You may know Justin Ling from the CBC podcast, Uncover: The Village, which examined cold cases from the 1970s that were reopened as a result of the McArthur investigation. Ling's extraordinary new book, Missing From the Village: The Story of Serial Killer Bruce McArthur, the Search for Justice, and the System That Failed Toronto's Queer Community, tells the complete story of the McArthur murders including profiles of the men he killed. Based on more than five years of in-depth reporting, this is also a story of police failure, of how the queer community responded, and the story of the eight men who went missing and the lives they left behind. In telling that story, Ling uncovers the latent homophobia and racism that kept these cases unsolved and unseen. This gripping book (one of a trio of books related to gay or bi men and murder) also reveals how police agencies across the country fail to treat missing person cases seriously, and how policies and laws, written at every level of government, pushed McArthur's victims out of the light and into the shadows.
Your reporting really shows how the intersections of racism, homophobia and transphobia, and police procedures in Toronto really failed gay and bi men. Does this feel unique to Toronto?
Absolutely not. One thing that I really wanted to hit home with this book was not just that this could happen anywhere, but that it already has — and, in many places, it's continuing to happen. All you have to do is pick a major North American city and start scrolling through cold cases to find faces of queer people whose killings have remained unsolved for decades. Serial killers targeting gay men were common from the 1970s to the 1990s, throughout North America. Today, trans women — and particularly trans women of color — are disproportionately targeted. Even in our grotesquely serial killer-obsessed culture, we spend painfully little time talking about this. I think it's plain that there is a fundamental mismatch between how heavily over-policed queer people are, and yet how fundamentally under-protected and under-served we are. That takes on particular and unique contours depending on the city, but it is a more global phenomenon than Toronto.
This isn’t the first time a serial killer has gotten away with killing queer men. How was it different to you?
What strikes me as so frustrating about this case is that we were supposed to have done better. We were supposed to have learned all these lessons — about vulnerable populations, about police-community relations, about ensuring that we never lost track of missing people — and yet throughout this whole, painful, story, it seems those lessons were consistently forgotten. Men disappeared from the center of the Gay Village one after another and we just let it happen.
What role did the media play in failing — or amplifying the voice of — these victims?
With a few exceptions, like [LGBTQ media outlet] Xtra Magazine, the serious media attention came far too late. In 2013, police announced that they believed three missing persons cases were likely connected — underscoring the strong possibility of a serial killer. About six months later, headquarters shut down the investigation. Not one major news outlet followed up to ask why. From that point, right up until there was a conviction, many media outlets leaned on community members, and the friends and family of these victims, for tear-jerk quotes instead of actually trying to tell their stories. The media has a duty of care to these people, whether it likes it or not, and it has consistently failed. I, by the way, am not perfect or blameless in that regard.
One of the things you mention in the book, that I rarely hear discussed, is the role the media played in amplifying the grief of family and friends of the victims. You believe journalists should lend comfort to the families of missing/murdered people, not descend like vultures. How can we learn to do this as journalists? How can we lead with empathy instead of dispassionate “objectivity”?
I think this is tremendously easy to do, and incredibly difficult to do well. There are many reporters and producers who just want to nab an interview or book a guest, so they can move onto something else. They approach grieving people, and people experiencing PTSD, with a professional detachment that they might apply to a city councilor. That leads to such carelessness and harm. We need to stop that. We have spent a ton of time, rightly, talking about how journalists can recognize the signs of trauma in their own life, but very little time teaching them how to approach other peoples' trauma. To do this well, we need to seriously rethink how — and if — we tell these stories. We can't keep pressuring people to talk when they don't want to. We need to give space for people to talk and share on their own terms and harness that energy into interrogating the systems that allowed this to happen.
Will we ever know the real Bruce McArthur?
I can only speak for myself, but: I don't care if we do or don't.
Justin Ling photo by Evan Aagaard