March 5, 2021
On Wednesday, March 3, Justice Anne Molloy broadcast her decision over YouTube in the Ontario Superior Court of Justice trial of the man who killed 10 people and injured 16 on Yonge Street near Finch Avenue in Toronto on April 23, 2018.
LEAF adopts Justice Molloy’s use of the name “John Doe” in referring to the attacker, to stem the glorification of those who commit mass murder.
Justice Molloy convicted Doe of 10 counts of first-degree murder and 16 counts of attempted murder for the incident, in which he struck people walking on the sidewalk with a rented van. Eight women and two men died in the attack: Anne Marie D’Amico, 30, Dorothy Sewell, 80, Renuka Amarasingha, 45, Munir Najjar, 85, Chul Min (Eddie) Kang, 45, Mary Elizabeth (Betty) Forsyth, 94, Sohe Chung, 22, Andrea Bradden, 33, Geraldine Brady, 83, and Ji Hun Kim, 22. This was, and continues to be, the deadliest mass murder in Toronto’s history.
Doe admitted to planning and conducting the van attack. He argued, however, that his Autism Spectrum Disorder impeded his ability to understand the wrongfulness of his act, and that he should therefore be held not criminally responsible. Justice Molloy accepted that Doe is on the autism spectrum, but decided that his Autism Spectrum Disorder did not impact his ability to know that his actions were legally or morally wrong. For this reason, Justice Molloy found Doe guilty.
LEAF wishes to voice its solidarity with disability rights groups, and in particular autism advocacy organizations, who have consistently expressed concerns that Doe’s reliance on his Autism Spectrum Disorder as a defence will increase stigmatization of autism at a time when Autistic individuals already face significant stigma that creates barriers to meaningful participation in society. As Autism Canada wrote following Justice Molloy’s decision, “People on the Autism Spectrum are far more likely to be victims of violence than perpetrators of it.”
In a police interrogation after the attack, Doe told police that his motive for this mass murder was his hatred of women, and his hatred of a society that produces sexually frustrated men like himself. These are the pillars of the “involuntary celibate” or “incel” subculture, an online subculture of men that organizes itself around violently misogynist views of women, as well as the glorification of violence against women and society at large. Doe told police that he was “radicalized” around the time of the 2014 killings of six people in California. The person who carried out those attacks described himself as an incel and wrote a manifesto encouraging mass murder as a means of overthrowing what he perceived to be women’s domination of society. Doe reportedly began to fantasize about his own “rebellion”, and told the police that he was hoping his van attack would “inspire future masses to join me in my uprising as well.”
Justice Molloy, however, agreed with expert testimony that the incel movement was not Doe’s primary motivation for the attack. Rather, this was a lie that he told to the police. Instead, Doe was a lonely and hopeless person wishing for fame who “piggybacked on the incel movement to ratchet up his own notoriety.”
While Doe’s attack may not ultimately have been motivated by violent misogyny, subcultures of gender-based hate played a central role in this event. Whether Doe sincerely believed in incel ideology or not, he was inspired and radicalized by the misogynist killings in California by virtue of online spaces where misogynist violence is openly discussed and encouraged.
In addition, Doe actively declared his attack to be a part of the incel movement on his Facebook page and in other online spaces. His choice to link his attacks to incel ideology led other incels to glorify Doe’s actions by posting statements such as, “It’s a good time to be an incel. Our brothers are launching their counter-attack, getting their revenge.”
The fact that Doe used the California killings as a blueprint for his own is a stark example of the significant harms caused by gender-based online hate speech. The celebration of Doe’s actions as being part of the incel movement is a further example of technology-facilitated violence against women and gender-diverse people.
LEAF recommends that a regulatory mechanism be developed to address these harms and to hold social media platforms to account. Regulatory measures are being considered or are in place in several foreign jurisdictions, and are supported by the UN Special Rapporteur on Violence Against Women. It is untenable to allow profit-making, algorithmically driven entities to continue unregulated when we see the direct effect of online misogyny in the views published online by perpetrators of mass killings, such as the Toronto van attack in 2018 or the 2014 murders in California.
Doe’s resentment towards women, a factor in the attack though not the driving force, calls up the misogynist mass shooting in Nova Scotia in April 18 and 19 2020. This shooting began with that killer’s abuse of his female partner and ended in the killing of 22 people. The link between intimate partner abuse and mass violence was made horrifyingly clear, and will be one of the subjects of the inquiry into the killings now underway.
The terror of violent misogyny, exemplified by but not limited to these two acts of mass murder, requires urgent government action to address gender-based violence today. The murders of Myriam Dallaire and Sylvie Bisson in Sainte-Sophie, Quebec, earlier this week serve as yet another reminder of this terror. Women, girls, and gender diverse people deserve to be free from violence, to feel secure, and to have access to supports that enable them to reach their full potential. Federal, provincial, and territorial governments need to come together to develop and implement a National Action Plan on gender-based violence, which must be grounded in intersectional feminist principles and recognize the diversity of identities and needs of the survivors. Governments must also prioritize the implementation of the 231 Calls for Justice from the National Inquiry into Missing and Murdered Indigenous Women and Girls, which have thus far gone unanswered.