Shyanne Charles went to two barbecues that night.
The first was for her uncle’s birthday hosted at her grandfather’s house, northwest of her Scarborough home, near Kingston and Galloway roads.
The witty, energetic 14-year-old was the pulsing heartbeat of her tight-knit family, her grandfather Tyrone Charles remembered this week.
The teen with long dark hair and her own sense of style was always singing and dancing to everything from jazz to reggae, helping out with her younger siblings as the eldest child, and planning, always planning, for her future.
“She had dreams. She set goals,” Charles said. “Back then, she was the life of the family.”
After spending the day with her family, Charles’s granddaughter made her way back south, towards home, to Danzig Street, near Lawrence Avenue East and Morningside Avenue, for a community barbecue there.
“All her friends were waiting for her,” Charles said.
When the bullets first started flying that July 16, 2012, they devastated the community and rocketed the neighbourhood into an unwanted public spotlight. It was quickly declared Toronto’s worst mass shooting, with more than 20 people injured and two killed.
Shyanne Charles was one of them.
Joshua Yasay, 23, who had recently graduated with a criminology degree from York University, opened his own barbershop and volunteered with local youth, was also killed.
These are the details that are well-known, still, a decade on: In the laneway between townhomes where the barbecue was held that night, gunfire erupted soon after 10 p.m. It sent people scrambling in every direction and emergency crews rushing to the scene. In the chaos, terrified residents tried to keep the wounded, like Charles, alive. A mother and her 22-month-old son — whose head had been grazed by a bullet — were rushed to a local hospital in a police cruiser. A criss-cross of yellow and black police tape went up. Police officers would flood that and other neighbourhoods for weeks following. The media broadcast constantly from a neighbourhood most Torontonians had never seen or visited. Politicians made overtures about providing more resources. Four young men not from the neighbourhood would be charged in connection to the shooting and later acts of retaliation. Three remain in prison and one is on full parole.
Another unidentified gunman who pulled out an Uzi and fired 14 rounds into the crowd that night has not been found.
Despite all the stories told about Danzig, some of the most important legacies from that night have not made the headlines as the street and its residents have faded from public memory — how a group of youth workers rallied around the youngest residents as offers of help flooded in from across the city for a typically forgotten neighbourhood; how a community scapegoated as a dangerous place to live has never seen themselves that way; and how what happened in Danzig failed to catalyze real change in a city still plagued by gun violence.
These are those stories.
In the days following the shooting, Nneka Perry remembers answering calls from youth in Danzig in the middle of the night.
As a youth outreach worker, she and her colleagues moved quickly to try to shield the youngest from further harm — working to co-ordinate a sudden influx of offers for help to make sure youth had access to a steady stream of programs rather than feel ambushed by well-meaning outsiders amid constant police and media attention. Providing safe spaces was top of mind.
“Among the community and especially among youth was fear,” said Perry, now a senior manager of diversity, equity and social impact for the East Scarborough Boys and Girls Club.
While the club had been providing services in the Kingston-Galloway-Orton Park area for many years, there were few programs dedicated to Danzig. Suddenly, all the attention put youth on a public stage at a difficult time, Perry said.
“They felt overwhelmed. They felt the pressure of, ‘Why now?’” she said.
“There was a sense of hurt and definitely sadness. There was so much sadness.”
The club tried to make sure kids had access to their own programs, busing them to their nearby space when youth were afraid to walk.
A private donation eventually allowed for the conversion of one of the townhomes across the street from where the shooting took place into a common space — Our Space — to run club programs locally.
The round-the-clock care also took a toll on the workers.
“As much as we went on there with the ‘S’ on our chests and the capes … we have to come home to our lives and we felt it,” Perry said.
“Shyanne wasn’t my child but she was my child and for a lot of community members that’s how they felt.”
Bill Blair also felt responsible.
Now the federal minister of emergency preparedness, Blair was the chief of the Toronto Police Service for 10 years. He raised his own kids not far from Danzig; that night remains the worst shooting of his career. He still recalls specific details, like the exact age of the youngest victim.
“I always took the victimization of people in Toronto very seriously. I always felt it was my responsibility,” he said.
In response to the shooting — which followed a high-profile public gunfight at the Eaton Centre that June — Blair called his officers in from scheduled time off to flood Danzig and other communities for six to eight weeks.
“By the end of that summer, we’d seen a very significant reduction in gun violence,” he said, noting too the efforts the force had made following the earlier rash of publicized shootings in 2005 — known as the “Summer of the Gun.”
He said fear was the “greatest enemy we had to keeping people safe” in Danzig and he wanted to counter that with an overwhelming police presence, in part because investigators also worried about retaliatory violence.
Throughout that period, he said, Danzig got a bad reputation as a bad neighbourhood. “It’s not,” Blair said. “It’s a community like so many in Scarborough.”
It would again be traumatized in the summer of 2019, when another youth who grew up in the community, 17-year-old Jaydin Simpson, was shot and killed nearby.
“You don’t get a chance to really recover,” said Perry.
She said young people’s mental health has long gone under the radar. There are constant reminders of pain — memorials left behind for Shyanne, Joshua and more recently, Jaydin.
“You’re waking up and you’re seeing flowers in front of your door … you’re never going to forget,” Perry said.
On memorials and moving on
Just steps from where gunfire brought the Danzig community barbecue to a halt in 2012 is the home of Jaydin Simpson’s family.
A large memorial lies down the lane, a short walk past Simpson’s younger siblings playing out in their small front yard with water balloons, past a tree once riddled by bullets and an abandoned bicycle laying on the sidewalk. It’s just beyond a fresh-looking playground buzzing with kids clambering over the structures and zipping by on scooters.
Carefully planted flowers in a rainbow of colours are guarded by a stone angel. A blue bench sits across from the garden next to a painted white “ghost” bike. Looming large is a banner printed with photos of Simpson under the cursive words, “in loving memory.” The dates are a reminder of his youth. Simpson was shot the day he graduated from high school in June 2019.
But as was often the case in 2012, his family didn’t flee the community that loved their son.
Passing kids and parents greet Simpson’s mom as she returns home from work. She pulls down the neck of her black scrubs to show a reporter the tattoo of Jaydin’s name emblazoned across her chest.
“My son will never be forgotten,” she said, declining to give her full name. The phrase “forget me not” has special meaning to her. She asks it to be repeated.
She urged people not to judge others by where they come from. The things people have said about where she’s from, even after losing her son, don’t ring true for her.
“There’s love here,” she said. “Danzig is amazing.”
It’s a common refrain on this quiet and peaceful street, a place where everyone waves back when you see them, even to strangers.
That’s the Danzig youth outreach worker Hawie Mohammed knows. She calls older women “mom” at their insistence and when she passes through, she often ends up spending longer visits with the youth and their families, chatting on their front stoops.
“The community members are real people,” she said. “They’re hard-working people, they’re single parents, they’re two-parent homes … grandparents.”
“This story could have been any other place.”
To Louis March, the magnitude of this shooting made it seem as though Toronto gun violence was “going to another level.”
“It was scary.”
It was the Eaton Centre shooting and Danzig that led to the creation of the Zero Gun Violence Movement, which March founded.
Those shootings were a “wake-up call,” March said, pointing to other public shootings in the 10 years since. At a toddler’s birthday party. At a playground. In malls. On busy downtown streets in broad daylight. At a high school.
And with each shooting, the response felt less shocking. “Has it become normalized? Acceptable?” March asks.
“What are we doing in these communities when gun violence takes place? Not only in Danzig but across the city … And how are we responding to make sure it doesn’t happen again?”
Several commissioned reports, anti-violence plans and other strategies have languished at all levels of government over the past decade.
March pointed to the new 10-year SafeTO plan developed by city staff that speaks to collaboration, investing in communities and sustainably-funded programming as the right kind of root-cause approach. Council approved spending its own money on that plan as part of the 2022 budget — a significant $12 million in year one.
For many, it will be too late.
In 2012 alone, 30 youth under the age of 29 — the standard the city uses for programming — were killed in Toronto, not including police-involved deaths, infanticide or domestic homicides. The number of youth homicides dipped slightly for several years before peaking at 40 deaths in 2018. Last year there were 35 — about one young person killed every 10 days.
Damon Maraj, also known as Soul-R, said the shooting on Danzig became a “catalyst” for action, at least in the first few years, including for his own Scarborough-based organization, IMPACT ’N Communities, which runs two youth drop-in centres.
But many of the underlying problems remain unaddressed, said Maraj, who was nearby when the shooting began and ran with others to help when they heard the sirens.
The recent apology by interim Toronto police chief Jim Ramer shows the legacy of anti-Black racism in the city, he said.
There continues to be “a lot of frustration amongst young people. A lack of hope, a lot of mental health issues, drug abuse issues, violence within the home, PTSD,” he said. That is coupled with the amplifying effect of social media and easy access to guns.
“There has to be sustainable investment,” he said.
Adrian De Leon, an author and artist who grew up on Danzig and the surrounding area, said he was politicized by the early response to Danzig. His published collection of poems, “Rouge,” was a direct response to the shooting — taking readers on a thematic journey of the city’s many subway stops and communities from the perspective of a “child of Danzig.”
De Leon challenged the lack of basic and social infrastructure in Scarborough — a dearth of high-speed transit, the necessity that strip mall food hot spots became de facto community hubs because of a lack of recreation centres and other social services. He remembers his family having to travel up to an hour to get to their family doctor.
“I wonder what would have happened had a non-carceral system of social and economic support been provided early on,” he said.
Celebration of life
In the days leading up to July 16, Tyrone Charles is preparing for another barbecue.
The community will come together again, like they always do, as they always have, to celebrate.
They’ll gather at a local public school on Saturday, the 10th anniversary of the shooting.
Charles has always preferred to focus on the living. Not that he can’t handle the circumstances of the killing. It’s just not worth dwelling.
“We learn not to celebrate death,” he said.
“What makes death unbearable is when you let someone die inside of you.”
Selfishly, he said, he wishes he had gotten more time with Shyanne. “She left a lot of joy and laughter in our lives,” he said, remembering proudly how she learned to walk with “accountability, capability and responsibility” from her aunts, uncles and other family members, how the teen turned to them for help no matter what, and how much she was loved.
“We have a lifetime of memories.”
With files from Alyshah Hasham
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based crime reporter for the Star. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags