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Canada Past life catches up with Toronto man hurt in Christie Pits Park shooting

Toronto police released this image of a suspect involved in a shooting in Christie Pits park in Toronto, July. 30, 2016

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Alejandro Vivar appeared to be turning his life around.

After serving more than eight years in federal prison for drug and firearms offences, he had emerged with a plan to be a fitness trainer and run his own business.

But on Saturday morning, those plans fell apart when his past life caught up with him.

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Mr. Vivar, 35 was shot in the abdomen as he led an exercise class at Christie Pits Park. The gunman, who had been taking part in the class, opened fire before fleeing the scene. Another participant was hit in the foot by a stray bullet, Toronto police say. Both were taken to hospital and police are still searching for the gunman. Police have not yet confirmed that Mr. Vivar was one of the shooting victims.

The class was run by the non-profit company 25/7 Fitness – which was created by Mr. Vivar, a personal trainer – and offered free exercise instruction every Saturday at 8 a.m. in the park, with participants of all ages. Darnell Simpson, a trainer with the company, told reporters that six children were at the workout class, including Mr. Vivar's two young sons. He noted that after being shot, Mr. Vivar was able to run up a hill and speak to paramedics.

The idea for the classes started at an entrepreneurial workshop at a prison in November, 2015, says the company's website. Mr. Vivar was released in March and the inaugural class was held at the park in May, with more than 30 people in attendance. Saturday's class was the ninth Prison Pump session.

"He was not a psychically fit individual going [into prison], but he really got himself together. He's in terrific shape and he designed and started this workout regime as a personal trainer and wasn't shy about his background," said his defence lawyer, John Struthers, who has represented Mr. Vivar since 2004. "He tells the truth about that and has all the way along."

In 2007, Mr. Vivar, the alleged leader of the Latino Americanos gang, was convicted of several criminal charges, including trafficking in cocaine and multiple counts of possessing restricted firearms, as part of a large investigation by the Toronto police called Project Cheddar.

Three years earlier, he was acquitted of first-degree murder in the death of Gary Malo. A member of rival gang the Christie Boys, Mr. Malo was shot at Jose's Cafe on Bloor Street West, near Christie Street, on Feb. 23, 2002, court documents show.

While serving time in prison for the drug and weapons convictions, Mr. Vivar became a prolific writer for the Kingston Whig-Standard, contributing numerous opinion pieces about life behind bars. He served time at Collins Bay Institution in Kingston, and later at the nearby Bath Institution.

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"It was just weeks ago that I was released. There was nothing but clouds in the sky, the world seemed sick and pale and it cried tears that froze upon touching the asphalt of the parking lot where you guys waited. I almost slipped as I took my first steps as a free man, but I caught my balance when my little son flew through the air and into my arms. We all hugged, then we all drove away from the prison, and then the sun came out, as if the world was telling me it was happy to have me back," he wrote in his last dispatch to the paper on March 30, having been released weeks prior.

After leaving prison, Mr. Vivar returned to the familiar neighbourhood where he grew up.

"Flashback 20 years, and I used to walk on this quiet street with a gun on my waist, on the way to Christie Park. Now, I've got a gym bag full of fitness equipment," Mr. Vivar said in a video posted to Instagram on July 19. "When you been in prison so long, it's hard to come out and adapt. I seen a lot of guys come out and give up and just go back to the drug game. But that's not me."

Building a business and holding exercise classes were a way of changing course in his life, Mr. Struthers said. But for individuals with a checkered past, charting a new trajectory can be difficult.

Recidivism rates for individuals affiliated with gangs in Canada vary, but the average is 45 per cent within the first 33 months, according to Public Safety Canada. Employment, housing and peer pressure can derail the best-laid plans and reintegration is even more difficult with past gang affiliations.

"Unless you lock yourself in the basement and put bars on the house, you're not in the position where you're going to be able to rely on the police to follow you around 24 hours a day and protect you. That's not going to happen," Mr. Struthers said. In his 25 years practising law, he recalls losing roughly 20 clients to violence. "The way out is very difficult."

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Just like Mr. Vivar, the neighbourhood where he held his weekly exercise classes has undergone significant changes over the years. For years it was marred by gang violence, including the infamous 1933 race riot and the 1992 shooting death of Carrie Lynn Pinard.

"[My dad] was really nervous I was moving to Christie Pits area because he thought it was really dangerous. It was a lot different back then," said Adrienne Crossman, 27, who lives in an apartment building on Bloor overlooking the park. "But when I ended up moving here ... my experience with the area was that it was pretty safe."

Ms. Crossman, who doesn't know Mr. Vivar, recalled hearing what she thought were between six and eight gunshots on Saturday morning. At first unsure, a flurry of police sirens shortly after confirmed her fears.

"I had a sinking feeling in my stomach that it was what I thought it was. It really freaked me out. I've been living in this area for about two and half years, and nothing like that has ever happened."

Community groups, such as the Friends of Christie Pits Park, have fought to reclaim the area for the neighbourhood, making it safer and helping it shed its tarnished reputation. Children dash through the water park and playground, while groups lounge on the slopes, finding shade under its many trees. Most mornings, exercise classes sprout up on the fields, taking advantage of the steep hills on the northern reaches of the park. Videos and photos of the Prison Pump workout class show participants sprinting up and down the hills.

"[Mr. Vivar] was back in the same neighbourhood, the park is down the street from his parents' house. ... He was absolutely doing very well. He was very proud of his kids. He was absolutely on the rails," Mr. Struthers said, adding that Mr. Vivar felt his contributions to the community were positive, marking a sharp departure from his previous life.

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"I guess people have long memories," he said.

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