Breakdown of Scarborough RT a grim reminder of what may be in store for transit riders

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Kamran Karim arrived at Kennedy station and waited 30 minutes for the RT to arrive before realizing it was out of service — again.

“There is no sign. There is no notice,” he said, pointing to a gate barring access to the the stairs leading up to Scarborough’s elevated rail transit system, which was working on and off in the days after the snowstorm that bore down on the city Monday.

Kamran Karim was among thousands of TTC riders whose commutes were disrupted after the snowstorm knocked the Scarborough RT out of service.
Kamran Karim was among thousands of TTC riders whose commutes were disrupted after the snowstorm knocked the Scarborough RT out of service.  (Richard Lautens / Toronto Star)

The record snowfall and the polar ice freeze that followed wreaked havoc on portions of Toronto’s transportation system, but in particular the aging and vulnerable elevated train service in Scarborough — dubbed the RT, the SRT, or more recently, Line 3 — that is supposed to connect residents of the suburb to the rest of the city to the southwest.

It was a grim reminder of what residents of Scarborough are in for as they wait for construction to begin on the Scarborough subway extension, a project that successive city, provincial, and federal governments have supported for years but whose ultimate design and completion date are uncertain.

Meanwhile the SRT is nearing the end of its useful life, raising the prospect that riders will be left taking the bus if a replacement isn’t built soon.

Residents of Scarborough are among the city’s super-commuters — spending an hour to two hours or more getting downtown to work or study — connecting by bus from their homes to the RT train service that brings them to Kennedy subway station, the eastern terminus of the Line 2 (Bloor-Danforth) subway. From there it’s a long ride west on the subway and then south into the heart of Toronto.

About 35,000 people use the SRT’s six stations on a typical weekday.

Among them is Jackie Abrokwa, 25, who said it takes her about two and a half hours to get to Humber College’s lakeshore campus from her home in east Scarborough. The shuttle buses meant to replace the RT in recent days were much slower, and added another 30 to 45 minutes to her commute, she said.

“As someone who has been taking the TTC for a very long time, I am kind of over it,” said Abrokwa.

“In this weather it makes the whole thing really difficult,” said Joy Moro, who commutes from Scarborough to downtown Toronto for her tech job each day. “But if you don’t get to work, you don’t get paid, so you have to do what you have to do.”

The latest issues for the SRT started Monday, when the city was walloped with more than 20 centimetres of snow. The transit line went down at about 4 p.m., and though the TTC was able to get it up and running again for a few hours Wednesday, it was soon forced to shut it down again.

Regular service resumed Friday morning, but a mechanical problem forced one of the line’s six trains out of commission and the TTC had to supplement service with buses.

Although the SRT opened in 1985 and is nearing the end of its service life, TTC spokesperson Stuart Green said the problems in recent days were “not a product of age, rather extreme weather conditions.”

He said the issue was high winds blowing loose packed snow onto the SRT’s traction rail, which powers the train. Snow on the line causes the vehicles to lose power.

“As quickly as we’re clearing it, another section gets covered,” Green said.

While the line was shut down the agency deployed between 15 and 20 shuttle buses as a replacement to SRT service.

Green couldn’t say if the service outage was the longest SRT users have been forced to endure, but said about seven years ago there was also a winter shutdown that lasted several days.

Councillor Jennifer McKelvie, who represents the ward of Scarborough—Rouge Park and also sits on the TTC board, said transit users from her part of the city are “tired of being left out in the cold.”

McKelvie, who is serving her first term at city hall, said the solution is building the Scarborough subway extension and Eglinton East LRT as soon as possible. She blamed previous terms of council for not getting a replacement for the SRT built quickly enough.

“For years we’ve been debating, revisiting, voting, revoting on Scarborough transit. It’s time that we get on with building the transit that Scarborough deserves,” she said.

Although council has voted several times about the specifics of the Scarborough subway extension, the subway option has been the official plan for six years, since Rob Ford was mayor.

Council approved a three-stop Scarborough subway extension in 2013, opting for that project over a cheaper seven-stop light rail line that at the time would have been fully funded by the provincial government.

The three-stop subway was initially projected to cost about $3 billion, but as costs ballooned council voted in 2016 to scale back the plan to a single stop at the Scarborough Town Centre, and to supplement the subway extension with a 17-stop Eglinton East LRT, which would run from Kennedy to U of T Scarborough.

Cost estimates for those two projects also soon exceeded the available $3.5-billion funding envelope, and the LRT is now unfunded.

City and TTC staff have spent the past three years planning the one-stop subway option, and council is set to receive an update as early as April that if approved would advance the project toward procurement. Construction would take six years, with a potential completion date of 2026.

However, subway supporters in government are set to change the plan again. As part of its plan to take ownership of the TTC subway network, the Ontario PC government wants to add two stops, at Lawrence and Sheppard, back to the extension. Transportation Minister Jeff Yurek has pledged to try to fund the additional stations using contributions from developers at no cost to taxpayers.

Experts warn the private-sector approach to funding two additional stops is “far-fetched,” and adding stations could require months if not years of additional design work that would delay construction.

Councillor McKelvie supports adding the additional stops, arguing it’s essential to have a station at the “important transit hub” at Lawrence, and to connect the line to future transit planned for Sheppard Ave. E. Asked when SRT users can expect the subway to be up and running, McKelvie couldn’t give a firm date.

“As long as we have the funds and we have the willpower hopefully we can get that transit built in Scarborough soon,” she said.

Minister Yurek’s spokesperson Mike Winterburn said the province’s plan to upload the subway system from the city “would be structured to build transit faster,” but he also couldn’t provide a clear timeline.

He said “it would be premature at this point to speculate on a timetable for building the Scarborough subway.”

Ben Spurr is a Toronto-based reporter covering transportation. Reach him by email at bspurr@thestar.ca or follow him on Twitter: @BenSpurr

Francine Kopun is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @KopunF

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Immigration detainee sues feds for $50 million, alleging he suffered a mental breakdown and was given electric shock treatment

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A former immigration detainee, jailed for almost five years, two of them in solitary, while border officials fought in court to have him deported, is suing Ottawa for failing to heed doctors’ warnings of his mental illness and provide him with proper care.

Prosper Niyonzima, whose family was slaughtered in the Rwandan genocide, became a permanent resident of Canada in 1995 before criminal activity landed him in and out of jail, and resulted in the revocation of his immigrant status.

Prosper Niyonzima came to Canada in 1995 from Burundi at age 13 after his parents were killed in war there. He was adopted by an aunt in Toronto.
Prosper Niyonzima came to Canada in 1995 from Burundi at age 13 after his parents were killed in war there. He was adopted by an aunt in Toronto.  (Carlos Osorio / Toronto Star file photo)

In 2012, he was placed in detention to await deportation.

In a statement of claim filed Friday with the Ontario Superior Court of Justice, Niyonzima said that period of incarceration, which included more than 760 days in solitary, led him to experience a mental breakdown and rendered him catatonic for more than two years. He claims that when authorities finally transferred him to a secure treatment facility under a court order, he was forced to undergo painful electroconvulsive therapy, which was unsuccessful in addressing his condition.

“The plaintiff suffered pre-existing mental-health issues from childhood trauma following the Rwandan genocide in which his parents and three siblings were massacred. The plaintiff’s mental health issues were known to the defendant,” alleges Niyonzima’s $50-million lawsuit.

“Instead of ensuring enhanced medical treatment was provided, the defendant placed the plaintiff in solitary confinement …. The plaintiff was denied, among other things, proper clothing, proper medical attention, proper food, proper hygiene and given insufficient yard time.

“The plaintiff was given approximately three showers in a full year.”

None of the allegations have been proven in court, and the respondent, the Attorney General of Canada, has 20 days to file an intent to defend.

Niyonzima, 36, an ethnic Tutsi born in Burundi, lost his parents and siblings at age 11 when they were murdered in Rwanda. He fled to Canada in 1995 and was adopted by his aunt who successfully sought asylum here. Both became Canadian permanent residents that same year.

As a young man, Niyonzima was convicted of a series of crimes, including break-and-enter, theft and drug-related offences. After serving jail time, the Canada Border Services Agency ordered his deportation in 2005.

Eventually, he was given a five-year reprieve from deportation out of “humanitarian and compassionate concerns” that he would be returning to a country where he had no relatives and couldn’t even speak the language.

He met a woman and together they had a baby in 2009. However, Niyonzima returned to crime and was convicted of theft. Upon his release from jail in 2010, he sought help and was treated by psychiatrists, who diagnosed him with depression and post-traumatic stress disorder stemming from the massacre of his family, he says in his lawsuit.

However, Niyonzima was stripped of his permanent resident status due to the new conviction and once again faced deportation from Canada. On Jan., 13, 2012, Canada Border Services Agency detained him for fear he would vanish as he waited for his deportation to Burundi.

While being held, Niyonzima was scheduled for removal on three occasions but all three attempts were stayed by the federal court, which acknowledged he had made progress subsequent to the treatment of “the mental health problems underlying his criminality.”

In July 2013, while incarcerated at Toronto West Detention Centre, Niyonzima’s daughter was adopted out to another family. Around that time, Niyonzima became catatonic and was placed on suicide watch in segregation, according to the lawsuit. A month later, he was transferred to Central East Correctional Centre in Lindsay.

The lawsuit claims officials refused to transfer Niyonzima to a facility in Toronto where it would be easier for him to obtain a designated representative and access mental health professionals for assessment and treatment.

“The continued refusals resulted in an inordinate delay in obtaining proper psychiatric treatment resulting in further deterioration of Prosper’s health in solidarity confinement,” says the lawsuit.

In January 2015, Canada Border Services Agency was ordered by the Federal Court to pay for a psychiatric assessment. Niyonzima was diagnosed with catatonia and transferred to the St. Lawrence Valley secure treatment unit in Brockville, where he claims he was given the electroconvulsive treatment.

He was released on Oct. 27, 2016 under the supervision of the Toronto bail program and monitored by a team of physicians and psychiatrists. Since then, he has been issued a three-year temporary resident permit, after which he can apply to restore his permanent residence if he doesn’t have any more run-ins with the law.

Immigration detainees are entitled to a detention review every 30 days before an immigration tribunal to decide if they should be released. Niyonzima’s lawyer, Subodh Bharati said his client underwent close to 60 reviews but was never released.

“At each detention review, adjudicators of the Immigration division accepted the Canada Border Services Agency’s representations (that he was a flight risk) and continually upheld Prosper’s detention, despite the fact that he had obtained three stays of removals from the Federal Court and despite the fact that he was now catatonic and in dire need of medical treatment,” Bharati noted.

“Both the CBSA and adjudicators of the Immigration Division had a duty of care to the plaintiff to conduct their investigations in a competent manner.”

Nicholas Keung is a Toronto-based reporter covering immigration. Follow him on Twitter: @nkeung

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