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