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‘A big dose of reality’: Toronto homicide detective on lasting effects of Bruce McArthur case

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Toronto police Insp. Hank Idsinga has had a memorable year, but not in the way that any veteran homicide detective hopes. 

Idsinga led the investigation that resulted in the arrest of an alleged serial killer who preyed on men with ties to the city’s Gay Village. The story caught the attention of the world, and forced Idsinga into the eye of a media firestorm.

But of all the moments in a wild year, one stands out above all: when police “cracked open” garden planters containing the remains of seven of eight of Bruce McArthur’s alleged victims.

“It was a big dose of reality — a big dose of reality about what we were dealing with, and what had been going on in the city,” Idsinga said Friday morning.

The allegations against McArthur rocked the country and highlighted deep divisions between Toronto’s police force and its LGBT community.

In an interview with CBC Radio’s Metro Morning on the one-year anniversary of McArthur’s arrest, Idsinga defended the investigation while acknowledging that “there is a lot of work to be done” to improve relations between Toronto police and some marginalized communities.

McArthur, 67, was arrested on Jan. 18, 2018, at his apartment in the Thorncliffe Park neighbourhood. He was initially charged with two counts of first-degree murder.

In the months that followed, police discovered the remains of eight men at a midtown Toronto property where McArthur worked as a landscaper and charged him with six additional counts of first-degree murder.

McArthur is accused of killing these eight men. Top row, from left to right, Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, Andrew Kinsman, 49, Selim Esen, 44, and Abdulbasir Faizi, 44. Bottom row, from left to right: Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, 37, Dean Lisowick, 47, Soroush Mahmudi, 50, and Majeed Kayhan, 58. (Toronto Police Service/CBC)

Remains belonging to seven of his alleged victims had been buried in garden planters kept at the home.

For years before McArthur’s arrest, some in Toronto’s LGBT community speculated that a serial killer was targeting men from the Gay Village. After all, between 2012 and the summer of 2017, police had launched two different task forces to investigate clusters of missing persons cases in the neighbourhood.

Some LGBT activists contend that during those investigations, community concerns about a possible serial killer were largely downplayed or outright ignored. Indeed, as late as December 2017, Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders said publicly that investigators had no evidence to suggest that a serial killer was operating in the city.

But the day police examined the planters at a Toronto morgue changed everything, Idsinga said. It made him and the force acknowledge the ugly truth that “this whole serial killer scenario is real,” he recalled.

It’s been one year since Toronto police arrested Bruce McArthur and charged him with multiple homicides. Inspector Hank Idsinga was the face of the investigation. He reflects back on the day McArthur was arrested and all that’s happened since then. 11:05

“Rather than speculation, here it is in reality. This is what we’ve been dealing with and this is what we are dealing with,” he said.

Police have since established that most of McArthur’s alleged victims were active in the LGBT community.

Idsinga pushed back at criticism of Saunders’s comments on Friday, saying that at the time he made them, “he was exactly right.”

“The community has to realize that we can’t broadcast speculation. What the chief said in December 2017 was very accurate from our point of view — that we didn’t have any evidence that there was a serial killer,” Idsinga told host Matt Galloway.

Idsinga was also a member of the original missing persons task force, dubbed Project Houston, that investigated the disappearances of three of McArthur’s alleged victims between 2010 and 2012. The task force was disbanded in April 2014 because investigators failed to find any evidence of criminal wrongdoing, even after pursuing several “concrete” leads, Idsinga said.

Some advocates within Toronto’s LGBT community have suggested that police failed to take the disappearances seriously enough, in part because the three men — Skandaraj Navaratnam, 40, Abdulbasir Faizi, 44, and Majeed Kayhan, 58 — were men of colour.

Bruce McArthur appeared in court on Wednesday. His case was put over until Jan. 29. (Pam Davies)

Idsinga says a trove of Project Houston documents unsealed late last year serves as a record that the task force did everything possible with the resources that were available at the time.

“A lot of those critics came back and said, ‘Wow, I can’t believe all the work police put into this,” Idsinga said.

Nonetheless, he said, the McArthur case has brought divisions between the police force and the LGBT community into focus.

“I think there is a lot of work to be done,” Idsinga said.

“We need to take their opinions and their perceptions into account and go forward and look at the way we do business. And we’ve already changed several things in the way we do business and there are more changes to come.”

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List of Tourist Attractions Open Now in Ottawa

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With Ontario now in Step 3 of 2021 three-step plan for reopening, museums and other indoor attractions are allowed to reopen with capacity limited to not exceed 50 per cent capacity indoors and 75 per cent capacity outdoors.

Here is a list of Ottawa attractions you can visit starting July 16th.

Do remember to wear masks and buy tickets in advance.

Parliament Hill

Parliament’s Centre Block and Peace Tower are closed for renovation.

You can join for tours of the Senate of Canada Building (2 Rideau Street), House of Commons at West Block (111 Wellington Street) on Parliament Hill, and East Block at East Block (111 Wellington Street) on Parliament Hill.

When: Grounds open; guided tours of Parliament are suspended through the summer of 2021.
Where: 111 Wellington Street, Downtown Ottawa

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Ottawa performer leapfrogs from gymnastics to Broadway to TV

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A new AppleTV+ series set in a magical town that’s stuck in a neverending 1940s musical includes a pair of Ottawa siblings in the cast. 

Warren Yang and his sister, Ericka Hunter, play two of the singing, dancing residents of the village portrayed in Schmigadoon!, a small-screen series that takes its cues from classic musicals like Brigadoon, Wizard of Oz and Sound of Music, and skewers them with the offbeat comedic mastery of Saturday Night Live. 

In fact, you’ll recognize many of the names from SNL, starting with executive producer Lorne Michaels, creator of the late-night, live-comedy sketch show. Schmigadoon! also stars SNL cast member Cecily Strong and comedian Keegan-Michael Key, who hosted SNL in May. They play a New York couple who get lost on a hike and stumble into a strange town where everyone sings and dances. 

For Yang, a relative newcomer to show-biz, the series marks his television debut. For Hunter, the younger of his two older sisters, it’s the latest in a career path that began with dance lessons as a child more than 30 years ago. She attended Canterbury High School, Ottawa’s arts-focused secondary school. 

“Her dream was always to perform,” said Yang, 34, in an interview. “But that was never the path I thought was an option for me.” 

While his sister studied dance, Yang did gymnastics. He was an elite gymnast throughout his youth, ultimately leaving Merivale High School at 16 to train in Montreal, finishing high school through correspondence courses. He was a member of the Canadian National Team and received a scholarship to study at Penn State, majoring in marketing. 

A few years after graduation, Yang was working at an advertising agency in Toronto when he got a call from a Manhattan number. To his astonishment, they asked if he would be interested in auditioning for a Broadway revival of Miss Saigon.

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COVID-19: uOttawa to require vaccination for students living in residence

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Vaccination will be mandatory for students who want to live in residence at the University of Ottawa this year, with proof of vaccination and at least one dose required before move-in, or within two weeks of doing so if they can’t secure a shot before arriving.

Those who can’t receive a vaccine for “health-related reasons or other grounds protected under the Ontario Human Rights Code” will be able to submit a request for accommodation through the university’s housing portal, according to information on the university’s website.

Students with one dose living in residence will also have to receive their second dose “within the timeframe recommended by Ottawa Public Health.”

People who haven’t been granted an exemption and don’t get vaccinated or submit proof of having done so by the deadlines set out by the school will have their residence agreements terminated, uOttawa warns.

“Medical and health professionals are clear that vaccination is the most (effective) means of protecting people and those around them,” reads a statement provided to this newspaper by uOttawa’s director of strategic communications, Patrick Charette.

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“It is precisely for this reason that the University of Ottawa is requiring all students living in residence for the 2021-2022 academic year to be fully vaccinated. The University recognizes that some students may require accommodations for a variety of reasons and will be treating exceptions appropriately.”

Faculty, staff and students are also strongly encouraged to get vaccinated, the statement notes.

“Ensuring a high vaccine coverage in all communities is critical to ensuring an ongoing decline in cases and ending the pandemic. This will be especially important with the return of students to post-secondary institutions in our region in the fall of 2021.”

Neither Carleton University nor Algonquin College is currently mandating vaccination for students living in residence, according to the websites for both schools. But uOttawa isn’t alone in its policy – Western University, Trent University, Durham College and Fanshawe College have all implemented similar requirements. Seneca College, in the GTA, is going even further, making vaccination mandatory for students and staff to come to campus, in-person, for the fall term.

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