The Way of the Gun
This gunsmith’s pistol ended up in the hands of a murderer. The police traced the weapon, raided his workshop and shot him. Two people dead. No problems solved. Inside the impossible gun violence epidemic
A handgun is a finicky machine. About 50 components, some as small as a sesame seed, must work in perfect harmony to send a bullet screaming out of a barrel at 1,100 kilometres per hour. If any one of these screws, springs, pins or plugs is even a millimetre out of place, a gun may misfire or jam. If things are really out of whack, it will blow up in your hand.
To keep their firearms in tip-top condition, hundreds of hunters, police officers, soldiers and sport shooters across southern Ontario trusted a grizzled septuagenarian gunsmith named Rodger Kotanko. He wore the same outfit every day: work boots, jogging pants, a T-shirt and a frayed plaid button-up. He operated at a sloth’s pace, but his knowledge of firearms was encyclopedic. Whatever the problem, he could fix it.
Kotanko lived in a squat grey bungalow in rural Port Ryerse, a two-hour drive southwest of Toronto. He ran a gun shop out of a stand-alone structure behind the house, where he kept some 200 firearms locked up in cabinets and antique safes. There were pistols, rifles, shotguns, even a machine gun. It’s no longer legal to buy some of the models Kotanko owned, but he had been licensed so long that his rights were grandfathered in from a bygone era of looser gun laws. He smithed for several of Ontario’s best sport shooters, and he sold his own line of custom handguns. Few firearms are produced in Canada, so he mostly imported parts from abroad, assembled them in his shop and sold the finished products to buyers in Canada, the US, Australia, the Czech Republic and Trinidad, many of them engraved with his initials, RK.
Kotanko had a reputation for over-performing and undercharging. His workbench was constantly littered with half-empty cups of Tim Hortons coffee because, after finishing small jobs, he often told customers to buy him a double double and call it even. Regulars knew to buy one for themselves too, because there was no such thing as a five-minute visit with Kotanko. Even minor repair jobs had a way of lasting hours. As he worked, he would ramble about UFO conspiracies or one of the 800 times he’d gone skydiving or his collection of unusual pets, which at various points included a snake, an eight-pound rat and a tarantula named Bob.
Mostly, though, Kotanko talked about guns. He had obsessed over them since he was a boy. The eldest of seven children, he grew up shooting pellets at groundhogs on his family’s 175-acre farm in Norfolk County. He took apart his father’s hunting rifles and then put them back together, spellbound by their intricacy. In his teens, he frequented gun stores in Simcoe and Hamilton, bugging the owners to teach him the secrets of smithing. When he turned 30, in 1981, he opened a shop of his own in his mother’s basement. Clients would enter through the patio door, say hello to Mrs. Kotanko as they tiptoed through the family room and then descend the stairs to fine-tune their Colts.
Over the years, Kotanko serviced thousands of firearms. He stayed in the shop until 2 a.m. some nights, smoking cigars and geeking out about guns with his brother, Jeff, a woodworker with a white goatee who carved custom grip panels for Rodger’s customers. Kotanko’s wives—he would have three—learned to accept that they would never be his true love. As a joke, he kept a running list of reasons why a handgun is better than a woman. For example: because you can express admiration for a friend’s gun and he’ll offer to let you try it.
In his 60s, Kotanko suffered a stroke and then a heart attack that required quadruple bypass surgery. As soon as his health allowed, he put on his favourite flannel jacket and trudged back to his gun shop. He turned 70 in January of 2021 but still refused to retire. “I’ll probably die at my bench,” he said. Ten months later, in a hail of gunfire, he was proven right.
There are 2,500 licensed gun shops scattered across Canada, an assortment of Kotanko-style sheds, glass-countered boutiques and outdoorsman outlets lined with racks of rifles. These stores serve the 2.2 million Canadians—one in 14 adults—who are licensed to own firearms. To them, guns are tools: a hunter’s best friend and vermin’s worst nightmare, a necessity for law enforcement or a means of self-defence. For Kotanko, firearms represented both a paycheque and a passion. He was the 13th person to join Canada’s International Practical Shooting Confederation, a sport shooting association that now has more than 4,000 members across the country.
IPSC matches look a bit like police training drills: one by one, competitors race against the clock to hit targets along a purpose-built obstacle course. Kotanko wasn’t particularly swift, but he had a good shot and a strategic mind. When everyone else was shooting targets in the same order, he’d follow a new sequence that shaved valuable milliseconds off his time. Kotanko found a sense of belonging and fulfillment in the world of sport shooting, the same way that a Simpsons superfan might derive fellowship from a weekly trivia night. The difference, of course, is that trivia doesn’t kill people.
Last year, there were 650 mass shootings across the US, an onslaught so relentless that most people heard about only the worst of them: the elementary school in Uvalde, the nightclub in Colorado Springs, the Walmart in Chesapeake. There are more guns in America than there are Americans. Those firearms trickle north, smuggled past the Canadian border in secret compartments aboard cars from Ohio and Florida, Michigan and Texas. Illegal American handguns are the guns most commonly used in Canadian crimes. The Nova Scotian who dressed up as a Mountie in April of 2020 and killed 22 people, for example, had obtained some of his guns in Maine.
Such massacres dominate the headlines, but guns on city streets claim far more lives. On average, someone is shot and killed in Toronto almost every week. The three orders of government tried to curb this violence in 2019 by handing $4.5 million to the Toronto Police Service. The force mounted a 15-week policing blitz, assigning more officers to the guns and gangs unit, increasing police presence in high-crime areas, and cracking down on bail violations. Officers arrested 463 people, laid 1,145 charges and seized 250 firearms. But, even as the program was underway, the number of shootings spiked. There were 492 of them that year, a record high, resulting in 44 deaths and 240 injuries. Though there were 113 fewer shootings and 118 fewer injuries in 2022, the number of people killed by guns barely changed: 43.
March wonders whether politicians would act with more urgency if kids were being killed in Rosedale rather than Rexdale
Both the victims and the people who shoot them are getting younger. In January of 2020, when mayors and police chiefs from across the GTA held an emergency meeting to tackle the crisis, they lamented the fact that the region’s 20-somethings were dying at an alarming rate. Now, it’s teenagers. In a particularly heart-wrenching example from January of 2022, a 13-year-old boy shot and killed a 15-year-old boy in an East York parking garage. Since then, there have been shootings in at least six GTA schools.
Fed up with the bloodshed, 200 protesters marched to city hall this past September demanding government intervention. Among the crowd was Louis March, an activist with a black baseball cap, round glasses and a face furrowed with grief. He used to work in the financial sector, but after the Eaton Centre and Danzig Street shootings in 2012, he put his career aside, founded the Zero Gun Violence Movement and began spending his time supporting parents who have lost children to guns. The work takes him to Jane and Finch, St. James Town, Flemingdon Park, and other neighbourhoods where housing and food insecurity are endemic, unemployment is high and incomes are low.
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In areas where the social safety net has broken, March told me, teens and 20-somethings see guns and gangs as a shortcut to power and wealth. “For the young ones today,” he says, “the measurement of success is turned upside down: How much violence can you commit?” Schoolchildren are settling social media spats and turf wars with bullets, answering one slaying with another lest they appear weak.
Over the past decade, March has met with mayors and cabinet ministers to agitate for affordable housing policies, youth employment initiatives, after-school basketball programs and other measures aimed at addressing the root causes of gun violence. In March of 2022, the federal Liberals promised to spend $250 million tackling those underlying problems. Toronto’s share of up to $12.3 million would fund community-led programs that divert young people from gangs and help existing members get out. March doesn’t expect that they will be enough to make a meaningful difference. He told me that he wonders whether politicians would act with more urgency if kids were being killed in Rosedale rather than Rexdale. “There seems to be a tolerance for a certain level of violence,” he says, “so long as it’s scripted according to postal code and the colour of one’s skin.”
Rodger Kotanko never met Caden Francis, but the two would become inextricably linked. Caden grew up just south of Kennedy and the 401, in a slice of Scarborough known to local gangs as Section 6. When he was eight years old, a man was shot and killed next to the jungle gym where he sometimes played. There were shootings on his street, at his elementary school, by the nearest gas station and in the high-rise rental towers that surrounded his apartment building. Caden lost two cousins to gun violence, and a few of his older brothers were involved with gangs. “I have eight kids,” his father, Courtney “Dinkin” Hamblett, told me. “Caden was the only one who listened.”
Caden excelled despite his surroundings. He was on the honour roll at Winston Churchill Collegiate, where he was enrolled in an Africentric curriculum. Every month, his mother, Ursular Francis, diligently tucked away $100 to send him to university. By the time he turned 16, in May of 2021, Caden had started thinking about where and what he might study. When his friends asked for clues, he’d answer, “You’ll see,” as if he had grand plans. Anything seemed possible. He was a bright, popular kid, the glue that held his friend group together. He had a contagious smile and a cast of young women who hoped to be his girlfriend. He was the sort of success story that Toronto likes to believe it produces. His parents had emigrated penniless from Trinidad to give him a life better than their own, and he was well on his way. Then, in an instant, it all unravelled.
Early one evening in July of 2021, Caden and a few buddies were walking to the fenced-in basketball court next to his apartment building. A black BMW SUV pulled up beside them. Its windows were tinted, its wheels rimmed with chrome. One of the passengers, dressed in a black hoodie, called out to Caden, who turned toward the car. A few seconds later, a masked figure in the back seat extended a handgun out of the window and fired multiple shots. One bullet ripped through the left side of Caden’s chest; another lodged in his abdomen. As the car sped away, he started wheezing and collapsed. His friends called 911, but it was no use. By the time an ambulance arrived, he was dead.
Caden’s community organized nine straight nights of candlelit vigils. They planted a tree in his memory next to the basketball court, where they left pictures from his childhood and grieved for his future. On what would have been his 17th birthday, two dozen of his friends held a memorial at the cemetery where his body is buried. The gathering had the chaotically cheerful vibe of a high school party. Hip hop played on a wireless speaker. Teenagers in T-shirts emblazoned with Caden’s face laughed and shouted over one another as they shared memories of their late friend. Before leaving, each of them grabbed a blue balloon, held it for a moment and then let it soar skyward—a symbol of Caden’s ascent to a better place and a metaphor for letting go of the pain and trauma that his death had caused. Caden’s social circle is surrounded by so much gun violence that they can’t afford to dwell on their grief; it would be paralyzing. Four months after the memorial, a 16-year-old boy shot and killed Zaybion Lawrence, one of Caden’s friends.
The police spent several months investigating Caden’s murder. Some of his friends told them that he had recently attended a party where either he or one of his companions had insulted Malvern, a rival neighbourhood, and that the shooting might have been payback. Others theorized that it had something to do with his older brothers. After Caden died, an anonymous caller contacted his parents, asking to speak with another one of their sons. The voice said that he had warned Caden not to go outside, and then he threatened that Ursular and Courtney could be next. Courtney decided to stay in his apartment, but Ursular moved without telling anyone where she was going.
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Police arrested two suspects: a girl in October 2021 and a boy in February 2022, both 15 years old. Their cases have yet to go to trial. Investigators also recovered what they believe to be the weapon that killed Caden, a Norinco 1911 handgun, from a stolen Mercedes that was crashed in a street race. Most of the firearms seized by Toronto police are “ghost guns,” unmarked firearms smuggled in from the US. This pistol was different. It appeared as though someone had milled off its serial number. The police sent it to the lab; even after milling, engravings can be recovered with chemical solutions or high-frequency vibrations that eat away at materials that have been tampered with. When police performed the restoration process, they discovered two letters etched into the side of the gun: RK.
Of all the hundreds of types of handguns, Rodger Kotanko loved none more than the 1911. To him, it represented the Platonic ideal of a pistol: powerful, reliable, utilitarian. It was the standard-issue sidearm for American soldiers in the Second World War and remains one of the bestselling handgun models on the planet. The renowned American gun company Colt invented the original model, a pistol colloquially known as the Colt 45, but plenty of brands make copies. Kotanko was partial to the version produced by a Chinese state-owned manufacturer called Norinco. They were accurate and built from fine steel. Plus, he could import them with ease thanks to a preferential trade agreement between Canada and China. With the help of a business partner in Hong Kong, Kotanko routinely shipped bulk orders of Norinco 1911 frames to Canada. Every time a shipment arrived, he gave the frames serial numbers and registered them with the government, converted them into functioning firearms in his shop, and then sold them for a profit.
In China, Kotanko didn’t just buy handguns—he also found love. During one trip overseas, he met Jessie Mai through a friend of a friend. She was 20 years younger than him and ran a pet store. His Cantonese was non-existent, and her English wasn’t much better, but they hit it off in emails and Skype calls translated by her teenage daughter, Minying. Eventually, Rodger learned Cantonese, and five years after they met, they married. Jessie was Kotanko’s third wife. His first marriage, his mother told me, had been a short-lived “mistake.” His second, to a woman from the Philippines, was more successful; they started as pen pals, fell for one another, had two sons in Canada—Conner and Colton, named after the Colt 45—and split up amicably when the boys reached adulthood. In 2017, Jessie left her store in her brother’s hands and moved to Port Ryerse with Minying, who was by then in her late teens. Jessie didn’t know much about guns, but she quickly became a regular presence in her husband’s shop, sweeping the floors and bringing coffee and snacks to his customers.
Whenever Kotanko bought or sold a gun, he was legally required to provide the RCMP’s Chief Firearms Officer in Ontario with a mountain of information in order to permit the transfer of ownership: the gun’s make, model and serial number; the details of his licence and the buyer’s; and a government-issued firearm certification code linked to the gun. Kotanko was on a first-name basis with the CFO officials responsible for processing gun ownership transfers. He’d handled so many firearms in his career that his file with the RCMP was 1,000 pages long.
In the summer of 2021, when Toronto police ran the serial number of the Norinco 1911 that killed Caden Francis, they discovered it in those pages. Kotanko had imported it from China in March of 2009, and it was still registered to his business, DARK International. There was no record of it having been sold, lost, stolen or transferred. On the evening Caden died, it should have been locked up in Kotanko’s shop.
A few months later, another one of Kotanko’s guns showed up where it didn’t belong. In October of 2021, while investigating the supposed abduction of a Toronto teen, police traced calls from the kidnapper to an address in North Bay. When the officers pulled over a car leaving the house, they discovered that the kidnapping was a hoax. The three young men inside had staged the crime to extort ransom money from the purported victim’s mother. In the vehicle, the cops found cocaine, a large sum of cash and another machine-milled Norinco 1911. It, too, was still registered to Kotanko.
As investigators connected the dots, they began to suspect that Kotanko had milled off the markings so that the 1911s couldn’t be traced back to him and then sold the guns, which he normally priced at $1,000 apiece, directly to criminals at a premium. Toronto police applied for a warrant to search Kotanko’s house and gun shop for paperwork, computers, cellphones, firearms, milling machines—anything that might help explain how his pistols had ended up in the hands of young offenders. Even if Kotanko hadn’t sold the guns illegally, the police reasoned, he’d been careless enough to lose track of them, and now a kid was dead. They planned to arrest Kotanko and charge him with criminal negligence causing death, a new and untested tool in the fight against gun violence. It had been used for the first time in Canada in January of 2021, when Toronto police alleged that Jeffrey Gilmour, a convicted gun smuggler, had illegally sold the gun that killed a 19-year-old security guard in west Toronto. If Gilmour is found guilty, it will set a precedent that allows the courts to punish not only shooters but also those who put guns in their hands.
A judge granted the search warrant, which police executed on November 3, 2021. That morning, Richard Haines, a detective constable with more than 20 years of experience with the Toronto Police Service, and five other members of the firearms enforcement unit drove to Port Ryerse. Around the same time, Kotanko left his house to pick Jessie up from a driving test. When he returned, just before noon, a customer who wanted Kotanko to repair his handgun was parked in the driveway. The two men walked down a short gravel lane to the shop. Jessie was unloading groceries from the car when several officers in ballistic vests appeared and asked where Kotanko was. She directed them to the gun shop. With their handguns drawn, Haines and another officer rounded the house and walked toward the shop door, onto which Kotanko had affixed a tongue-in-cheek sign that depicted a shotgun, a box of shells and the message, “Warning: Due to price increase of ammo, do not expect a warning shot!”
Haines’s partner later told investigators that the shop door was ajar and that, as they approached, they shouted, “Police, search warrant” and “Put your hands up.” According to the officer, the customer complied; Kotanko did not. Instead, police claim, he grabbed his client’s handgun and aimed it at the officers. Haines and his partner reportedly shouted at him to drop the gun, but he did not. The handgun wasn’t loaded, but Haines had no way of knowing that. In a matter of seconds, he fired four shots that pierced Kotanko’s hands, torso and head. Kotanko fell backward and crashed onto the concrete floor. Another officer rushed into the shop and attempted to keep him alive with CPR, but his efforts were futile. Twenty-five minutes later, paramedics wheeled Kotanko’s lifeless body out of the gun shop and into an ambulance. Police held Jessie on the front steps of the house as she sobbed and screamed.
The Special Investigations Unit, the provincial watchdog that scrutinizes every officer who discharges a firearm at someone, arrived at the gun shop later that afternoon. Haines refused to be interviewed or to provide his notes—as was his right by law—but SIU members spoke to the other officers and Kotanko’s customer. They determined that Haines had acted in self-defence when he shot and killed Kotanko. When faced with an imminent threat, police are trained to shoot a potential attacker’s torso until the threat is incapacitated. “It is difficult to imagine what else [Haines] could have done to protect himself,” the SIU concluded.
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But it’s also hard to understand why Haines and his partner had put themselves in a defensive position in the first place. If they had consulted local law enforcement, some of whom were Kotanko’s customers, they would have learned that he was a grumpy but harmless senior citizen. The only time he’d run into trouble with the law was in 1970, when he was sentenced to nine months in custody for pot possession and owning an unregistered firearm, a decorative flintlock pistol.
Given that Kotanko was 70 years old and not a violent offender, the Toronto officers had originally planned to carry out a so-called soft entry: knock on Kotanko’s door, ask to speak with him and then enter his home. They could have arrested him in his driveway or waited for him to leave the gun shop. Instead, they chose to draw their pistols and confront him in what they knew to be a gun shop, putting themselves and an innocent bystander at risk. “Why would you burst into his workshop?” says Suzanne Kantor, Kotanko’s sister. “There are going to be guns. He’s most likely going to be working on one. There’s no other outcome that could have happened.”
Kotanko’s family refuses to believe that he sold guns to gangsters. If he wanted money, they say, he could have charged more for his services or customized the 1911s and legally sold them for as much as $4,000, more than they’d fetch on the black market. And, if Kotanko intended to sell them as ghost guns, why would he put his initials and a serial number on them in the first place—especially when he knew that the stamped numbers couldn’t be permanently milled off? Besides, Kotanko was a stickler for the rules. After IPSC matches, he would decline to go to the bar with his shooting buddies because the law required him to bring his guns straight home. To his family, it was unimaginable that he’d sell guns to anyone without a licence, let alone to high schoolers.
Kotanko’s brother offered another theory. Jeff told me that Kotanko had recently sold two Norinco 1911s to a man from Toronto. He suspects it was that buyer, not his brother, who funnelled the firearms onto the black market. The only reason the guns were still registered to Kotanko when they were seized in July and October, he said, was because the CFO office was behind on its paperwork—Covid caused a well-publicized backlog of firearm transfers in 2021. Jeff claimed that Kotanko’s logbook, where he recorded all of his sales, would prove his brother’s innocence, but the police had taken it. I asked the Toronto Police Service to comment, but they declined my interview requests, as did the RCMP.
Kotanko’s family has been trying to track down his final customer, the only living witness who wasn’t wearing a badge. They’re hoping his account of the shooting will tell a more complete story, a version of events that exonerates Kotanko. But police won’t reveal his identity. According to the SIU report, the customer’s recollections are consistent with the police’s. During an interview with investigators, he expressed shock that Kotanko had reached for the gun and pointed it at the officers. Toronto police put it this way: “[Kotanko] was the author of his own misfortune.”
When Kotanko died, hundreds of shooters lost their go-to gunsmith. I spoke with several of them, and they all held disdain for the officers who had killed him. I wondered if their animus extended to guns. Guns got Kotanko into trouble. Guns led police to his doorstep. Guns ended his life. Maybe losing a friend had forced his clients to reckon with the fact that their hobby had deadly ramifications, not only for teenagers in Scarborough but for one of their own. When I showed up at Kotanko’s memorial in October of 2022, I found that no such reckoning had occurred.
The event was held not at a church or a funeral home but at the Waterford Sportsman’s Club, a shooting range north of Port Ryerse. Black balloons floated above the entrance, bearing the number 13, Kotanko’s sport shooting badge number. Kotanko’s customers sat at round tables, ate pulled pork sandwiches and wondered aloud who would service their guns now. After a few speeches, the crowd moved outside for a ceremonial cannon firing. These were not people who, having witnessed the horrors of gun violence, wanted to give up their guns.
Canada has strict firearms rules, at least relative to some American states, where adults don’t need a permit or a background check to buy and carry a gun. Here, it’s impossible to legally buy a gun without a licence. To get one, Canadians need to take a two-day safety course, pass written and practical exams, provide references, submit photos, answer questions about whether they’ve been divorced or separated or lost their job within the past two years, disclose details about their mental health, and allow the government to run automated criminal background checks on them in perpetuity.
Then there are regulations about who can own what kinds of guns and how those firearms must be transported, stored and registered. As a gunsmith, Kotanko had to jump through more hoops than most; CFO officials periodically showed up at his shop to audit his inventory. If they had caught him breaking the law, they could have revoked his rights—the RCMP annuls about 3,000 licences a year. Nearly half a million Canadians are barred from owning guns for one reason or another, including court-ordered prohibitions, convictions for firearms or drug offences and histories of domestic violence or mental illness.
Canada arrived at these rules through a recurring pattern: whenever a mass shooting happens, the government tightens regulations. Following the 1989 École Polytechnique massacre in Montreal, the feds revamped the Criminal Code. In 2018, a year after a shooter killed six worshippers at a Quebec City mosque, the Liberals tabled a bill that barred people with criminal convictions from owning guns. The attack in Nova Scotia, the worst mass shooting in Canadian history, spawned the toughest gun-control measures yet. Within a month of the tragedy, the Liberals introduced Bill C-21, which, if enacted, will freeze handgun sales, fund new anti-gun-smuggling technology at the US border and ban 1,500 “assault-style” firearms, a term frequently used to describe modern semi-automatic firearms with combat features like foregrips and large magazines.
Bill C-21 flew through its first and second readings with support from the NDP and the Bloc Québécois. But, along the way, the Liberals introduced amendments that included a sweeping new definition of assault-style firearms based on a gun’s power, type of round and magazine size. The party wanted to make the bill broad enough to prevent gun manufacturers from designing new firearms that skirted the regulations. In the process, however, they ended up banning nearly 2,000 more types of firearms, including popular hunting rifles, BB guns and IPSC firearms. Legal gun owners were apoplectic. Kotanko’s clients feared that the bill would kill their sport.
“Another mother crying over her child’s murder?” Ursular Francis said. “This has to stop”
Against the backdrop of C-21, Kotanko’s death became more than just a tragedy. For his community, it was also a rallying cry. They interpreted his killing as an extreme example of the way the government unfairly demonizes licensed gun owners. In their view, it was proof that the state was targeting the wrong people. They had earned their licences, used guns safely for years, and abided by increasingly stringent rules and regulations. If Trudeau wanted to end gun violence, several sport shooters told me, he should leave them alone and instead go after the gangsters and smugglers sneaking illegal firearms across the border.
Unfortunately, it isn’t that simple. The gun that killed Caden Francis—and, in turn, led to Kotanko’s death—didn’t originate in the US. Its frame was imported from China with the government’s blessing. It was registered with the CFO and stored in a licensed gun shop. Even if Kotanko was, as his family insists, a fastidious rule follower who did everything in his power to prevent his firearms from falling into the wrong hands, his guns still ended up on the streets. If his story proves anything, it’s that even legal guns kill innocent people. Any gun can be an “assault-style” firearm if it’s used to end a life. Hunters use AR-15s, but so do soldiers. Sport shooters hit cardboard targets with the same pistols that school shooters use to murder their classmates.
Gun violence is an impossible problem. It can’t be solved, only managed. Lawmakers could try to stamp out gun violence by banning all firearms, but that would likely lead to both public outrage and a decisive loss on election day. C-21, for instance, evidently went too far for many Canadians’ liking. Seventy thousand people signed a petition to stop the bill. The Assembly of First Nations unanimously denounced the amendments, claiming that they would deprive Indigenous people of hunting rifles that are fundamental to their traditional way of life. Then the NDP withdrew its support and the Bloc waffled. Even rural Liberal MPs, whose gun-owning constituents were fuming, gave Trudeau flack for the last-minute changes. In February of 2023, the party conceded and withdrew the amendments. The Liberals will revise the bill and send it back to Parliament.
The question now is not whether to ban guns but which guns to ban. Kotanko would have been the first person to denounce a handgun ban, which would have robbed him of his livelihood and first love, the thing that gave his life meaning. C-21 would have been too late to save Kotanko’s life. But, if Canada had prohibited handguns sooner, he might still be alive today, sipping coffee in his shop and griping about government overreach.
Ursular Francis’s new apartment is sparse but sunny, dotted with pictures of Caden. Seated at the dining table, she told me that Caden’s death still doesn’t feel real to her. Sometimes, she thinks she can hear him playing video games in the next room. She started to cry as she reminded herself that he was gone. “From the time I saw my son lying there, all I could do was bawl. Another mother crying? Come on. This has to stop,” she said. “Why my little boy? What did he do?”
Kotanko’s mother, Elinor, has asked the same question: What did her son do to deserve a death sentence? She, along with Jessie, Kotanko’s four living siblings and his three children, are suing the TPS and the Toronto Police Services Board for $23 million in damages. The suit alleges that the officers’ actions were “not justifiable by law” and “resulted in the wrongful death of Rodger.” They expect the identity of Kotanko’s customer to be revealed in the discovery phase of the trial, which could be heard as early as this fall. Elinor hopes that the proceedings will provide her family with some answers. But, at 90, she’s not sure if she’ll live long enough to get any herself.
In the meantime, Kotanko’s family struggles to move on. Jeff has spent long, lonely hours trying to piece together how his brother died. He’s collected surveillance videos from Kotanko’s neighbour and listened studiously to police scanner recordings from that day. He has entertained, as Kotanko might have, grand conspiracies about who might have wanted his brother dead. It maddens him that he’s still no closer to knowing what happened.
One afternoon, Jeff took me to Kotanko’s gun shop. It reeked of stale cigar smoke. Kotanko’s bench was cluttered with pliers and screwdrivers, hammers and rolls of tape, several pairs of eyeglasses, and a few ashtrays. The rest of the shop was stuffed with machinery: two milling machines, a buffer, grinder, lathe, belt sander and sandblaster. Safes and lockers had been pried open and emptied. There wasn’t a single operational firearm left. Police had seized 167 handguns, 45 rifles, six shotguns, two submachine guns and thousands of rounds of ammunition. There was still a dry, dark bloodstain on the floor. No matter how hard Jeff scrubbed, it wouldn’t come out.
This story appears in the May 2023 issue of Toronto Life magazine. To subscribe for just $39.99 a year, click here. To purchase single issues, click here.
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