Before the chaotic crush, before she was trampled by people rushing for cover, before she crawled inside the doors of an Oakwood Avenue bar for refuge, Samantha Cowe-Tomlinson was suspended in an almost placid confusion.
“I could swear I was standing there for like 10 minutes,” she said, “just trying to figure out what this feeling was.”
On a rare night out over the Thanksgiving long weekend, the 30-year-old mother of two had been dancing and socializing at the Greens in Oakwood-Vaughan, a favourite bar where the drinks are cheap and the faces familiar. Sporting a grey sweatsuit and pigtails, she’d just snapped a selfie in the bathroom before heading outside for a smoke.
Within seconds of stepping out the doors, she noticed the crowd around her begin to panic. Time slowed as she searched their faces for what was happening; she hadn’t heard a bang, or seen anything suspicious. Then, straining to interpret a strange feeling in her back, she fell to the ground.
“I was like, what is this sensation? Because you’ve never felt it before.”
Cowe-Tomlinson is among the 279 people shot in Toronto this year, part of a grim record: the most people killed or injured by bullets in police records that go back 15 years.
And as a shooting survivor — a bullet is still lodged in her back, where it stopped millimetres from her spinal column after missing her vital organs — she is part of a peculiar trend that’s seen more people injured in far more shootings than in 2018, but fewer people killed. As of Friday, 41 people had been killed in 464 recorded shootings in 2019, down from 48 killed in 399 shootings by the same time last year.
Community advocates and police attribute the phenomenon in part to a growing number of neighbourhood beefs in which gang members are shooting off rounds targeting areas, not necessarily people.
Cowe-Tomlinson’s Oct. 13 shooting may be among them. Police have not made any arrests, but said at the time that they did not know if Cowe-Tomlinson and another woman who was shot were the intended targets. Cowe-Tomlinson’s been told by others that someone was standing at the corner “shooting down the street and walked off.”
“There was no warning, there was no ‘hey,’ there was nothing — they just came and started shooting,” she said, adding she has no idea who the shooter is.
The mounting gun violence has had far-reaching implications. As the injuries strain the city’s emergency rooms, including at Hospital for Sick Children, doctors have begun speaking out, some advocating for increased gun control.
Amid calls for action, politicians from all three levels of government invested $4.5 million to fund a new police project aimed at cracking down on gun crime. When the program wrapped after 15 weeks late last month, police conceded the shootings had not abated, though they insist inroads have been made through arrests and gun seizures.
Community advocates, meanwhile, stress gun crime won’t decrease until investments are made in addressing the root causes of crime, including a lack of housing and employment opportunities.
All the while, the human toll is mounting. Though she is one of the “lucky” ones who survived, Cowe-Tomlinson said she feels left behind — “just another person who got shot.”
“Because I’m not dead, because I’m so lucky, because it’s such a miracle at this point, it’s like ‘OK, that’s good enough, you should just be happy.’ And I’m not. I’m not even close to being happy,” she said.
Two months after the shooting, she is still processing what happened but recalls much of the night in detail.
Immediately after she collapsed, chaos erupted around her. She could see another woman was injured on the ground nearby, and the two of them were suddenly getting stepped on by the people who had been outside the bar when bullets began flying.
“People are literally trampling us to get inside this one little door,” she said. “I can’t get up because they are still coming. So even if I try to get up there’s no point, you just have to stay down now and get in the way you can.”
She began desperately crawling on the ground towards the bar entrance. Grasping her phone in her hand, she smashed its screen as she hit it against the ground, scrambling inside. She also began shoving the other woman who’d been shot towards the door.
It wasn’t until she got inside the bar that she looked down, saw blood gushing out of her side and realized she’d been shot in the back.
Still, she stayed calm. She applied pressure to the wound, and told herself at least the bullet wasn’t in her stomach. She wiggled her toes to make sure she could move them, then checked herself for other wounds, finding none (the next day, she discovered a gash in her leg from where another bullet grazed her).
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She clung to the emotion building up inside her. Not only had she been shot, people had trampled on her to escape instead of helping her. She was livid.
“You just stay here, and you stay mad, you’ll be OK,” she told herself. “As long as you stay angry, you’ll be alive.”
She recalls screaming as she was brought into the ambulance, then paramedics telling her to be calm. She was taken to Sunnybrook hospital, where they cut off her clothes and examined her.
For 14 hours, she waited to find out what would happen before she was told doctors would leave the bullet in place, staple the wound closed for now and let her go home. She has since realized how close she came to much graver injuries.
“I could have lost a kidney and been paralysed. It literally missed everything important and stopped right outside the spinal tissue,” she said.
Still, she was in pain. In the days after the shooting, she stayed with family in Oshawa. More than a week later, the staples were taken out. Recently, she’s been told it will be better to leave the bullet where it is, though she will have to monitor for any changes.
Cowe-Tomlinson has yet to address the psychological injuries. Battling anxiety and depression, she is distracting herself by focusing on her three-year-old daughter and 10-year-old son.
There are triggers that bring her back to the moment she was injured, including when she hears about another shooting. Every time she looks at her broken phone, she is reminded of crawling to safety. She has difficulty accepting that she’ll have a reminder with her always: the bullet in her back.
She is also struggling with practical challenges. A singer, Cowe-Tomlinson has lost income because she’s had to cancel gigs. She also wants to move — she lives not far from the bar where she was shot.
That desire is common among shooting victims, said Bobbie McMurrich, associate executive director of Victim Services Toronto. The organization, which provides immediate crisis support to those impacted by crime and other traumatic events, tries to help coordinate a move whenever possible.
“When someone is a victim of gun violence, their whole world, in terms of that sense of safety, is just shattered,” McMurrich said.
Cowe-Tomlinson said she’s surprised she got shot — yet she’s not. She stopped going to after-hours parties because she heard about too many people being injured or killed in gun violence. She’s also lost loved ones; her boyfriend, Justin Waterman, was gunned down alongside his brother Jerome in a North York parking garage stairwell in 2012.
Moving forward, Cowe-Tomlinson said Toronto needs to reckon with mounting gun violence and communities need to come together to support people at risk of picking up a gun.
She doesn’t know if learning the identity of the shooter will help her. But for now, she says she is not angry. For someone to fire a gun multiple times into a crowd of people, “something has to be broken upstairs.”
“I feel bad for the person who did this,” she said. “Because you gotta be going through so much, you’ve had to have fallen through the cracks so much that you’re either idolizing somebody who is giving you these plans, or you just really have nothing else to live for.”