A Sudanese man who survived polio, war and the refugee camps of East Africa is recovering at his Kitchener, Ont., home after being beaten unconscious with his own crutch.
Francis Pitia said yesterday he was set upon by a group of white men hurling racial epithets. Anti-racism groups are reacting with shock and outrage, and police are investigating the possibility that the attack qualifies as a hate crime.
A childhood bout of polio cost Mr. Pitia, 33, the use of his right leg, leaving him unable to escape when at least seven assailants came at him and a friend late Saturday evening. He was right outside his home but could not get to the safety of the building.
"We didn't make argument with them. We didn't say a word, they just started beating," said Mr. Pitia, who came to Canada three years ago. "Everybody cannot figure out what is wrong with these people, fighting a disabled person who can't even get away."
The attack sent Mr. Pitia to hospital for medical care and rang alarm bells among anti-racism activists.
"There is racism but when it gets to that level of brutality you think 'wait a minute, this happens still,' " said Patrick Hunter, an official with the Canadian Race Relations Foundation. "It does catch you off guard."
Mr. Hunter said that "it is a shock when you think about it, that in 2006 that people would attack someone brutally because of the colour of their skin."
Mr. Pitia lives in a residential area only blocks from Kitchener's city hall, a neighbourhood full of families that includes a large park. He said he was outside, enjoying the warm evening when approached by a gang of white men who appeared to be in their early 20s.
They started with insults. "You're black niggers, that sort of thing," Mr. Pitia remembered.
Within moments, fists were flying and Mr. Pitia, a normally active man who excelled as a disabled soccer player in Africa, was being pummelled to the ground.
"They came to club me, to beat me, to kick me," he said. "They beat me down, they kicked me, they even took my stick to hit me."
Waterloo Regional Police Service Inspector Bryan Larkin said "a good Samaritan" stopped the attack.
Mr. Pitia was unconscious by the time paramedics showed up, though, and did not wake up until he was in the hospital. The assailants had run off with his crutch, which someone found and returned to him days later.
Mr. Pitia was released from hospital within hours but is still feeling a lot of pain in his head and wrist and has not been able to leave his home. He has passed the time praying with his church's pastor, hearing from well-wishers and dreaming about being able to play pool again.
He said he harbours no hatred for his assailants, saying that the hardships he saw and escaped from in war-torn Sudan changed his perspective on life. "I don't have any problem in my heart," he said.
But others are distressed on his behalf.
The African Canadian Legal Clinic issued a statement calling for changes to the Criminal Code to make prosecution of hate crimes easier. And Dudley Laws, of the Black Action Defence Committee, said that the black community has to challenge this sort of behaviour head on.
"People must confront racism the way we used to deal with it in the sixties and seventies, nowadays there are people who are subjected to racial slurs and even attacks and don't report it," he said. "In the old days we used to take to the streets in protest, we didn't sit down and cry about what the government isn't doing to help."
The always fiery Mr. Laws said he wasn't at all surprised to hear about a racially motivated attack in Kitchener, which he called "redneck country," but Mayor Carl Zehr said the incident is a rarity in what he characterized as a diverse community.
"As tragic and disgusting as the attack was the other day, it's not the norm in our community," he said. "We are accustomed in our community to having people of colour and it's not an issue for us. It obviously is an issue with some individuals, but they are a small minority."
One man has been charged with assault causing bodily harm, assault with a weapon and robbery. Police say more arrests are imminent.