Toronto’s LGBTQ community came together on Tuesday evening to show support and resilience in the wake of recent tragedies that have afflicted the Church-Wellesley Village.
Organized by The 519, a mainstay community centre on Church Street, the vigil held at Barbara Hall Park was said to be a chance for the community to collectively “grieve and express their feelings.”
“It is a tragic time for the LGBTQ community, our neighbourhood, and the city,” a description on The 519 website reads. “We are all grieving the lives lost as the recent tragedy impacting our community unfolds. We all remember the ones still missing.”
The community has been grappling with the news that several men reported missing in and around the Church-Wellesley Village died allegedly at the hands of a serial killer.
“We’re in mourning for all our community members that we keep losing,” an attendee of the vigil who did not want to be named told CP24. “People of colour, trans women, trans men and we’re here to gather strength and to honour their memories.”
Last month, police laid three new first-degree murder charges against 66-year-old landscaper Bruce McArthur, bringing the total number of deaths he’s accused in to five.
To date, police have identified the victims as Andrew Kinsman, 49, Salim Esen, 44, Majeed Kayhan, 58, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, and Dean Lisowick, 43.
Police still believe that number could grow as the investigation continues. On Feb. 8, they reported that the human remains of “at least six people” had been found in potted plants seized from a Leaside property connected to the case.
Residents and members of the Church-Wellesley Village have long contended that there was a serial killer preying upon men in their neighbourhood. Despite initially dismissing the theory, police later confirmed that they’re officially investigating what they believe to be a serial killer.
As many of the victims had been reported missing by family and friends, the case also put a spotlight on how Toronto police handle missing persons investigations.
One of the cases that highlighted the community’s concerns was that of 22-year-old Tess Richey, whose body was found by her own mother at a construction site in the Gay Village on Nov. 29.
She had been reported missing just four days earlier.
The Toronto Police Service later announced that the professional standards unit would look into the “gaps and issues” that may or may not exist in regards to the way the service conducts missing persons investigations.
Police charged a 21-year-old suspect, identified as Kalen Schlatter, in connection with Richey’s murder on Feb. 5.
“My heart is broken but at least we have a few answers to the multitude of questions we have,” her sister, Rachel Richey, wrote on Twitter after police announced the arrest.
Though members of Richey’s family have not said whether they’ll be attending tonight’s service, Rachel Richey has posted about the event on Twitter.
Speaking at the vigil, a woman in attendance told CP24 the community has to “take a message away from this.”
“Members of the community have been affected as friends, allies as neighbours and impacted by the missing men, the deaths of the people who have been reported and Tess Richey,” she said. “It has had a tremendous impact on our community and it was wonderful to see the solace that was created here this evening.”
“It’s really tragic that we have to come together under these circumstances but we have to take a message away from this that we can rise, we can raise our consciousness, we can let people know that there are problems that need to be fixed and hopefully we go forward with a stronger sense of community and a stronger sense of empowerment and that lessons are learned and eyes are opened.”
The 519 said community members were welcomed to “grieve together, heal together and rise together” at Tuesday’s event.
This isn't the first time members of the LGBTQ community and Torontonians alike have gathered to pay respects for the victims. Last night, the 'Multi-Faith Vigil for the Murdered Men' was held at the Metropolitan United Church on Queen Street East and earlier this month, a church service was held at the Metropolitan Community Church for the victims.
Toronto Mayor John Tory was in attendance for both.
Earlier today, a vigil was held at the Church of the Holy Trinity to honour those who have died while living on Toronto's streets. Among the four names added to the memorial was Dean Lisowick, who was well-known in the Gay Village and believed to be living in the shelter system.