Content warning: This article discusses graphic physical violence (sexual assault and murder) against marginalized communities – particularly LGBTQIA2S+ people, people of colour, homeless people, sex workers, and those who live in the intersections of these identities. It also briefly discusses kidnapping, child pornography, and cannibalism.
Bruce McArthur’s crimes in the Church-Wellesley village have made him one of Canada’s most prolific serial killers since Robert Pickton’s arrest in 2002. McArthur was charged with double homicide in the disappearance and deaths of 44-year-old Selim Esen and 49-year-old Andrew Kinsman, last January. Since his initial arrest, McArthur has since been charged with and pleaded guilty to eight counts of first-degree murder in the deaths of Esen, Kinsman, Majeed Kayhan, Dean Lisowick, Soroush Mahmudi, Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi and Kirushnakumar Kanagaratnam. McArthur’s crimes have been described as “sexual in nature” and involved forcible confinement, torture and eventual dismemberment. McArthur, a self-employed landscaper, hid pieces of his victims in planter boxes at a home in Leaside, Toronto. A police statement read during his sentencing reveals that McArthur kept a bag with duct tape, a surgical glove, rope, zip ties, a bungee cord and syringes next to his bed at the time of his arrest. McArthur, who friends described as “gregarious” and “energetic,” is said to have “lead a life of extreme deception.”
Sean Cribbin, who narrowly escaped death after agreeing to meet McArthur for a date, found photos of himself in what police described as “the kill position”, with a weapon held to his throat after agreeing to take drugs with McArthur. Cribbing credits his survival to McArthur’s roommate returning home unexpectedly. Still, Cribbin says he lives with survivor’s guilt, knowing that Andrew Kinsman disappeared just two days after he missed a date with McArthur in June of 2017.
The Church-Wellesley community has been demanding Toronto police investigate the possibility of a serial killer since 2010. A Toronto police officer claims McArthur was interviewed by police in 2013 in connection to Project Houston, a task force meant to investigate the disappearances of three of McArthur’s victims, Skandaraj Navaratnam, Abdulbasir Faizi and Majeed Kayhan. Each of these men went missing from the same neighborhood between 2010 and 2012. ITO documents accessed by the Toronto Star state that at some point in 2013 these men were believed by police to have been murdered, although no criminal charges were ever placed as a result of Project Houston. McArthur was interviewed but released in 2013.
Toronto police Sergeant Gauthier has since been charged with neglect of duties and police misconduct, for failing to adequately document an incident involving McArthur in 2016. Gauthier is accused of not having recorded the police interview with McArthur or taken photos of the injuries within a 72 hour period, as is police protocol. Many believe that McArthur should have been arrested then and blame Toronto police for the deaths that followed his 2016 choking. One year later, Toronto police chief Mark Saunders held a press conference in which he denied the existence of a serial killer in Toronto’s gay village. Sgt. Gauthier claims the Toronto police service is attempting to use him as a scapegoat for their investigative failings.
McArthur appears to have evaded police suspicion for years, despite multiple run-ins with Toronto police. In fact, when McArthur was interviewed by Project Houston investigators in 2013, he was not their primary suspect. Alex James Brunton, a Peterborough resident, was eventually cleared of the Toronto serial murders and arrested for possessing, making and distributing child pornography in 2013, many of which involved cannibalistic fantasies. It was initially believed that Skandaraj Navaratnam’s disappearance was linked to an online cannibalism website frequented by Brunton. Brunton served 10 months in police custody and was released with “time served” and three years probation.
Both McArthur and Brunton were large, white bearded, balding men in their late sixties when arrested. Both men were married to women, fathered children and grew up in the Peterborough-Kawartha region, with McArthur having grown up in nearby Fenelon Falls. Both men had ties to rural properties in nearby Madoc, Ontario and both men were said to have taken photos, videos and trophies of their victims. Perhaps even more disturbing, both men were said to have been trusted by their communities and lived sadistic double lives under the noses of their loved ones.
A comparison has been made between McArthur and notorious B.C. serial killer, Robert Pickton. In 2002, the DNA of 33 primarily Indigenous women were found at Picton’s Port Coquitlam pig farm, prompting a national conversation about violence against Indigenous women and their treatment by the police. In an interview with CBC News, criminologist Michael Arntfield said, “The parallels with the Pickton case are obvious in some cases. We have an offender who is operating within a tight area, very specific geographically, targeting marginalized population that has a bit of a conflicted relationship with the police in some cases. As well, both Pickton and the McArthur had access to properties where people can be made to disappear and dismembered to affect that disappearance.”
Disproportionately, the men targeted by McArthur are of men of colour, either of South Asian or Arab descent. Many activists from these communities have expressed disgust for the cultural insensitivities and racism played out by both the Toronto police and the mainstream media in their treatment of this case. Activists have drawn attention to the fact that many of McArthur’s victims were especially vulnerable because of their ethnic background and because they had to practice their sexuality in secret in fear of backlash from their communities.
Following a marked increase in violence, members of the Church-Wellesley community banded together and formed walk-home programs, put up posters of the missing men and continued to demand information from the police. Toronto police chief, Mark Saunders, has wavered in his praise for Toronto’s gay community, originally claiming that the Church-Wellesley community were instrumental in achieving an arrest in this case, then later scolding the same community fortheir unwillingness to cooperate with police. Saunders has since apologized for his comments.
Church and Wellesley, now known as Toronto’s “Gay Village,” carries a heavy and distrustful relationship with the Toronto police service. In the 1980’s Church street was target of the “Operation Soap,” a series of violent raids on bathhouses, which served primarily to humiliate gay men who used bathhouses to secretly explore their sexuality. The raids were made possible bylaws which placed strict regulations on the sexual practices of gay men in Canada. Queer historian Tom Hooper describes the so-called “Bawdy House Law” as it relates to the history of decriminalization: “Trudeau Sr. did not remove gross indecency from the Code. His government merely added a subsection to the law.” This change, known as the ‘exception clause,’ meant that gay sex was still illegal in Canada, but it was permissible provided it happened under a strict set of circumstances. According to this exception clause, you were entitled to be ‘grossly indecent’ if the act occurred in private between consenting adults who were at least 21 years old, and provided only two people were present.” This exception clause provided legal cover for Operation Soap.
In Ian Mulgrew’s 1981 Globe and Mail article following the raid he writes, “Men speaking out in the aftermath of the raids described severe misconduct on the part of the police. Some reported being photographed naked, others said police took down their employers’ names and phone numbers and several men stated that police had referred to them as ‘queers, f****ts and fairies.’” The following day over 3000 people protested in the streets of downtown Toronto, blocking traffic in major intersections. This direct action following the raids is largely what sparked the Pride movement and subsequent festivals in Toronto as well as meaningful legal changes in Canada.
Another key example of the Church-Wellesley community coming together after a murder is the case of Alloura Wells, a homeless, mixed-race transgender woman and sex worker who went missing from the village and whose body was finally identified as the one that had been found in a Toronto ravine, four months after her disappearance. The news had been a long time coming for her father, siblings and friends at Maggie’s sex-worker advocacy group, who had been coping with her disappearance for months.
Maggie’s, as well as advocates at the 519 community centre had been pushing the Toronto police to take Well’s disappearance seriously, even though she fell into a high-risk demographic as a homeless transgender sex worker. Because the Toronto Police did not treat her disappearance as a potential homicide, despite pleas from family and friends who claimed it was not like her to fall out of contact extendedly, Alloura’s death was not be confirmed until November 23. Four months after her friends and family reported her missing. It was only because of their extensive searching and activism that Alloura’s disappearance was linked to the discovery of a badly decomposed body in a ravine. Alloura’s case, as with the case of the McArthur victims, shows paints an ugly picture of the relationship between the Toronto police service and the city’s most vulnerable.
What can we learn from all of this? The linking factor in achieving a modicum justice in each case is the use of direct action. By being forceful, persistent and resilient as a community, arrests have been made and investigations have gained significant media attention. Although these acts of violence are deeply disturbing, they do offer an opportunity to reflect on the importance and success of direct action against historic systems of inequality. The forced secrecy placed upon queer men of colour can only lead to more violence and the distinct lack of funding for pride services for racialized queer and trans people is a reflection of that violence.
Mitra Hans, who knew Dean Lisowick through her informal food service for the homeless at Allan Gardens, said this to CBC News regarding Bruce McArthur: “Monsters pick on those they think society doesn’t care about.” We must show them we care.