Like everybody else in this country, I have been utterly swept up in the emotional spectacle of Syrian refugees landing at Pearson airport. There’s such drama in every photograph, every video clip. One can only imagine how relieved they must feel to be free from war and the misery of a crowded refugee camp. It’s a heartening thing to behold. Over several generations, Canadians have built a safe, prosperous country, and we’re big-hearted enough to share it with people who need it most.
Of course, the Syrian newcomers will face many obstacles before they’re able to take full advantage of everything Canada offers. Many don’t speak English, and it will be a challenge for them to find work and affordable housing. Some will arrive traumatized by the journey that brought them here in the first place.
This country has an impressive track record of helping immigrants integrate into Canadian life. But we’re slipping. According to a recent ranking by a Brussels-based think tank, Canada has dropped from third place to sixth among 38 developed countries in providing newcomers access to equal rights, support and opportunity. The future success of our refugee effort depends on widespread inclusion and tolerance, on welcoming new immigrants and ensuring that they can establish strong economic and emotional footing.
This month’s cover story is, among other things, a cautionary tale about potential repercussions when adequate supports aren’t in place. The story’s roots go back to 1993, when Danilo Celestino left the Philippines to establish a better life for his family in Toronto. He came on his own at first, got a job as a forklift operator, and spent eight years saving enough money to send for his wife, Elma, and their two kids—Danika and Danilo Jr. When they arrived, Elma got a job as a restaurant hostess. The children assimilated fast, as kids often do, and the family moved from a small apartment to a house in North York.
At some point during high school at Downsview Secondary, Danilo Jr. started dealing drugs. On a spring day in 2006,
when he was 17, he went into the bathroom of a Coffee Time at Wilson and Keele to sell some weed to an 18-year-old named Segun Akinsanya. Akinsanya was also an immigrant—his parents had moved to Canada from Nigeria when he was two. The teenagers got into an argument that heated up quickly; Celestino pulled a knife on Akinsanya and slashed the back of his head. Akinsanya fought back and, in the ensuing scuffle, got hold of the knife and stabbed Celestino in the chest, killing him.
Two sets of immigrant dreams were dashed that afternoon. Akinsanya ultimately pleaded guilty to manslaughter and got five years in prison. He’s out now, trying to figure out how to live with the knowledge that he took a young man’s life.
In his memoir in this issue (“A History of Violence,” page 32), Akinsanya tells the story of how he ended up running with street gangs. He describes the accidental death of his mother when he was seven and how his father travelled often for work, leaving him and his three sisters on their own. He was a newcomer to Toronto, without much support at home, feeling alienated from his peers. Gangs promised a sense of belonging when the rest of Toronto seemed to shut him out. His story is a rare, uncensored account of gang life in Toronto. It’s also about what can happen to a young man when he doesn’t feel at home.
—Sarah Fulford Email: firstname.lastname@example.org
Twitter: @sarah_ fulford