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Witnesses still struggling one year after deadly Yonge Street van attack

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  • TORONTO — The survivor guilt settled in moments after he saw all the bodies. Later came the fear of walking Yonge Street again.

    He grew hyper-aware of sounds and people around him, looking for anything out of place. And driving his company’s white van became a struggle.

    “For the longest time I was worried about my brakes,” said Dion Fitzgerald. “If I saw someone crossing at a crosswalk, I would brake like a block away.”

    The 43-year-old father was one of many Torontonians whose lives were changed forever that sunny afternoon on April 23, 2018.

    It was 1:27 p.m. when Fitzgerald signed out of Eva’s Satellite, where he worked with about 30 troubled teens and young adults. He was walking down Yonge Street in north Toronto to get lunch when he saw the first body.

    He immediately worried that it was one of the young people he worked with, but as he got closer Fitzgerald realized it was an older man on the ground, one he didn’t recognize.

    “He was already gone,” he said.

    Soon, police arrived at the scene and witnesses described seeing the man get hit by a white Ryder van, which also struck and killed several others.

    “I need to check on my 30 young people, to see if they were hurt,” Fitzgerald recalls thinking, as most of them were without parents.

    As he continued to search for familiar faces, Fitzgerald came across body after body — some of them dead, some of them grievously injured.

    “There was a lot of blood. One woman’s legs were mangled. I had never seen flesh torn apart like that,” he said in a recent interview, choking up. “At this point for me, I’m really seeing a lot of death, a lot of people who were going about their day and unnecessarily died or were injured.”

    As Fitzgerald would later hear on the news, 10 people had been killed in the van attack, and 16 others wounded. Alek Minassian, now 26, was charged in the attack and faces a lengthy murder trial that is scheduled for next year.

    It was only later, once Fitzgerald was back at the shelter and scouring the news for information on the incident, that the guilt settled in. He learned of other witnesses who stayed with the injured, saying they didn’t want them to be alone.

    “What really hit me was I didn’t stay with anybody,” Fitzgerald said. “I kept moving.”

    In the weeks and months that followed, he questioned his actions. He tried to process his emotions through painting, but found he couldn’t finish his piece.

    “It was too difficult,” he said.

    Exposure to a traumatic event can affect people over the short term, disrupting their sleep or causing them to avoid certain areas, said Francoise Mathieu, a psychotherapist in Kingston, Ont., who specializes in secondary trauma.

    It can be particularly difficult when the event is in the spotlight because that brings daily reminders, Mathieu said.

    And when the effects are intense and last longer than a month, that person may meet the criteria for post-traumatic stress disorder, she said.

    While research on secondary trauma began in the late 90s, it has taken a long time for the phenomenon to be widely recognized, she said. The fifth and most recent edition of the Diagnostic and Statistical Manual of Mental Disorders, which defines and classifies mental disorders, was the first to include secondary trauma, she said.

    “It used to be that in order to develop PTSD you had to have experienced the trauma yourself but we’re now recognizing that that’s not always the case,” she said.

    The first anniversary of a loss or disaster is particularly meaningful, but can also cause certain feelings to resurface in survivors, witnesses and others who are struggling, Mathieu said.

    For them, it may be better to honour the milestone without re-exposing themselves to media about the incident, she said. Support systems are also important in helping people deal with trauma, she said.

    Among those who have begun researching the nascent field of secondary trauma is one of the witnesses of last year’s attack.

    Tiffany Jefkins was out for a picnic with her 10-month-old daughter and two others at Mel Lastman Square when she heard a loud bang coming from Yonge Street. She saw a white van strike four pedestrians.

    She strapped her daughter into the stroller, put her friend in charge and ran for the street to put her first-aid training to use.

    The first wounded person she saw was bleeding profusely from the abdomen but someone else was already stanching the flow, so Jefkins turned her attention to another injured person. That woman had no pulse and wasn’t breathing, so Jefkins started administering CPR.

    She then asked someone else to take over and went to check on the others, instructing stunned bystanders to lend a hand as she carried on. Three of the people she helped died, and Jefkins said she doesn’t know what happened to the fourth.

    Now Jefkins, who is doing her doctoral research at the University of Toronto on secondary trauma, says she’ll interview those who’ve witnessed traumatic events, from mass casualty events to cardiac arrests, to see how they are doing and to identify gaps in care.

    “How can you ask these people to help if they’re going to come away with potential post-traumatic stress-like symptoms?” Jefkins said. “If we know what happened to them, we can give them appropriate help.”

    Shortly after the attack, a counsellor visited the youth shelter where Fitzgerald worked to help staff and the community process what had happened.

    The counsellor told Fitzgerald he had done his job that day in trying to care for his group — but Fitzgerald said it took a long time for him to believe that. Fitzgerald also spoke to his doctor and a mentor, which helped, he said. He’s open to seeing a professional to discuss his mental health, thinking there could be some symptoms of PTSD.

    It took him a week before he could set foot on Yonge Street again. His first stop: the small memorial for the man he had seen on the ground, the first victim he’d encountered.

    In green marker on a nearby pole he read the words: “Here died the greatest man to ever walk the earth. I love you grandpa.”

    That got to Fitzgerald, being a new grandfather. Yet returning to Yonge Street helped him in his healing process.

    Now he makes a point to walk that stretch regularly, he said.

    “There’s some guilt still lurking, but I do know I was doing my job,” Fitzgerald said. “Nobody else in that mess at that time would have been looking for those young people. It was me that had to do that to ensure they were safe.”

    — With files from Paola Loriggio

    Liam Casey, The Canadian Press


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    National

    Canada-China relations hit ‘rock bottom’ and at ‘freezing point’: Chinese envoy

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  • OTTAWA — China’s ambassador to Canada says the bilateral relationship is now at “rock bottom” compared to any time since diplomatic ties were first established decades ago.

    In prepared text for a speech Thursday, Lu Shaye said he’s saddened Canada-China relations are at what he called a “freezing point.”

    Lu’s remarks come at a time of heightened tensions following the December arrest of Chinese telecom executive Meng Wanzhou in Vancouver on an extradition request by the United States.

    The Huawei executive’s arrest has enraged China, which has since detained two Canadians on allegations of endangering Chinese national security, sentenced two Canadians to death for drug-related convictions and blocked key agricultural shipments.

    Lu did not mention Meng’s arrest — but he said the China-Canada relationship is now facing serious difficulties.

    He said China has long valued its relationship with Canada, particularly since it was one of the first Western countries to establish diplomatic ties with the Asian country.

    “For clear reasons, the current China-Canada relations are facing serious difficulties and are situated at the rock bottom since the two countries have established diplomatic relations,” said a copy of Lu’s speech, which was posted on the Chinese Embassy’s website.

    “It saddens us that the current China-Canada relations are ‘at a freezing point’ and face huge difficulties. The knots shall be untied by those who got them tied.”

    He continued by urging Canada to view China’s development in a “fair and objective” manner and to respect its concerns. Lu also warned Canada to “stop the moves that undermine the interests of China.”

    In recent months, Beijing’s envoy has used strong words when talking about the relationship. In January, he told Canadian journalists that Meng’s arrest was the “backstabbing” of a friend and said it was evidence of white supremacism.

    Lu also warned of repercussions if the federal government bars Huawei from selling equipment to build a Canadian 5G wireless network.

    He made the remarks in Toronto at an event hosted by the Globe and Mail. The document said former prime minister Jean Chretien was in attendance as was Darryl White, chief executive of BMO.

    The Canadian Press

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    Environment

    Keep guard up against hurricanes in 2019, as risk remains potent: forecaster

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  • HALIFAX — It has been years since a major tropical storm wreaked havoc in Canada, but the Canadian Hurricane Centre is warning against complacency.

    The U.S. National Oceanic and Atmospheric Administration released its hurricane outlook Thursday, predicting nine to 15 named storms this season, with four to eight becoming hurricanes and two to four being major hurricanes.

    Bob Robichaud of the Canadian centre noted that’s similar to last year’s hurricane season, when only two storms hit Canada, including post-tropical storm Chris, which made landfall in Newfoundland in July 2018.

    However, Robichaud warns that some Atlantic Canadians may be forgetting storms like post-tropical storm Arthur, which snapped trees and caused massive power outages in 2014, and hurricane Juan’s widespread wrath in 2003.

    And he reminded journalists attending a briefing in Halifax about hurricane Michael, which flattened parts of the Florida panhandle last October.

    The Halifax-based centre has created a fresh smart phone app, and recommends people begin tracking storms as soon as they start and then monitor for shifts in direction and intensity.

    “What we advocate is for people to really stay in tune with weather information because the forecast can change as the storms are approaching,” Robichaud said.

    Robichaud says studies show that complacency levels rise about seven years after a storm like hurricane Juan, and that as a result people do less to prepare.

    “People tend not to take any preparedness action if they haven’t had any kind of hurricane in recent years,” said Robichaud, a warning preparedness meteorologist.

    “For us it’s been five years since any major impactful storm … so it’s even more important to take the necessary precautions to get ready.”

    The Intact Centre on Climate Adaptation at the University of Waterloo has published a simple guide for Canadians on basic measures to take to prepare in particular for flood risk from extreme weather.

    The centre has repeatedly pointed out that without basic measures, basement flooding can cause tens of thousands of dollars in damage during hurricanes.

    Its publications include a Home Flood Protection Program that begin with such simple steps as testing sump pumps, cleaning out eaves troughs and maintaining backwater valves.

    More advanced measures include removing obstructions from basement drains and creating grading to move water away from homes.

    The hurricane season runs from June 1 to early November.

    Robichaud said hurricanes tend to “feed on” warmer waters, and as result the centre is closely monitoring those trends.

    The meteorologist said as summer progresses it’s projected the water will warm in the eastern Atlantic and become warmer than average.

    In addition, Robichaud said the Atlantic Ocean continues to be in an overall period of high hurricane activity that hasn’t yet come to the end of a cycle.

    — Follow (at)mtuttoncporg on Twitter.

    Michael Tutton, The Canadian Press

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