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Every parent's nightmare

A famous Canadian singer-songwriter's family was almost destroyed when his son started bringing home dangerous new friends

DAN HILL | February 13, 2008 |

To get reacquainted with Grammy and five-time Juno award winner Dan Hill, click here.

Over the last year and a half, three young adults who have set foot in my house, in the well-to-do, tree-lined Beaches neighbourhood of Toronto, have been murdered. All black, all by gunshot, all in Toronto. All three of these men had been in contact with my son, David, now 19. The first two murder victims I'd categorize as less than friends but more than acquaintances. But the third and most recent, Eric Boateng, I'd known quite well, because he had once been a close friend of David's. That friendship had eventually turned bad. Dangerously bad. Eric was shot to death Oct. 22, 2007, shortly after leaving the Don Jail, where he'd been visiting an inmate.

My son, in his dramatic and perilous journey to come to grips with his mixed-race identity, had opened up to me a world that had previously been closed. A world where violent deaths for young black males in Toronto have been, for quite a while now, a matter of course. This story is my attempt to open up a tiny window on that world for people like me, who have lived a relatively blessed and sheltered life. The product of a middle-class, mixed-race upbringing in Toronto's squeaky clean suburban Don Mills and the son of a celebrated black human rights leader and white mother committed to social change, I was desperate, as a teenager, to forge my own identity. In my case this meant dropping out of school, adopting an apolitical, what's-all-this-race-stuff-got-to-do-with-me-anyway attitude (anything to piss off my parents), and then, somehow, achieving significant fame and wealth as a singer-songwriter before hitting my mid-twenties.

Continued Below

It was precisely that success that, to some degree, alienated my son — partly because, throughout the first dozen years of his life, I was working for long stretches of time out of the country. The considerable material wealth that resulted made my family vulnerable to the predations of some of the less fortunate kids my son chose to befriend. And brought me face-to-face with all manner of political and racial realities; the kind of things my father had always struggled to address, the kind of things I'd tried my best to ignore.

The last time I saw Eric was on an afternoon three years before he was murdered. I'd just barely managed to escort him out of my house, an accomplishment akin to winning a split decision in an inner-city boxing competition — except that the contest had just begun. Now, we were face-to-face on nearby Queen Street, staring each other down.

"David, get home," I shouted at my son, who at 16 was two years younger than Eric. Eric was glowering, not so much at me as through me. His hooded brown eyes seemed more detached than threatening, as if he really didn't give a f--k about anything — his life, my life, anybody's life. I knew I had to stop staring at the cast on his right forearm (he'd broken his wrist while fracturing another ill-matched opponent's jaw).

"David, I told you to get home."

If Eric was going to beat me up, I didn't want David to be there, watching. No son should witness his father getting creamed in a street fight. But I could tell by the nervous smile fixed on David's face that he wasn't going anywhere. He wasn't about to miss this matchup for the world.

I'd never, in my 50 years, been in a fight. Eric had spent the better part of his life fighting. He was damned good at it. Over the last year, his frame had muscled up. Maybe it was Eric's turn to strike back now: at his father, who had brought him to Canada 10 years before; at the distant memory of his mother, who had refused to leave their native Ghana; at this cold and sterile country. Or maybe my theories were complete crap. I once believed that Eric could be saved; look where that had landed me now.

"Eric, it's time for you to go home. You know you're not welcome here."

I'd wanted my voice to sound resolute. But what escaped my mouth sounded more like a plea than an order.

"David's coming home with me," said Eric. "To finish up our trade. He owes me."

I knew that "trade" was code for "extort." Meaning that Eric expected David to accompany him home to hand over a wad of money or several hundred dollars' worth of his faux hip-hop wardrobe in order to avoid being knocked unconscious. Eric had pulled this kind of "give me your stuff or I'll knock you out" stunt on a lot of kids. He'd perfected his "lights out" method: darting behind his victim and then quickly wrapping his powerful forearm around his victim's neck, cutting off the oxygen supply and causing the victim to lose consciousness. Of course, no one dared call the cops on Eric. Snitching was tantamount to taking a leap off the CN Tower.


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