Toronto

Eaton Centre shootings: Christopher Husbands' path to violence

Christopher Husbands had the support of his teacher throughout his youth, but it was not enough to keep him from trouble.

Metro Morning's look at the troubled life of a man who would fire 14 bullets in the Eaton Centre

Christopher Husbands at his graduation from Grade 8 in June, 2003. (Sheena Robertson/supplied)

Christopher Husbands was on his way to Lord Dufferin School on a night in June, walking through the Regent Park neighbourhood he had grown up in.

Then Toronto police stopped him.

Husbands, 12 years old at the time, said he was thrown against a wall and threatened by officers.

He was on his way, ironically, to appear on CBC's town hall on policing and gun violence, held at the school that night in 2002. When he arrived, he was visibly shaken. 

That was almost exactly 10 years before Husbands would pull out a gun in the crowded food court at the Eaton Centre and start shooting. He fired 14 times, killing his childhood friend, Nixon Nirmalendran, and a 24-year-old named Ahmed Hassan.

Husbands would be charged for second degree murder in the Eaton Centre shootings. Husbands was given consecutive sentences spread out over 30 years. That sentence is being appealed.

The path Husbands took to violence, along with three other children from his school— Nixon, Nisan and Nirusan Nirmalendran —  is one CBC's Metro Morning has looked at in depth in its series, The Nirmalendran Brothers: A Story Of Love, Fear and Violence

Hiding in a hood

Sheena Robertson still remembers the night of CBC's town hall on gun violence and policing. As a teacher at Lord Dufferin Public School, the CBC asked her to select three students to speak.

She recalls how the youngest student, Husbands, arrived more than 20 minutes late, with his hood pulled over his head. Ironically, it was just before arriving to speak at the policing and violence town hall that Husbands had been stopped by police.

"The show is happening, so all I could do was put my arm on the chair around him, and he starts crying, and he's quietly crying through the first segment of the show," she said.

"He'd been thrown up against a wall. They'd sworn at him. He was very upset. He felt it was so unjust. "

Robertson wanted Husbands to tell his story on the live broadcast.  But maybe it was too recent, too raw.

When he was invited to the mic, he asked instead about a police hotline for bullying.

Host Andy Barrie: We have at the microphone two young students who wanted to be heard from .. Peter and Christopher .. go ahead, let's hear from you.  

Husbands: My name is Christopher. I'm from Regent Park.  My question is why isn't there a police hotline or a place for kids, where kids could go and speak out that are being targeted ..

Barrie:  Targeted how, Christopher ..

Husbands:  Like being bullied, harassed...

Husbands had darker skin than most children in Regent, which made him a target for bullying. He often tried to escape attention, said Robertson.

"He put his hood up, and tried to disappear," said Robertson.

A series of mistakes

There were other struggles the young boy faced.

His father worked the night shift and his mother, back in Guyana, struggled with addiction. It sometimes felt to Robertson that Husbands and his sisters were raising themselves, said Robertson.  

By Grade 9, Husbands enrolled in Northern Secondary. A few months into the school year, a classmate wearing a Halloween mask jumped out at him from behind a locker. Husbands grabbed the mask and threw it in his open locker.  

The next day the boy's father came to school, accusing Husbands of stealing the mask, according to Robertson. He was expelled.

Robertson said had she known, she would have gone to Northern and made sure Husbands was allowed to stay in school.

"I'm sure if anyone had asked him he would have given the mask back. From my perspective as an educator, if there'd been an advocate for him there in those meetings, I don't think he would have been expelled out of the school at all."

On two occasions after that, Robertson went to court to support him as he faced a couple of charges. The crimes were not serious, but she began to think her promising, eager student was turning into a young man she was increasingly worried about.  

"Sometimes things happen with young people where they're down the rabbit hole. And it's incredibly hard once one thing happens, if you don't have the right resources to climb back out. Specially if you're trying to do it on your own," she said.

But then came a more serious charge involving dealing drugs. He was given a jail term.  By then he was also a father.

"I remember going to pick him up somewhere, and we went to Cherry Beach and we sat and had lunch together," remembers Robertson. "He talked about his dreams and what he hoped for and how he wanted to be a good father, and how much he loved his daughter. And he actually came that summer and worked on an art project I was doing on the Island.  

In the summer of 2011, Husbands helped his former teacher with an art project on the Toronto Island. (Sheena Robertson/Supplied)

Going to court

A year later, Robertson received more devastating news than she could have imagined: Husbands was the lone shooter in a brazen public shooting at the Eaton Centre food court.

He never denied he shot his former friends, Nirmalendran and Hassan, but he did say he was in a state of shock, traumatized from a brutal beating at Nixon's hands four months earlier.

"These stories are not as simple as they seem," Husbands' former teacher said. "To look at them and think that it's a one-dimensional thing is a mistake as a society."

During Husbands' trial and sentencing, Robertson was often there in court.   

"These young men did not need to end up in this situation — dead or in jail for the rest of their lives," she said.

"It's not pre-destined, and there are lots of things we could do to make it better."

About the Author

Mary Wiens

Journalist/ Producer | Metro Morning

Mary Wiens is a veteran broadcaster and a regular on Metro Morning. Her wide-ranging beat includes stories that are sometimes tragic, often funny, occasionally profound and always human. Work that is often honoured with RTDNA awards (The Association of Electronic Journalists). One of her favourite places - Yonge Street. "It's the heart and soul of Toronto," says Wiens. "Toronto's Main Street!"

With files from Joshua Errett and Nazim Baksh