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Community Demands Change at Vigil for Abdirahman Abdi in Ottawa

Ontario's Special Investigations Unit is still investigating the death of Abdirahman Abdi, who died in a violent arrest by Ottawa cops.
October 4, 2016, 7:12pm

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It's been two months since Abdirahman Abdi died following a violent interaction with police in Ottawa, and the community is still awaiting answers.

But far from waiting for a police watchdog to come to its conclusions, those behind the Justice for Abdi coalition organized a conference on Sunday at a local community centre to address what they consider to be institutionalized racism against Ottawa's Black and Muslim community.

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They also marched, about 50 people carrying placards depicting the scales of justice and "your silence contributes to the violence," to the Hilda Street address where the 37-year-old Somali man lay lifeless on July 24, and which has since become a memorial site.

"What justice for Abdirahman will look like is if it becomes more than just the narrative of bad apples; that the officers…don't just get fired; that compensation is just given to his family," said Amina Mire, a Carleton sociology professor and longstanding member of Ottawa's Somali community.

She spoke at the conference, which included sessions on the intersections between racism and mental illness, the criminal justice system, issues faced by newcomers, and community healing and resilience.

"What I want to see is fundamental change, because there are many other Abdis… I want the focus to be beyond the micro-practices of officers."

Abdi died outside of his apartment building after being pursued by police officers who were called to a nearby coffeeshop, where the deceased was accused of groping a woman and kicked out of the cafe. Witnesses reported that police pepper sprayed Abdi and repeatedly hit him in the head with batons and fists.

The Special Investigations Unit, the provincial agency tasked with investigating police officers when they are involved in serious injury or death, is currently looking into the actions of the two officers, Cst. Dave Weir and Cst. Daniel Montsion.

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READ MORE: Canada Has a Race Problem and We Refuse to Talk About It

A spokesperson for the SIU said the investigation is ongoing. It could be several more months before there is an outcome.

No charges have been laid against the police in the case, and none of the allegations have been proven in court.

In the days following the incident, Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said it would be "inappropriate" to say racism played a role in the man's death.

"Our decision-making is based on our training, and our training has nothing to do with race," he told CBC Radio's All in a Day.

Storyteller and activist Hawa Mire spoke following the march, highlighting the history of Somali immigration to Canada and the current statistics that highlight the disproportionate unemployment, poverty and incarceration rates impacting the largest black diaspora living in Canada.

"The same community members that are carded by police are also harassed by CSIS agents and disproportionately impacted by anti-terror legislation," she said. "We experience systemic racism across sectors, proven by the high number of Somali children taken by Children's Aid Society."

Mire said those coming from Somalia during the famine and war of the 1990s experienced discrimination from Citizenship and Immigration Canada, who changed multiple policies in what many believe was a response to the wave of refugees, including the introduction of the five-year waiting period to apply for permanent residency and a restriction on their ability to leave the country.

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"All of these restrictions made Somalis ineligible for employment programs, which include workplace programs, skills and training development and even the ability to get student loans," she said.

Somali youth now have the highest push out rate in Ontario and a 67 percent unemployment rate, even after graduation. Statistics Canada data from 1996 indicates that the unemployment rate of Somali-Canadians is 23.6 percent, much higher than the national average. Mire said a history of raids in Ontario and carding has left a legacy of distrust and animosity between the community and police.

All of these realities together shape the context that Abdi was killed in, Mire argued.

"It's the same kind of cruelty that it takes to deny a refugee fleeing a war the possibility to be reunified with their families," she said. "These cruelties aren't new to us; we just don't name them. But it's the exact same kind of cruelty over and over again. This is just more visceral because we have seen it. Now other people have seen it and we can name it for what it is."

She hopes events like Sunday's conference will help shape a broader coalition outside of the Somali community that will work towards confronting racism in Canada.