Vandals attacked their stores during the G20 summit. Now, Yonge St.’s small merchants want to know, ‘Why us?’
At 4:13 on the afternoon of Sat., June 26, a burly man, clad in black, his face hidden by a kerchief, used an abandoned two-by-four — it had been part of a temporary traffic sign — to batter the window of Ken Li’s souvenir shop.
The attacker was one of dozens of rioters who swaggered north on Yonge St. after breaking away from the large G20 demonstration.
He could not have known the people who stood well behind the shattered glass of the Yonge St. stores. “This isn’t violence,” one of the black clad mob told the Star during the rampage. “This is vandalism against violent corporations. We did not hurt anybody.”
More than 40 businesses were damaged. Many of them are independently owned small stores. Their owners have come from countries including Afghanistan, China and Cuba.
They were astounded at what they saw that afternoon.
In the aftermath, the Star checked in on several small shops that were attacked on the few blocks between Dundas and College/Carlton Sts. What emerged is a portrait of uncomprehending fear — and defiance.
When the rioters arrived at First Choice Gifts at 356 Yonge St., owner Li was away from his store having a late lunch. The place was staffed by two female university students working for the summer. Yun Zhu, 22, who’s taking engineering at McMaster, had been on the job for two months. Xiao Lin, 23, who has finished her first year of chemistry at Queen’s, had been working one month. They both immigrated to Canada from China four years ago with their families.
Both were terrified but showed presence of mind. They’d heard the commotion and saw the black-clad vandals approach. “You couldn’t see them — just their eyes,” recalls Zhu. She turned off the lights while Lin locked the glass doors. “We were so scared,” continues Zhu. “Oh my God, you have no idea. They tried to get into the store. Four customers were here. Two were girls like us. Another was a couple in their 30s. They were so great. They told us, ‘Be calm, take deep breaths.’ ”
They all fled to the basement and heard the sound of breaking glass. When they emerged, they saw that a large crystal ball, which weighed about 10 kilograms and cost $299, had been taken, along with a crystal airplane from the hole in the front window.
The ball, Li explained is supposed to bring good luck, something that eluded him that day. “There were hundreds of police staying at the Delta Chelsea Hotel,” Li says of the hotel behind his store. “On that day there were no police here.”
While his store was under siege, a different tale was unfolding across the street at 361 Yonge St. where Alejandro Alonso is a co-owner of Wanda’s Belgian Waffles Café, which opened three months ago. Alonso, 25, is a former lifeguard who came to Canada two years ago from Cuba.
He, too, heard the sound of shattering glass — “bing, bing, like a movie” — down the street. But rather than run for cover, he and two employees, Egidio (Eddy) Citro, 55, and Jordan Ayoub, 27 — defied the rioters.
Wearing their white chef jackets, they stood in front of the tiny café. They kept their hands in their pockets. Alonso thought it was cowardly for the rioters to cover their faces. And he was surprised at their youth: they seemed to be 18 to 20. Many were girls.
“If you live here and this is your city, you have to take care of it,” Alonso says. “I come from a place where people have nothing and they take care of what they have.”
A girl with a camera stood beside them filming the progress of the vandals up Yonge St. One of the rioters told Alonso to move. “I said, ‘No, I will not move.’ He wanted to break the glass, so I stayed. The feeling I had was bigger than fear. I was angry. This is our store. I care. It’s not only the money; it’s the time, the effort, how many hours we work every week.”
The vandals passed by.
“If you have a reason to do something, you do it, all the way,” says Alonso. “They don’t have any reason for what they were doing.”
Business hadn’t come back by mid-week, says Robert Ayoub, who owns several Wanda’s Waffles shops. “We feel people are edgy. People are coming to Yonge St. to see the broken glass.”
Meanwhile the wreckage continued on the west side of Yonge St. The rioters shattered windows at a Swiss Chalet, where pedestrians had waved in warning to customers sitting near the front, motioning them to flee to the back. They broke a window at Money Mart, at 368 Yonge, but missed Li’s second shop, Canada Gifts, at 370 Yonge.
They were moving swiftly, and one of them was carrying a heavy crystal ball.
He was young and wiry, hooded, and heaved the ball through the south window of Barclay Jewelry Ltd. at the northeast corner of Yonge and Gerrard. It bounced back. He hurled it again. Photographers and film crews turned their cameras toward him, but a dark-haired woman in a clear rain jacket darted in front of them twirling an open umbrella, to hide his identity.
The crystal ball, meanwhile, rolled to the curb. The ball-tosser abandoned his task and as he did, angrily instead kicked the window. He brushed past umbrella girl.
Behind this splintered window stood Zohrab Kilislian, who is in his 60s. He’s had jewellery stores on Yonge for more than 30 years. He is tall and wears suspenders.
The rioters had already rammed a two-by-four through the front window; the tempered glass lay like shining rubble on the sidewalk.
Kilislian cut his hands, which had several bandages on them last week, while cleaning up the mess. A young woman who works for him was struck on the hip by the two-by-four. Another employee was so angry, he ran out the door chasing the masked man who’d thrown the lumber. He didn’t catch him.
The crystal ball now lies by the front door. It is surprisingly heavy, dented but unbroken. Another rioter apparently found it on the street and hurled it through the window. Kilislian says the police can come and get it if they’d like.
He did not board his windows in preparation for the demonstration. “I was relying on the police,” he says. “I really did not believe the police would allow this to happen. That same day, in the morning, my friends said, ‘Close up and go home.’ I said, ‘Why?’ ”
There was no jewellery in his showcases last Tuesday, three days after the riot. The windows were still being repaired. He estimates he may not be back in business until tomorrow. The display cases are cracked, as are the molded forms that hold necklaces.
He has two questions: “What do they gain from doing this? Who’s going to pay for the damage?”
His wife called when she saw the rioting on television. “She said she was shaking,” Kilislian recalls. “I said nothing, except that we were okay.”
Then he adds: “Honestly, I have never been like this. I didn’t sleep that night. I wanted to, I couldn’t. . . ”
Kilislian is the landlord at 399 Yonge, which houses two other stores besides his own. His tenant on the north side of the building is Khalil Salimi, a 36-year-old immigrant from Afghanistan. He sells leather jackets, purses and biker vests in his shop, All Leather. Salimi, the middle of nine children, is married and has two little girls, 6 and 2.
Salimi was standing by the display cases near the front of his shop when the vandals struck. They hurled a section of movable fencing through the front glass window. “I was standing where you are. I was frozen. Their faces were covered, like Halloween Day. Then we hid behind the counter. We were scared.”
Like Kilislian, he has questions. “Why would they do this? Do they want to kill us? In this country? This kind of stuff?
“You’re standing in your store and someone comes to you like this?” continues Salimi, who has also lived in India and Pakistan. “I’ve never seen that before.”
Salimi checks his phone and sees that he called police at 4:15 p.m. on Saturday. “They said they couldn’t come. They said, ‘Protect yourself.’ ”
It will cost up to $2000 to fix the windows. Is insurance likely to cover the costs? “We don’t have a police report.”
For the small shopkeepers on Yonge St., Saturday is the money day, the one they look forward to. Salimi might have sales of about $8,000 over a weekend. (His monthly rent is $9,000.)
“That Saturday, we sold zero — nothing,” he says. “All week the radio was saying, don’t come downtown.”
Last Monday at 2.30 p.m., a customer bought a leather jacket at a discounted price of $100. “This is our first sale in three days. They are still scared from downtown.”
The losses he suffered in the days before and after the G20 summit ripple far from Toronto. Every month he sends money — sometimes $500, sometimes $800 — home to his parents who live in Kandahar City and are in their mid-70s. “Always, I give them money for their food.”
He adds: “This week was very bad for me, but what can you do?”
There’s a fruit shop called Fruit Express Plus next door to Salimi’s store. It had metal gates pulled across the storefront, though the boxes of fruit were still outside. Behind the closed gates, Olga Serebrennikova, who manages the flower department, was frightened. “But nothing bad happened,” she says.
A boy in black rushed by, paused and raced back to pick up a few peaches. He passed one to a comrade. They laughed as they bit into the fruit.