Monday, 16 July 2012

Ontario: A Safe Haven for All?

Passing through Ontario briefly recently, I was particularly pleased and proud to have made small headline news with the success of my play, Call Mr. Robeson at the London Fringe. I understand that positive stories about Africans are relatively rare front page items in Canadian papers, so I will always have good memories of Ontario.

Talking of recent stories of foreigners on these shores, people will be more aware of the Toronto Eaton Centre shooting from early June involving members of East African and Guyanese immigrant families, or, if we go further afield geographically and racially, of the gruesome murder of a Chinese student in Montreal, and the subsequent mailing of his dismembered body parts around the country by his killer.

Whilst the colour of the murder victim should be irrelevant to any discussion, these examples of White-on-Yellow or Black-on-Black violence are rightly front-page news. In the short time I have been here, there have been no reports, thankfully, of a White person being killed by a Black person, so I am pretty sure that hasn’t happened, for it would almost certainly be national news too. As for a White person killing a Black person, we need to cross the border and head all the way down to Florida to find such a well known case – the slaying of Black teenager Trayvon Martin by a white man. What brought that case to the eyes and ears of the world was the fact that the killer was known to the police, but was not even arrested, and was able to enjoy liberty until protests all over America and elsewhere (including one by Black Law Students at University of Windsor) shamed the Florida authorities into arresting and locking him up.

It would be good to assume that this wouldn’t happen in Ontario. That wouldn’t be accurate, however, for on a visit to my Nigerian cousin in Kitchener/Waterloo, I heard of the sad story of Jany James Ruach, a 19-year-old boy from an immigrant Sudanese family, knifed to death by a White Kitchener resident. Admittedly, I have heard only one side of the story, but there are disturbing similarities between what I have heard and read in this case, and the Trayvon Martin one. First, the killer is free to walk the streets:  he was granted $2500 bail (with few conditions) the day after the killing. Second, what little press coverage there has been repeatedly mentions the victim’s criminal record (he apparently spent six months in jail for punching a hole in a wall during an argument with his girlfriend – seriously!) Third, the confessed killer’s protestation of self-defence has been accepted as reason enough for him not to be seen as posing a threat to anybody else.

Where the similarity ends, sadly, is in the fact that this case is not receiving the coverage that other killings have received. Protests by the local African community in Kitchener are being dismissed as playing the race card (again) and the white youths who come out in support of the victim’s family are being labelled as gang members. It is as though the taking of the life of a promising, ambitious young man is not serious enough, and the central issue here. It is conceivable that the story would be very different if the white boy had been killed by the African (if his six-month sentence for damaging a wall is anything to go by) but we all know that this should not be the case.

The existence of thousands of Canadians of African descent is testament to the kindness and bravery of hundreds of strangers (black and white) who conducted their forebears along the Underground Railroad to the safety of Ontario and other parts of Canada a few centuries ago. Their descendants, including those who have arrived here directly from the Mother Continent, whether passing through briefly or not, would like to be assured that Ontario remains a place of safety for all. A demonstrably transparent, fair and accountable justice system is one requirement for this. So are the interest of the general public and their outrage in the face of perceived injustices on their doorstep.

Facebook Page: Justice for Jany James