'You just want it to stop': Shooting survivor Louise Russo seeks council seat to end gun violence

Louise Russo, who was paralyzed in a 2004 shooting, is vying for a seat on Toronto's city council. Russo became a public figure as an anti-violence advocate and says she understands the devastating effects of gun violence in a way other councillors can't.

Russo became an anti-violence advocate after she was paralyzed in a 2004 shooting

Louise Russo wants to take her anti-violence advocacy work a step further as a city councillor. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

Fourteen years ago, Louise Russo was left paralyzed from the waist down after a bullet intended for another target severed her spine.

Now Russo, who is 59 and uses a wheelchair, says the summer's gun violence in Toronto is causing her to have flashbacks, while also sharpening her plans to halt violent crime in the city. 

"You just want it to stop. You want it to be the safe city that we once were," she told CBC Toronto.

Now this fall, Russo is running for Toronto city council in her ward of York Centre, a decision she made as the city is grappling with shootings that have killed more than 40 people this year, compared to 39 gun-related deaths for all of 2017.

As Toronto tries to curb the gunfire, Russo says she understands the devastating effects of gun violence in a way other city councillors can't.

"I might not have the experience on council … But I know what I've had to learn going through my own challenges," she said. 

Louise Russo, right, and her sister Rose Caliendo listen to a question during a news conference following the verdict in her court case in April 2006. Five men convicted in a drive-by shooting will pay her $2 million and serve less than 12 years in prison. (Adrian Wyld/Canadian Press)

Russo was shot during a botched mob hit at a North York sandwich shop in 2004. She says the shooting changed the direction of her life. 

In the wake of the violence, the mother of three became a public figure in Toronto, not only as a victim of gun violence but as an advocate for people like her affected by crime. She founded a non-profit called WAVE — Working Against Violence Everyday.

Russo's advocacy earned her a Queen Elizabeth II Diamond Jubilee Medal in 2012.

Russo says she can understand the effect of gun violence in a way other Toronto councillors can't. (Paul Borkwood/CBC)

So what's her plan for city council?

Russo says the city needs to look at the root causes of gun violence. To her, that means examining how and why young kids first get involved with criminal activity. Russo believes the city should fund programs for youth and also better support young people who have been incarcerated. 

"If we can work on the preventative side, educate our kids, help them and support them, we will see less and less [crime]."

That's not unlike the position adopted by Mayor John Tory and other candidates vying for the mayor's job in the upcoming municipal election.

In July, Tory promised $12 million for initiatives to tackle gangs and gun crime, 16 of which are designed to address the roots of violence. If re-elected, he also promised to match the Ontario government's $25-million funding commitment to combat gun violence and allocate two-thirds to community programs.

Although Russo is a relative newcomer to politics and says she "never thought of herself" in this role, she believes being a victim of gun violence will change the dialogue at city hall. 

"No one can understand [what it's like to be a victim] — no one can — unless you've gone through the same scenario."

It's not just her experience with gun crime that's informing her perspective. Russo also offers peer support for victims of crime and those dealing with catastrophic injuries. She visits privately with shooting victims, becoming a mentor for many adjusting to a new life. 

"You have to remember their whole life ... has been sideswiped," Russo said. "[I'm] there for support, guiding them through changes in their life, especially if they are living with paralysis."

Russo says her focus is to not let other shooting victims give up, something she learned from her own peer support worker who first visited her in the hospital 14 years ago. 

"I remember her wheeling in with a beautiful smile and she gave me hope," recalled Russo. "I said, 'If she can do it, I can do it.'"

Toronto's newly elected Mayor John Tory, left, receives his chains of office from Louise Russo as Bill Davis, centre, looks on during an inauguration ceremony in Toronto, on December 2, 2014. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Russo isn't a complete stranger to city hall. In 2014, Tory invited Russo as his special guest for his inaugural council meeting and she gave him his chain of office. She's also attended town hall meetings to speak on behalf of people who are also living with a catastrophic injury. 

In York Centre, Russo has a tough race ahead. Under the new 25-ward system, she will need to beat two political veterans: Maria Augimeri, who has served on council since 1997, and James Pasternak, a two-term incumbent.

That doesn't intimidate Russo, who says she wouldn't "waste her time" trying to win a seat at city hall if she wasn't serious about running. 

"I might come across very soft ... But I'm strong and I know my advocacy skills are good."