Why Bruce McArthur's guilty plea isn't the end of the story

Host Justin Ling discusses the nuances of reporting the McArthur case and what new content we can expect to hear in his upcoming podcast, Uncover: The Village.

Serial killer's confession is just one part of Uncover: The Village

Freelance journalist Justin Ling hosts season three of Uncover, CBC's investigative podcast. (Evan Aagaard)

Justin Ling was in the court room when Bruce McArthur pleaded guilty for the murders of eight gay men — six of whom were men of colour.

Ling, whose work has appeared in The Globe and Mail, The Guardian, The Walrus and more, has been covering the stories of missing and murdered men in Toronto's Gay Village for over five years, well before the issue was all over the headlines.

He was following when police insisted there was no evidence of foul play. He was following when investigators made a shocking discovery in a Toronto backyard. And he was still following when they eventually arrested McArthur in January 2018.

Now the reporter is bringing the full force of his years-long investigation to season 3 of Uncover: The Village — CBC Podcasts's investigative crime and justice series. Ling is stepping back to look at the even bigger picture, exploring a historic pattern of murders going unsolved and disregarded in Toronto's Gay Village.

We sat down with him to discuss the nuances of reporting the McArthur case and what new content we can expect to hear in his new podcast.

Bruce McArthur pleaded guilty to killing these eight men. Top row, from left to right: Skandaraj Navaratnam, Andrew Kinsman, Selim Esen and Abdulbasir Faizi. Bottom row, from left to right: Kirushna Kumar Kanagaratnam, Dean Lisowick, Soroush Mahmudi and Majeed Kayhan. (John Fraser/CBC)

You were one of the first journalists to suspect there was a serial killer targeting Toronto's gay community. What was it that kept police and other media from seeing this?

Police are always trying to focus on what's in front of them. They may have hunches, but without evidence for the hunch, they're not really able to pursue it in a real way. So I think police would tell you, and they've said this, they just didn't have the evidence in front of them to support the idea of a serial killer.

But there's something else at play. Given who the victims were — some were immigrants, closeted, sex workers, refugees, drug dependant — I think it became easy to come up with alternate theories. And I think our instinct is to focus on the more boring or commonplace explanation for something like this. To conclude that one man ran off to start another life, another man died because of drugs, and so on. But, for me, the idea that a serial killer was targeting queer men of colour just felt more plausible than coming up with three different explanations for three different disappearances.

How did you avoid the pitfalls of sensationalism, especially given there's a serial killer at the heart of the story?

I think it's simple, but maybe easier said than done: You've got to keep the people affected by this story at the forefront. If you start chasing this story without respect for the people who have to live with it every day, then you're not helping. You get to leave the story at the office, lots of people impacted by this don't have that luxury, and never chose to be a part of this.

What does The Village bring to the existing coverage of the McArthur case?

We tried to do so much with this project. One part of it is trying to hear from the friends and family of the victims, and from the community itself — to hear, in plenty of detail, how this all happened and how McArthur was able to get away with it for so long. But given how much attention has been paid to these crimes, we also wanted to shine a light on a series of murders that never benefited from this sympathetic attention. Killings that were never solved, and which were, for years, felt forgotten by the public. Finally, we wanted to document some of the queer history that might not be quite so well remembered, even by members of the community.

Of all the people you met and featured in the podcast, which do you think about often? Who do you think will strike listeners the most?

I think it's John Robertson. He is the former partner of a man named Derek Grant, who died in police custody in 1979. Finding him required some serious detective work, but when we visited his place in Kingston, it was heartbreaking. Even John didn't know some of the details of his former partner's death — this little piece of Canadian queer history that hasn't been written about in decades. He's a classical composer, and he even gave us permission to use a song he wrote in memory of Derek. That will definitely stick with me.

Derek Grant (left) and John Robertson in 1971. Robertson shares their story in Uncover: The Village. (Submitted by John Robertson)

How is this story different than the other reporting and journalism you have done?

Crime is not my beat. I've covered murder before — when a gay Chinese immigrant was brutally murdered in Montreal, and his killing was uploaded online, I spent night and day covering that terrifying ordeal — but generally I stick to politics and policy. What I had failed to anticipate is just how personal a story like this can be. Just how much you get invested and linked to these people's lives. It's tough.

You are part of the queer community. How did that affect your relationship to this particularly story?

I think it puts me on both sides of the fence. It helped to be familiar with the community, knowing who to talk to, knowing the idiosyncrasies of the Village. At the same time, yes, I'm queer, but I'm also used to covering the cops — and, more than that, policing. 

You have honed in on the McArthur case for the past few years. Why do you consider it so important?

I think it's important to highlight these eight mens' lives. They tell us a lot about marginalization, sexuality, race, immigration, sex work — and where many of those things intersect. My fear was always that they would just be remembered as "the eight victims," instead of the complicated, interesting, and human guys they were.

On top of all that, this is a story about police failure. Cops in this country have, time and time again, been given a roadmap on how to deal with missing persons, marginalized communities, and the public and many are still completely failing to adopt the recommendations they've been given. Unfortunately, Toronto Police were amongst them. Whether Toronto can rectify those mistakes will ultimately be up to the chief and how he responds to the independent review that is ongoing, and whether the province green lights a public inquiry.

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