By Neil Armstrong
PRIDE Contributing Writer
TORONTO, Ontario November 9, 2016 — A campaign to establish a national registry for immigrant children to Canada, dubbed the ‘Melonie Memento,’ was recently launched in Toronto.
An initiative of Councillor Michael Thompson, it kicked off at an appreciation dinner for Det. Sgt. Steve Ryan, the lead investigator in the murder of 17-year-old Melonie Biddersingh, at Casa Loma on October 26.
The councillor has introduced a motion at city council requesting the federal government set up a national registry to monitor and protect immigrant children when they arrive in Canada.
The goal of the campaign is to establish the registry so no other child meets Melonie’s fate.
“From day one, Councillor Thompson has really been engaged with this project. I guess, like me, when he heard the story he could really connect with the family in Jamaica and he really went out of his way on day one to make sure that they were honoured, that they felt the love from Canada. Councillor Thompson is really the driving force behind tonight. He had this idea from a long time and wouldn’t let it go,” said Toronto Star columnist, Royson James, who hosted the event.
Det. Sgt. Ryan has been a Toronto cop for 29 years, the last 13 as a detective investigating a dozen murders per year.
The crimes involving children are the hardest, says Ryan. And none has haunted him more than the awful abuse and murder of Melonie – a cold case that went unsolved for 17 years.
Her father, Everton Biddersingh, and stepmother, Elaine Biddersingh, are now serving time for murder.
But after months and months of gathering evidence, sitting through the trial, and observing the tragic impact of the crime Det. Ryan concludes that justice is not enough.
“Melonie, I think about her every day,” Ryan said during a break in the trial early this year.
Melonie arrived as a 15-year-old from Kingston, Jamaica. She and her siblings never saw the inside of a school in Canada.
Her name wasn’t on file with the Children’s Aid Society (CAS). And no one reported her abuse or disappearance. Her body was found in a burning suitcase but no one knew her identity for 17 years.
“It breaks my heart. This can’t happen again. We need to look out for each other. Kids come into the country and nobody knows where they are. Do we have the checks in place? I don’t think we do. Who is going to make sure the child goes to school?” he asked during a break in the trial earlier this year.
That kind of advocacy and caring has earned the detective a special community award, which was presented to him that evening.
Det. Sgt. Ryan said he accepted the award on behalf of the entire investigative team that included the York Regional Police who began the investigation in 1994, doctors from SickKids Hospital, the coroner’s office, and others.
He said before Melonie died she decided to run away, though she had several fractures to her body, and had a conversation with her older brother.
“Melonie said ‘I can’t live like this anymore, I’d rather die. I don’t want to be here.’ He said to her, ‘Where are you going to go, we don’t know anybody and we can’t call the police. They won’t help us.’ So he returned her to the apartment and she was murdered a short time after that.”
He said there is a tremendous opportunity to turn the negative of Melonie’s death into a positive and that he fully supports Councillor Thompson’s call to have a national registry.
The campaign is called the Melonie Memento – a warning and a reminder that keeps Melonie’s memory alive while serving to remind and warn of what might happen if neighbours and government agencies are not on the lookout for the children.
Lloyd Wilks, Jamaica’s Consul General at Toronto, encouraged those in attendance to share information about the campaign so that those who were absent will join the effort to ensure that the rights of the child are protected.
“Jamaica is a signatory to that convention. Canada is a signatory to that convention but conventions come and go. What make conventions work is people; people, mechanisms, and various institutions make these legal provisions work,” he said.
He believes that the immigrant journey is a difficult one and when a child is brought into a new environment that child is very vulnerable.
“I believe that this case, in particular, brought into sharp focus that perhaps some of us, some systems, some things were not working as well as we would have liked them to, but thankfully Canada responded, Councillor Thompson responded,” he said.
Wilks thanked the police for never relenting until this matter was resolved.
He urged the patrons to support Councillor Thompson and things at the provincial and federal level “that will enhance provisions that will ensure that a Melonie Biddersingh or Dwayne Biddersingh will never ever happen again.”
Vincent Gasparro of Project Engagement, who helped Councillor Thompson to make the event possible, said the Opal Austin (mother of Melonie and Dwayne) family story touched a lot of people.
“We are all immigrants here and in some way the Austin family and that drive to provide a better future for future generations is the story of all of us in some way.”
He said when Thompson told him that there was an opportunity for Project Engagement to assist the Austin family directly there was zero hesitation on his part and that of the organization.
“I’m very proud that we were able to provide resources to the family, to her, while here in Toronto and also in Jamaica. But during that tragedy where we saw the absolute worst of humanity, quite frankly, we also afterwards saw the best in Det. Sgt. Ryan and the Toronto Police force,” he said.
Project Engagement was co-founded by Councillor Thompson and Gasparro eleven years ago and grew from basically providing a lunch to a few people in Scarborough, to providing food for over 400 families from across Toronto and the Greater Toronto Area.
They provide food for families that lasts up to six weeks. The project has 500 volunteers that organize, collect and distribute food. Last year they distributed 60,000 kilograms of food during Christmas.
Pam McConnell, Deputy Mayor of Toronto, said Thompson really gets the importance of what was occurring here and is a huge defender of both his local constituency but more importantly he is very proud of his Jamaican heritage.
“When we talk about welcoming the world we don’t expect, as a city, to welcome such a terrible situation for one of our children. All children, as I have described, are all of our children and we are very connected in that particular way,” said McConnell.
Adaoma Patterson, President of the Jamaican Canadian Association, thanked Det. Sgt. Ryan, Councillor Thompson and James for keeping Melonie’s story alive.
“This is a story really out of poverty and a mom who just wanted to provide an opportunity for her children to be able to send them to access all of the things that you and I take for granted day in and day out in this country,” said Patterson.
“And so, when Miss Opal came to JCA and told her story it was an extremely emotional night. We were all in tears. Those were our children as well and so we committed at that time to work with Councillor Thompson to make sure that if there was anything JCA could do, we could use our influence to make sure that this doesn’t happen, to advocate for changes to immigration, to really speak out on behalf of those children and families who have no voice,” she said.
Councillor Thompson thanked various people who were in attendance, including the prosecutors in the Biddersingh case, who he said restored his faith in the justice system.
“This was a group of people who were very sharp, very focused and gave life to Melonie, which she didn’t get from her father and her stepmother,” he said.
He thanked James for the outstanding work that he has done in collaboration and noted that James has been an outstanding voice in Toronto and in Canada in media for a very long period of time.
“What I witnessed with Royson and his family was the ability to take into their home Opal and her daughter, Racquel, and to create an opportunity for them where they had a sanctuary in paradise Canada, given what they had gone through, given the impact,” he said.
Prefacing his comments by saying that he does not usually cry, Councillor Thompson cried as he related that the matter touched him greatly.
“I still remember where I was that morning when I heard about the matter. I was actually driving in Vaughan, Highway 7, and I was listening to 680 CFTR and the news came on that police had found a body in a suitcase burning. It disturbed me because wow, how is that possible, of course not knowing the details or anything like that,” he said while driving to meet a client of his business.
Councillor Thompson said for many years it was always at the back of his mind and he kept wondering who was that person and who was responsible for that incident.
“I can tell you that it never left me. I didn’t know who she was. I didn’t know if she was a he or a she. I didn’t know the background. I didn’t know any details about this other than the fact that somebody had been found in a suitcase and I just thought how horrible that was. Quite frankly, all of us would feel the same way.”
He said it wasn’t until years later when he heard that Toronto Police had arrested someone in the matter and that had finally “put a name to the story, a face to the body in the suitcase and a story to the development that took place.”
Thompson said he read an article written by James in the Toronto Star and the story touched him continually.
It was during the court process that he met Melonie’s mom, Opal, and her sister, Racquel.
“I remember how I felt about going to talk to them, in terms of what do you say to a family, having known the story, who’ve lost someone in the manner that they did, especially given the fact that I was an elected official. What do you do? What do you say? How do you offer a sense of condolence?”
He felt troubled about his inability to offer a degree of explanation, in terms of some advice to her family.
He said he felt that he had to do something and after meeting with his staff determined that something needed to be done to make sure that this does not happen again “to no other child whether or not it’s a black child, white child, no other child should have to go through this.”
“I just thought about how depraved the situation was and how lonely Melonie must have felt and the effect of it all taking place. And at times it brings a sort of perspective on my part, in terms of dealing with this particular matter. And so I thought we needed to do something.”
He said that something was to put a motion through city council to ask that the City of Toronto ask the federal government to develop a national child register to ensure that all those young people who will come will be protected.
“The fact that we know who they are, where they are, that they’re going to school – the things that we all take for granted – because Melonie didn’t go to school nobody knew that she existed. She was a non-person and she died as such from the people who were responsible for her death.”
Councillor Thompson said the event was also to honour Melonie and the life she had in Jamaica.
“While she may have been poor she basically had a healthy upbringing, she ate, and she was well loved by her mother and her family there,” he said.
He described Det. Sgt. Ryan as being very smart, very caring and “one of the most interesting and the most intelligent police officer” he has ever met.”
“His humanity has been able to help us to, to a degree, be comforted with this unfortunate situation that has transpired and greatly impact the life of Melonie Biddersingh.”
He said the detective brought Melonie’s story to life and helped many in the Jamaican community to not only feel that there are many good police officers working to help “our society but also that you have a human touch because you demonstrated it not only to us but to the family.”
Describing himself as an immigrant who came to Canada at the age of 12 to a loving mother who took care of him and his brothers and sisters, Thompson said he knew that particular experience of being an immigrant child.
He said the motion he put forward in council takes time, as do all things, and had the input of many people many, including lawyers.
“The idea was, as part of a motion we put it forward was to try to get the City of Toronto get the federal and provincial government to work collaboratively to establish on the federal government’s part a national registry.”
He said the importance is that there is a system that will monitor the progress of these young people so that what happened to Melonie Biddersingh will never again happen in Canada.
Councillor Thompson said the matter is finally coming to council to ask the federal government to set up this registry.
The event was sponsored by Project Engagement, Jamaican Canadian Association, Consulate General of Jamaica, Det. Sgt. Steve Ryan and Toronto Star columnist, Royson James.