Toronto’s heartbreaking tragedy reveals the diversity and resilience of a neighbourhood

My first job was teaching swimming lessons and lifeguarding at the North York YMCA, an unattractive, brown brick building at the intersection of Bayview Avenue and Sheppard Avenue, at the corner of Toronto’s North York community.

I always felt spoiled carrying a flutterboard and whistle for 10 years. (And not because the most strenuous on-the-job exercise I ever did was climbing up and down the guard tower.) In all that time, I was fortunate to see so many smiles. Big and bright and all so wonderfully different: every shape and every colour; and behind each every kind of story.

In many ways, I am the man I am today because I lived in a space where I learned to appreciate that a community isn’t necessarily made stronger by the characteristics it shares. It can be made great by how everyone appreciates the differences – big and small – that make us all unique.

And with something as simple as a smile you can begin to build so many bonds.

Matthew Scianitti

I feel a deep connection to Toronto’s North York corridor – stretching south down Yonge Street from Finch Avenue to Sheppard Avenue. It’s constantly evolving kaleidoscope of various lived experiences. And, qualified only by my own perception, it’s maybe the most distinct little piece of our country.

If you live in Toronto and you haven’t yet, please walk down those dozen blocks. And if you’re planning on travelling here, you have to place that strip high on your to-do list. I really cannot adequately describe it. Inside two, crammed kilometers you could touch so many little fragments of our world. The Persian Gulf to Pan-Asia. South America to the Caribbean. The Middle East to the Mediterranean. It’s truly the marrow of Canada’s largest city.

And Monday, a van smashed through all of that.

I’m not going to inflame someone else’s anger or indulge in some narrow political view. I only talk about the things I know. And I’m not naive enough to think that terrible things from far off places only happen on my computer or TV screens. The worst things happen to the best kind of people all the time. It’s still hard to think rationally on a day like this; you can bury yourself in all the grief.

But as I sat and stared at my TV, I couldn’t hold back an immense feeling of pride. I watched and heard so many things I cherish about my city, and the little pocket of it I grew up in. So many of those different and grief-stricken faces looked so recognizable to me. I grew-up with so many of them. And how they spoke of themselves and each other didn’t surprise me.

Everyone in the area of the attack, composed enough to speak on camera, talked openly about driving and running into danger to protect or rescue or treat other innocent people. Self-sacrifice is not exclusive to Toronto, but I don’t know other cities and other communities as well as I know my own. And if you can bear to listen to all the witnesses and the bystanders and the victims, I think you too will be astounded how so many from such a large, diverse place can cherish the safety of strangers so passionately.

Last night, I walked to a downtown bridge situated over train tracks that stretch toward that famous skyline. The CN Tower. The Rogers Centre. If you could, you’d hug an entire city. All I could do was take a picture and post my own declaration of love for Toronto: “I wouldn’t want to live anywhere else.”

Sometimes we identify a city by the grandness of its skyline and the allure of its attractions. You might think big cities only really feel big by how tall their buildings are, and how bright their lights shine. I’ve travelled enough places to know after a while the superficial things matter less and less.

You identify with and appreciate a place because of the people that live within it.

Toronto is not perfect. There are so many day-to-day concerns not being addressed. There are so many uncomfortable questions we tend to avoid. And there are still so many Torontonians who feel they don’t matter as much as they should.

But on a day like this, when the most horrific things hit home, you know the true value of a community when your neighbours treat compassion as if it’s something as vital to them as breathing.

You feel pride for your city… my city.

And you just want to smile.

– Matthew Scianitti covers the CFL for TSN. He was born, raised and lives in Toronto.