My wife and I came to Canada from India in 1971. We were in our 20s then. India was a very different country at that time, independent for not quite 25 years, trying to make its way in the world. We were allowed to bring with us $7 (U.S.) each.
We grew fond of this place and decided to sink our roots here. It was a peaceful place, and despite the fact that it didn’t really know how to facilitate the integration of people such as us, we liked it. Some old-timers took us into their homes and made us feel welcome. Now it is our home.
Our son was born here. In 1978 came my first publication, East Indians, Myths and Reality (yes, we were called East Indians then, not South Asians). The dedication on the book’s first page says the work was for our son “and all other beautiful children with the hope that they will be permitted to grow without discrimination or persecution but with freedom and dignity.”
The book contributed to changes in the curriculum of Ontario’s school education, and ever since, my personal and professional lives have been guided by the hope expressed in those words. In the 1980s, it was in the sphere of education; in the 1990s, the focus was on human rights; and since 2004, I have done what I can in the area of policing.
I imagine that Sammy Yatim’s family came here four years ago to pursue a similar objective for themselves and their children. The fate that befell the 18-year-old – who died after being shot by police on a Toronto streetcar – is not one that they could have expected or imagined. It is one that none of us can accept, whether we came here four or 40 years ago or our family has been here for generations.
Ever since that tragic night when the Yatims lost their son, I have been trying to put myself in their situation. Every time, that leads me to one question: “How could this happen?”
It leads me to this question because of all the effort that I and many other people of goodwill have made to realize a different vision of policing than we had been accustomed to. I can say in all honesty that it has been a significant effort, intended to bring about comprehensive change in the culture and practice of policing. Those efforts, to a very large degree, have been in response to earlier incidents, such the deaths of Edmund Yu and Jeffrey Riodica in police shootings.
Tragedy such as the one that has befallen the Yatims causes profound soul-searching. I very much hope there will be a collective soul-searching on the part of all of us involved with policing, in whatever capacity.
I know there will be no letup on my part until we have an answer to the question, “How could this happen?” I have heard and read the pat, instant solutions that have been offered so far, and I find them wanting or off-base.
Until we have the answer and respond to it with concrete action, the hope expressed in that dedication from 1978 will not have been realized, as far as policing is concerned.
We had better get down to the task quickly and in all seriousness. We owe it to the memory of Sammy Yatim.
Alok Mukherjee is chair of the Toronto Police Services Board. The opinions expressed here are his own, not the board’s.