We need to hear the voices of our youth


Nosa Idalu Iyirhiaro transitioned to be with the ancestors on December 5, 2010. He was a loving and beloved son, grandson, brother, uncle, cousin and friend.

Nosa celebrated his 24th birthday on April 21, 2010 and is one of the many young African Canadian men who have been the victims of violence in 2010.

Nosa is an Edo (from Nigeria) whose name means God has spoken. To deal with the grief and shock of the unexpected loss of this young life his loved ones have to grapple with the thought that God has spoken and that is why Nosa is no longer with us in the flesh. Nosa’s passing was noted in a few paragraphs in a Hamilton newspaper where he was identified as Hamilton’s 10th homicide of the year. According to the story in the newspaper one witness said: “I heard a person hollering, ‘Help me, help me! I’m dying, I’m dying, call 911′.” Those were probably the last words Nosa spoke because five hours later he had passed from this life.

An article in a Toronto newspaper published in November said that of the 29 gun deaths in 2010, 26 were African Canadians. Nosa was not killed by a gun, he was stabbed several times in his upper body. On December 17, he was laid to rest at St. James Cemetery (Parliament and Bloor Streets).

The sudden end to the lives of young men in our community due to violence has reached epidemic proportions. Week after week we read of these young lives and it seems that they are just faceless numbers to justify calls for more police and harsh law and order policies.

In his 2009 book, Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men Dr. John A. Rich writes: The shooting of a young black male doesn’t make the front page. It’s most likely to appear inside the Metro section — that is, if the victim dies. Even then, he’s unlikely to receive more than a couple of inches of print. After all, it’s the same old story: young black men killing other young black men. What’s the big deal? The shooter and the victim are assumed to be drug dealers or gang-bangers doing their thing in a part of town where people of means and good sense would never venture.

Dr. Rich could very well have been speaking about Toronto or elsewhere in Canada, the situations are so similar. Incidents of violence against young African Canadian males and in many cases by young African Canadian males are alarming.

The estimated 26 African Canadian males whose lives ended through gun violence are not faceless and nameless statistics to their relatives and friends. However, when these shootings happen there is usually a call for more police and warnings of dangerous gangs occupying the city. Hardly ever is there an article that addresses the circumstances that led to the reasons why there is this level of self-hatred among our male youth.

Sometimes there are calls for programs that will keep children and youth occupied in social activities. In November 2005 the Coalition of African Canadian Organizations met with then Prime Minister Paul Martin and presented a plan that included calls for the federal government to create employment and training opportunities to bring more African Canadian youth into the workforce.

Earlier the same month (November 9, 2005) while attending a meeting of federal, provincial and territorial ministers in Whitehorse, Yukon, Irwin Cotler, who was then the Minister of Justice and Attorney General, announced: “The disturbing increase of homicides involving firearms in urban centres such as Toronto and Winnipeg have underscored the need to attack the problem of the illegal use of firearms on a number of fronts. What I am announcing today is a three-pronged strategy involving: first, legislative measures and enhanced punishments; second, initiatives to assist prosecutors and law enforcement officials in bringing the perpetrators of gun-related crimes to justice; and third, investments to prevent youth from following a life of crime and to provide them with hope and opportunity.

Five years after the 2005 announcement, with a new federal government (elected January 23, 2006) in place only the first two of the three prongs seem to have been initiated in the African Canadian community.

Dr. Rich is an African American physician, scholar and a leader in addressing the health care needs of African-American men in urban areas. He has linked economics, mental health, educational and employment opportunities to physical well-being and his work is influencing policy discussions and health practice throughout the United States. He has established the Young Men’s Health Clinic at the Boston Medical Center which provides primary care to men ages 17 to 29 many of whom are victims of violence.

In Wrong Place, Wrong Time: Trauma and Violence in the Lives of Young Black Men he writes about the lives of several young African American men who were traumatized by the violence they experienced. He has gone beyond the numbers and statistics that appear in newspaper articles to delve into their lives, decipher reasons and act on his findings. Rich writes: “Even though large numbers of African American men have suffered from violent injury, little research attention has been paid to the impact of post-traumatic stress disorder and other trauma related symptoms on the lives of these young men.” Rich suggests that the hyper-vigilance that leaves these young men constantly feeling that their lives are in danger can lead to them being unable to feel and subjecting themselves to danger. Some may turn to alcohol or drugs to ease their pain and shame, especially if they had walked away from a dangerous fight that could have cost them their life.

Rich concludes that there is a right place and a right time to understand how violence affects the lives of young racialized men. He writes: The right place is the community, defined not simply by the neighborhoods where these men live but also the larger community of which all of us are residents. Now is the right time to hear the clear resonance of their voices and involve them as central participants in formulating the solutions.

The United Nations has designated 2011 the International Year for People of African descent. Surely it is time to address in a concrete manner the trauma with which many of our young men live daily because of the violence from many sources that plague their lives.

Rich could have been writing about Nosa Idalu Iyirhiaro or Yannick Roach, an 18-year-old who transitioned on Christmas Eve 2002, when he wrote that the young men from urban neighbourhoods in the U.S. had “lives that were textured and complex” and “their struggles and their anger were counterbalanced by laughter and generosity.”

His advice is valuable for people who make the decisions: “Without any access to their voices, we could easily formulate solutions that are out of sync with the realities of their lives and that would be ineffective or outright destructive. This is why hearing their stories told through their own words is important. Not only does it reaffirm their basic humanity, it also points to a need to consider a different palette of approaches to violence and poverty and masculinity and non-violence that might eventually yield enduring results for change.”



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