On Monday, June 17th, 2019, we knew we were going to experience something tremendous. The Toronto Raptors had just won the NBA Championship, which had never been done before by a Canadian team and we were going to join in the massive Championship parade, along with two million other people to celebrate.
We knew that we were waking up that morning early, to trek downtown Toronto to be part of history. We knew to expect large crowds in order to catch a glimpse of the champions. We knew the day was likely going to feel long and at times overwhelming.
But what we didn’t know is that we would also end up running for our lives in a moment of sheer terror and panic, consoling five children in a salon storage closet that we weren’t going to die.
I’ve gone back and forth whether or not I wanted to write a blog post about our experience and after seeing yet another person post on social media about how amazing the parade was DESPITE the shootings and stabbings, I figured I needed to share our truth.
When I continue to read headlines from the Mayor of Toronto talking about how peaceful and orderly the parade was and when I keep seeing friends talk about how thankful they were that no stampedes or panic that ensued – these things make me cringe because that’s so far from the truth of what my family experienced.
In a world that is often filled with lots of horrible headlines – from wars and humanitarian crisis in parts of the world to human trafficking issues to ever growing political divides, there just always seems to be bad things making headlines.
I’ll even go a step further and admit that many times, in my personal life, I’ve been ignorant and rolled my eyes when I saw yet another post from a marginalized community or people group complaining about some unjust thing that’s happened to them thinking “do they really have it THAT bad?!’ I haven’t understood because I’ve never been in their situation.
Until this week.
Out of the two million people that participated in the massive celebration that quite literally shut down the city of Toronto, only a small percentage of us were affected by the gun violence that took place near the end of the festivities.
No one actually died and the suspects were apprehended very quickly. That is all something to be thankful for. It could have been worse, MUCH worse, considering that was the largest turn out for an event in the history of this city.
So I get the desire to want to focus on the positive. I get that people want to praise the city and police force for controlling the situation quickly. I get that people want to remember the GOOD that came out of this day. I get that people don’t want this parade to be marred by the actions of a couple idiots who tried to cause harm. Trust me, I get it.
But the problem is, bad things DID happen that day and people WERE affected negatively, including my family. And so while I can get the excitement of such a historic event and wanting to focus on the good, we also can’t gloss over the bad.
Because here’s the thing – if we gloss over the bad, it will continue to happen. If we don’t stop, acknowledge the problems, talk through them and figure out how to fix them for next time, history will repeat itself. People will also continue to feel marginalized. And people will carry on living with trauma and not dealing with their issues.
I don’t want that for myself nor for my kids.
So we need to talk about it. Yes, we will remember the good. We have a bunch of championship flags that we got at the parade on display, we are still sporting our Raptors baseball hats and we keep watching all the highlights of the playoffs on Youtube. The kids are still playing basketball everyday at the end of the driveway. And we are all deciding which jersey we want to order with our favourite Raptors players names and numbers on them.
This hasn’t decreased our love for our championship team and our newfound love for this sport as a family.
But we still need to talk about what happened, how we can heal and how we can move forward without fear.
So here is our story, from one of the scariest moments of our lives…
It was about 3:00pm. The parade had ended and we were waiting for the crowds to thin out before we were going to get lunch. We were situated along University Avenue, in between Queen and Richmond on the east side of the street, about two blocks from Nathan Phillips Square, where the big celebration was happening post-parade. We were with some of our good friends and their two younger daughters. They were trying to meet up with their older son, who had come down to the parade with a friend.
Because there were two million people downtown, cell service/texts/data was almost non-existent. Calls and messages weren’t going through and there was no chance of getting on the internet.
So my friend was having a hard time connecting with her son to find out where he was.
She eventually got through to him and figured out he was in Nathan Phillips Square and so she decided to just walk there and find him rather than wait for him to come to us.
I told her I’d keep the girls and go to Starbucks to get us some drinks and we would just wait for them. We figured at most they’d be about 20 -30 minutes.
After getting all the kids a drink, we walked over to some concrete stairs at the corner of Adelaide and University to sit and continue to wait for them.
That’s when I got her text: “Something is happening at the square and I can’t find my son. People are evacuating.”
Just as we read her texts, three police cruisers flew by with their sirens on.
Not wanting to upset any of the kids, I just handed Chris the phone so he could read the text. Then, Chris being the type of guy he is, wanted to go help, so he suggested he run over to help her find him. As much as I wanted to help my friend, I just had this gut feeling that he shouldn’t leave me alone with five kids, in the midst of whatever was happening.
Chris then stepped out onto the street to look northwards towards Queen Street and that’s when he saw hundreds of people rounding the corner and running towards us yelling “RUN! GUN!”
Chris immediately scooped up our youngest, looked over at me and yelled “WE GOTTA GO, NOW!”
I’ve actually thought back to these moments and don’t really remember having a conscious thought or even remember saying anything to the kids, but we all just started running. I don’t remember who’s hand I was holding, I don’t remember dropping all my stuff on the street and leaving it behind, I don’t remember running up the stairs to get into the building. I just remember running.
At one point I do remember thinking “OH MY GOODNESS, IS THIS ACTUALLY REAL LIFE?!”
We ran into this building that seemed like an office building atrium that had a hallway of restaurants, gift shops and salons, where we thought we’d be safe. However, as soon as we entered the building, we saw people running in all directions, screaming. So at this point, we still had no clue what was going on and which direction the problem was coming from. We just knew we had to hide and hide FAST.
I don’t know why I did, but I stopped in front of the empty salon and yelled to Chris, who had already passed the salon, “IN HERE!”
Chris ran back, saw that there was an open door to a storage room at the back of the salon and we all followed him in there. About 20 of us, including an infant and just about everyone was freaking out, including the salon owner. Chris instructed her to close up the shop doors and then lock us all into this tiny storage room while she called the building security to find out what was happening.
Because at this point, none of us knew what on earth was happening. All we knew was that we saw a stampede of people running towards us telling us to run and so we ran. We didn’t know what we were running from, but the truth was, we didn’t want to sit around and wait.
That’s the problem in these kind of situations where there are large crowds and little cell service – you have no idea what is happening. So all you can do is get yourself out of that situation. Especially when you have the lives of young kids in your hands, you want to do anything you can to protect them.
At this point, all three of my kids were freaking out and one of my friends daughter was as well. We had no clue what was happening with my friend or her son, we just knew that she was likely caught up in whatever was happening at the square.
I kept trying to call and text her but nothing was going through. In between texts, I was hugging each kid and reassuring them that all would be fine.
We stopped for a minute and prayed all together as a family that whatever was happening would stop.
I decided to try and text my neighbour as her husband is a police officer to see if they knew anything. At the time my text went through, the announcers were just coming onto the stage to say an emergency situation was happening but asked everyone in the square to remain calm.
But the truth is, if you go back and watch footage of the speeches from the players, you can actually see the stampede of a few thousand people at the southeast corner of the square (where the shooting occurred), run out of there long before that announcement was made.
We finally got through to my friend, who was fine but traumatized from the stampede running towards her and not knowing where her son was. She was able to reassure her daughter that she was ok.
All three kids at one point during our time in the storage closet asked me if they were going to die. That is a question I NEVER wanted to hear my kids ask me and while I was freaked out myself, I had to muster up all the energy in me to reassure them that we would be ok (even though I had no clue if that was true or not).
After about 20 minutes (which felt like an eternity), my neighbours texted me that they thought it was safe for us to leave the storage closet and it seemed like the situation had been controlled (although it took a long time for the media to report on this).
I can remember my daughter shaking as we slowly exited the closet and my youngest clinging for dear life to my husband. I remember my middle son begging us to stay inside until police came. We slowly made out way back outside and to our surprise, all of our stuff was still sitting there on the side of the road where we left it.
We sat back on the same steps where we had just been sitting, this time with police blocking off the intersection. My husband took the kids over to him to ask what had happened and to hopefully reassure the kids that all was fine, which he did.
By this point, my friend had found her son, who had ran and hid in a local coffee shop. We heard more sirens and heard rumblings that the Eaton Centre (one of the biggest malls in Ontario) was on lockdown from stabbings. My neighbour texted me again and said “I think it’s time you guys get out of downtown.”
And with that text, we decided to make our way to Union Station to take the next train out of the city.
We met up with my friend at the station, returned their two girls, hugged each other goodbye in a complete daze and went on our way.
It was only once we got on the train that the adrenaline started to wear off. We met a family similar to ours – with three young kids – who had been there and had a completely different experience than us. They were earlier on the parade route, in a less populated area, and left as soon as the parade passed and spent the rest of the afternoon enjoying lunch. They had no clue about the shootings/stabbings until I told them on the train ride home.
That’s when I started to realize, we had been in the wrong place at the wrong time and therefore forced to face a situation I never ever dreamt I would be facing.
Well friends, that’s the end of the story, but for anyone who has experienced any kind of tragedy or trauma, you know that while the events that led to that trauma may have ended, the effects of it on you emotionally, physically and mentally can linger for days and in many cases years.
While it’s only been a few days for our family, I can see how negatively it’s affected all of us. Once we got home, my daughter couldn’t stop barfing from the stress all night long. She tried to go to school the next morning, but couldn’t handle the tummy aches and called us to pick her up. My middle son shut down almost immediately after it happened and was quiet for the rest of the evening. He remembers the event as being the worst day of his life. And while my youngest seems to have been affected the least, his teacher told us yesterday how unusually quiet this normally spunky, outspoken kid was all day.
As I’ve processed my own feelings, I’ve gone through the whole gamete of emotions. I feel guilty about bringing my kids into a situation like that. I feel angry that some idiots have that much power to wreak havoc on others. I feel frustrated that the media hasn’t talked about what happened and just glossed over it all.
But I also feel relief. You see, just the night before this happened, we had the conversation with our kids about what to do should we ever encounter this exact situation. I was dealing with anxiety before going to the parade (which I shared in my Instagram stories). My kids were also facing some anxiety about it too. We reassured them that while there are some bad guys out there, we can’t live our lives in fear of them. So we talked through what to do in an active shooter/hostage situation. We told them that they have to move quickly and listen to everything that mommy and daddy say. We told them not to ask questions in the moment but just trust us and follow immediately. We told them we would always comfort them and do whatever we can to protect them. And we told them that we will always be there to talk through it afterwards, which we have.
Although our kids are traumatized by it, they were incredible through the entire situation, given the circumstances. I am so proud of how they responded and listened. I’m so proud of their bravery and courage. I’m so proud that although they’ve had some physical symptoms of stress the last few days, they are finally laughing and having fun again with their friends.
June 17th will always be marked as a day of extreme emotions for our family – going from the highest lows to facing some of the lowest lows. We don’t regret going, although we do wish we had been in a different spot watching the parade which would have avoided this entire situation.
But hindsight is 20/20. You can’t change what has happened, but you can change how you respond and move forward.
So friends, I share this story first of all because many of you were asking what actually happened. Secondly, I needed to share this as a form of my own therapy. But I also share this story so that those of us who faced fear directly in the face this last Monday won’t be forgotten.
Yes, let’s remember the good stories that came from the parade – the victories, the historic moments, even the moments where bad situation were turned into good. But let’s not forget the tough moments too and those who walked through them. Let’s learn from them and try better next time. Let’s set-up better barriers and create check points for people coming into squares and condensed areas. Let’s call in more reinforcements to help the police manage those kind of crowds. Let’s plan parade routes better so that it doesn’t last for eight hours leaving people to get tired, hot, hungry and restless. Let’s just commit to trying harder and learning from the mistakes that were made.
Friends, I URGE you, if you know someone who has gone through a trauma – loss of loved one, found a partner unfaithful, had a sick child, been involved in an accident, witnessed something horrendous, had to run for their lives and hide – whatever it is, TALK TO THEM. Be sensitive to what they’ve walked through. Ask how they are doing. Everyone experiences grief in different ways and perhaps one of the reasons we walked through this was to be more sensitive to those around us who have walked through grief.
Be safe friends.
Love & Blessings,