On the night of Saturday, June 2, I was sitting at home when news of the Eaton Centre shooting broke. I follow a lot of journalists and editors on Twitter, and details of the event started to flood my Twitter stream.
About three hours after the first 911 call to police, I tweeted this:
Which was immediately retweeted by Jonathan Goldsbie and five other people. (Jonathan has more than 5,600 followers on Twitter, including many city councillors and other well-known journalists in the city. I knew I was kind of stuck after he had re-broadcast that particular tweet.)
Alex Flint suggested I create a Facebook event, which I uploaded about 15 minutes later. Then I posted the link on Twitter:
Only after posting the event link did I realize I was so incredibly naive and clueless about the whole thing. Did I need a permit? What kind of supplies did I need to bring? I had never organized a vigil before. What had I gotten myself into?
I expressed some of these worries on Twitter, where friends and strangers replied with advice, offers of help and key contacts in the community. Matt Elliott also let me know CP24 had mentioned the vigil as part of their ongoing coverage.
The next morning, I started to get a few media inquiries through Facebook. I tried joking around with the reporters, racking my brain for people in their newsroom we might have in common. I had no idea the size of the media circus I would encounter later.
After a last-minute stop for extra supplies, I arrived at Yonge-Dundas Square around 5:45 pm. I was supposed to arrive almost an hour earlier for interviews and logistics. After quickly meeting Himy Syed, a few other early attendees, the YDS coordinator and a Toronto Police sergeant from 52 Division who was on-site with a few other officers, a small plan was created to determine how to start the vigil and gradually draw people to our spot on the square. While other people were putting candles into cups and trying to organize a circle, Armina the National Post reporter and I started to chat, before another cameraperson saw us talking and turned their camera on me.
What followed for the next hour was a lot of interviews, meeting lots of attendees, community representatives and politicians, hand-shaking, trying to figure out people’s comments and simply trying to go about the vigil as best as I could. It helped that friends like Andrea Houston, James Le and David Hains had showed up alongside a few acquaintances I had personally invited on Facebook. Andrea was able to give me advice about temporarily turning off my journo-brain in the moment and not worrying too much about the questions from reporters.
The media interviews were strange, only because I quickly realized I had to remember to repeatedly spell my name and state my profession while figuring out key details and sound bites. I kept trying to stress that I was the last person I would ever expect to organize something like this, as a reporter it was strongly emphasized that I should never get involved with a story and that event-planning was not something taught at journalism school. I was just someone who was born and raised in Toronto, really loved the city, and was struck by how the person who died was so close in age to myself and many of my friends. I said I felt helpless watching my friends edit and report the story while I sat at home. I mentioned the recent shooting at Scarborough Town Centre and the relative lack of attention that got in comparison. I talked about how the Eaton Centre was a private space, but that pretty much everyone had stories about going there, meeting up with friends or spending time with their families near the fountain. And with info from Matt Elliott and David Topping in mind, I tried to stress how I felt Toronto was still an incredibly safe, wonderful place to live, but that we could also do better as a community to reduce the possibility of this happening in the future.
I also did a live television spot at some point in front of the Eaton Centre, which made me realize just how under-dressed I was.
I didn’t have a bullhorn or mike, so I simply shouted out instructions and information when needed, like the time of the moment of silence. James very kindly helped me figure out when to end it and call for the end of the vigil just after 7 p.m. There were a lot of photographers and cameras clustered near me during that moment, which made for a slightly-less-than-somber atmosphere, but there was nothing much I could do. Someone also thoughtfully handed me a candle, which was nice, but also ensured I showed up in half a dozen photographs.
Overall, the turnout was roughly what was confirmed on Facebook, with a significant media presence. Despite my background in print, I think I did okay in most of the radio and television interviews. We ran out of candles, and only had a few extra cups even though I had brought about 100 of each.
After doing this, I feel like I have a little bit of a sense of what Daniel Dale must have felt like being scrummed after the whole Fencegate incident. I’m used to being on the other side of the recorder, taking notes, observing how many people have gathered, even having to be in the position of jostling to take photos. It is incredibly awkward finding yourself on the other side, especially when you did not expect to find yourself in a position where you would be scrummed.
I am not an activist. I don’t have any religious or political affiliations. I even shot down a suggestion to use an Occupy method of amplifying information through repeated answers by the crowd. (Mostly because it seemed like it would take a lot of time.) I am also easily embarrassed in large crowds and very much a print person. The first time I saw myself on television, I screamed and ran away from the room.
There was also a very small number of comments online that didn’t understand why a vigil was being organized in the first place, or stated I had made the event about myself. Those people made me never want to organize anything similar again, which made me a little sad.
I think the reason why I ended up organizing the vigil was also because I figured someone else eventually would think up the idea and do it. Then I thought it wouldn’t require that much effort on my part to do. That other people felt just as helpless as me, and it would be nice to have a place to gather, meet them, talk and have a moment where we could all be together and not feel so alone in our feelings. Then I realized sometimes you have to step up to the plate and do things yourself.
At the end of the day, the memory that sticks is the young woman who came up to me and told me how she worked at the mall. She was glad something had been put together after the shooting. The vigil was also for people like her, who just expected to go to work on what should have been an ordinary Saturday in the summer. If anything, I’m happy I got to help show her there were lots of people like me who cared about what happened and wanted to offer their support, even if all we could do was listen.
Twitter was crucial to this vigil taking place. However, special thanks go to David Hains, James Le, Andrea Houston, Lucas Costello, Himy Syed, Ward 27 Executive Assistant Alina Chatterjee and Sara Peel of Yonge-Dundas Square. Thanks also to all the volunteers and everyone who RT’d link to the Facebook event.