When the speeches began, it was only drizzling. But as the darkness of the November afternoon deepened and the candles were lit, the small knot of mourners gathered on a downtown Toronto street began to bring out their umbrellas and turn up their collars against a steady, drenching rain. Undaunted by the downpour, community workers, social activists and friends took turns condemning the brutal murder of Freddas Qim) Bwabwa. The 32-year-old father of four had died only five days earlier at the same spot, an innocuous patch of concrete on the southern edge of St. James Town, a forest of highrises that is one of the city’s poorest neighborhoods. Looking on from the edge of the group, Bwabwa’s 17-year-old nephew, Gustel Lubaya, said he was still in shock. “I didn’t believe it at first,” he said softly, referring to the early reports of the murder, which occurred only minutes after Bwabwa left a large family gathering that included Lubaya. “I thought it was a sick joke. It wasn’t until I talked to his 10-year-old son that I believed it.”
Many in the area—a dense mix of apartment buildings, public housing, rooming houses and upscale Victorian homes—are also struggling with their emotions. Bwabwa, who was six feet, five inches tall and weighed 280 lb., was knifed to death after confronting a group of men on Wellesley Street just before midnight on Nov. 7. Police believe there were at least eight individuals involved and as many as 20, and that they
were Tamils between the ages of 18 and 24. So far, they say, they have failed to confirm that Bwabwa—who came to Canada from the People’s Democratic Republic of Congo as a political refugee in 1990—approached the group to help a mugging victim, as some members of the francophone-African community have asserted. But whatever the reason for the encounter, the single
knife wound that fatally pierced Bwabwa’s heart has profoundly disturbed a diverse community already struggling with poverty, drugs and prostitution. Spiro Papathanasakis, executive director of the Cabbagetown Youth Centre, who has lived in the neighborhood all his life and worked with young people since the early 1970s, says most of the Tamils he deals with are “wonderful.” But there are some young men who are “really bad,” he adds. “I haven’t felt it in this community for a
long time, the anger. It was a senseless thing.”
As it happened, Bwabwa was only visiting the neighborhood that night. He lived— with his wife, Suzanne, and their children, Djo, 10, Divine, 6, Narcisse, 3, and Natasha, 10 months—in nearby Regent Park, Canada’s oldest public housing project. Although he recently worked as a laborer, he was unemployed at the time of his death and an account has been set up at the Royal Bank
of Canada for donations to help the family. Leonie Tchatat, president of Groupe Jeunesse, a local organization that works with francophone youth, has known the family for about five years. She described Bwabwa as a leader in his community who was well liked and widely respected. Since the murder, his wife, Suzanne, “just sits,” Tchatat says. “She is crying very deeply from inside, but she doesn’t say anything, so we are watching her very closely.”
For some in the Tamil community, the focus on a Tamil gang as possible perpetrators is yet another instance of what they believe is stereotyping. There are about 200,000 Tamils in Canada, most of whom live in the Toronto area. Nehru Gunaratnam, spokesman for a community umbrella organization called the Federation of Associations of Canadian Tamils, told Maclean’s that while Tamils acknowledge there are problems with youth crime in their community, “linking crimes with ethnicity is always counterproductive.” Suspects of Italian or British descent are generally not identified as such, he said. When the ethnic link is made, he added, the result can be a backlash, including the harassment of Tamils, merely because of their ethnic background.
But for those working in the neighborhoods close to the murder scene—St. James Town, Winchester Square, Cabbagetown— the real issues for local youth are lack of adult supervision and a sense of displacement, problems that tend to be more common in immigrant communities. Some Tamil youth are particularly vulnerable, both Gunaratnam and Papathanasakis agree, because they are in Canada on their own,
sent by their parents to keep them out of Sri Lanka’s 15-yearlong civil war. “The gang becomes their family,” Papathanasakis points out, and many kids are dominated by the few who are truly criminal. That element has “weapons and the majority are trained,” Papathanasakis adds. “These kids come from a country that has its problems and they know how to take care of business.”
Meanwhile, back at the murder site, a small shrine of flowers and handwritten notes
marks the spot, and family, friends—and strangers—stop by to pay their respects to Jim Bwabwa. “He no longer laughs, he no longer cries,” reads one note. “His wife will never again feel his kiss, nor will his children greet him at the door.” A neighborhood’s nightmare, certainly, but above all, a devastating personal tragedy.
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