Nearly 100 gather to honour Abdirahman Abdi before officer's trial begins

Dozens of people gathered for a vigil in Ottawa Friday to honour Abdirahman Abdi, just days before the officer accused of killing him is expected to appear in court.

An Ottawa police officer is facing three charges in Abdi’s 2016 death

Abdirahaman's brother Jama Abdi, right, speaks at the vigil on Friday. (Laura Osman/CBC)

Nearly 100 people gathered for a vigil in Ottawa Friday to honour Abdirahman Abdi, just days before the officer accused of killing him is expected to appear in court.

Abdi, a 37-year-old Somali-Canadian man with mental illness, was living in Hintonburg when he was killed in an altercation with police in 2016. 

Richard Sharpe, a community organizer and member of the 613-819 Black Hub advocacy group, attended the vigil to support the family. He said Abdi's death brought fear to the forefront for many in the community.

"I think that any of us who are black who experience racism and police violence, I think we're very much we're very much affected by something like this," he said. "This could be someone from our family that ends up being killed in this way."

Almost 100 people attended the vigil for Abdirahman Abdi on Friday evening. The walk began at Somerset Square Park near the apartment building where Abdi lived until his death. (Raphael Tremblay/CBC)

Police officer facing charges

On July 24, police were called to a Bridgehead coffee shop in the area "for reports of a man causing a disturbance," according to a press release from Ontario's Special Investigations Unit (SIU).

While being apprehended by police, Abdi lost vital signs and was pronounced dead in hospital the following day, sparking protests in Ottawa, Toronto and Montreal.

After an investigation by the SIU, Const. Daniel Montsion of the Ottawa Police Service was charged with manslaughter, aggravated assault and assault with a weapon.

Montsion's trial is expected to begin on Monday, marking the start of a long and difficult road for the family, said Farhia Ahmed, a member of the Justice for Abdirahman Coalition, which organized the event.

"This trial will allow for some answers to come, for some details that have yet to be disclosed to be part of the story," she said. "We're looking for answers."

'We're all in this together'

Attendees began their march at Somerset Square Park and ended at Bayview Yards, where speakers — including councillors, MPPs and Abdi's brother Jama Abdi — called for the community to come together as the trial gets underway.

In the wake of Abdi's death, the Ottawa police increased outreach to Ottawa's Somali community, speaking to more than 1,000 people and using the feedback to inform an action plan to decrease potential bias in policing.

Despite the steps that have already been taken, Ahmed said the community is still skeptical.

"We'd like to see some level of accountability," she said. "With that accountability, there can be some faith restored in policing and community relations."

Abdirahman Abdi, 37, died after a violent altercation with police outside his apartment building in Ottawa's Hintonburg neighbourhood on July 24, 2016. (Supplied)

Police Chief Charles Bordeleau, who was invited to attend the vigil, said recognizing what the community is going through is an important step in repairing the relationship between residents and the police.

"We're part of the community as well and we're all in this together," he said. "We want to pay our respects and show our appreciation for what the community is going through."

Mental health support needed

Friday's vigil came just one day after another man was killed in an altercation with Ottawa police. Greg Ritchie, a 30-year-old Indigenous man, was reported struggling with mental illness and was on his way to pick up medication when he was killed. 

Many at Abdi's vigil also called attention to an apparent lack of mental health services for those who are struggling, culminating in severe crises. 

​Bordeleau said that when it comes to mental health, a much more proactive approach needs to be taken. 

"I would much prefer my officers not have to be brought into a situation where an individual is in crisis," Bordeleau said. "On the medical side, there needs to be more work done proactively to prevent people from going into a crisis." 

Ottawa-Centre MPP Joel Harden also called for an increase in mental health supports in order to prevent similar deaths.

"At the root of this issue is our inability to seriously deal with mental health issues," he said. "If we only deal with someone who is suicidal in an emergency room and everybody else is left to their own devices, more of this sort of stuff is going to happen."