Thunder Bay

From football star in Ottawa to gang life and death in Thunder Bay

Four years before Robenson Saint Jean was killed in Thunder Bay, he was a nominee for a prestigious Ottawa youth award recognizing his perseverance in overcoming a troubled childhood to find success on the football field.

As a teen, Robenson Saint Jean tried to turn his troubled life around

Robenson Saint Jean, 21, was killed in Thunder Bay this past March. (Robenson Saint Jean/Facebook)

Four years before Robenson Saint Jean was killed in Thunder Bay, he stood on an Ottawa stage as a nominee for a prestigious youth award recognizing his perseverance in overcoming a troubled childhood to find success on the football field.

In 2015, Saint Jean was nominated for a Spirit of a Capital Youth Award in Ottawa in the category for "personal courage."

The awards have been handed out since 1997 to recognize "the extraordinary accomplishments of youth who are making our community, and the world, a better place," according to the award's website.

In a YouTube video filmed for the nomination at the time, Saint Jean described how he turned his life around.  

"The first step you have to take to change is realizing you have a problem," said Saint Jean, in the video.

"I dealt with drugs and violent scenes. I really looked up to myself and said, hey you have to make a change"

Saint Jean, 21, was killed in Thunder Bay in late March. 

He was both a victim and a perpetrator of the southern gang influx into the northern Ontario city driven by high profit margins and the region's seemingly limitless appetite for drugs.

Saint Jean's story is but one thread in fabric of Thunder Bay, a city where its police force is both grappling with the fallout from two reports that found it was afflicted by systemic racism while facing a rise in violence and drugs driven by forces outside its city limits.  

Ian Bingeman, executive director of Youth Ottawa, the charity organization behind the awards, said he met Saint Jean in 2015.

"We are all greatly saddened by this tragic outcome," said Bingeman.

"But we do feel it is important to remember the fact that this was a young man who at one point had overcome significant obstacles and went out of his way to help other people."

2nd member of 'Ottawa Crew' to be slain, police say

According to police investigators, Saint Jean was a member of the police-dubbed "Ottawa Crew," a group of gang-affiliated young men from Ottawa who arrived in about 2013 to take control of the city's drug trade.

The Ottawa gang influence has since given way to Toronto-area gangs like the Galloway Boys, Ardwick Bloods, Blake Street Mafia, Breakfast Club Boys, Family Business Greenbrae, Paper boys Gang, Tandridge Crips and the Thorncliffe Park Kings, according to police.

Saint Jean is the second member of the Ottawa Crew to have been killed in the city.

In November 2017, Justin "Milky" Duncan, 23, vanished in the city and Thunder Bay police eventually charged four Ottawa members of the Ottawa Crew with his killing. Duncan's body has never been located.

Saint Jean was found wounded shortly before midnight on March 29 by paramedics following a 911 call, according to a Thunder Bay police news release. He later died in hospital.

Thunder Bay resident Jeffery D.R. Miller, 41, was arrested March 30 and charged with second-degree murder in connection with Saint Jean's killing.

Miller's next court appearance is scheduled for June 11.

Robenson Saint Jean, number 25, on the football field in 2014. (Robenson Saint Jean/Facebook)

Saint Jean had been arrested and charged with possession for the purposes of trafficking in August 2017 after a raid of a Thunder Bay apartment as part of a five-month investigation by the city police's gangs and guns unit.

Police found $16,000 worth of cocaine and $5,200 cash at the scene. The apartment search was preceded by vehicle stop and the arrest of a man with $16,000 in cash.  

Saint Jean, who was 19 at the time, was arrested with five other Ottawa men, all in their early to mid-20s and considered part of the Ottawa Crew. Police also arrested two Toronto-area men and a woman from Thunder Bay.

He pleaded guilty and served a seven month provincial jail sentence. 

Football was a lifeline

In the YouTube video from the time of his award nomination, Saint Jean talks about how he likes to "see the changes you can bring into a person's life, how they can go from bad to good" with just some well-placed advice.

"As a citizen, you must do something to help around, that is what I do," he said.

According to the biography written at the time of his award nomination, Saint Jean hit a "crisis point" between the ages of 13 and 15. He was taken from his home by child welfare services and "his life started to spin out of control."

He became involved in the drug life and "started to become more physically aggressive" which led to "multiple arrests, probation and a long-term suspension from school."

Saint Jean was then sent to a new school where he underwent extensive counselling and began to turn his life around, primarily through football. He eventually transferred to Notre Dame High School in Ottawa and became a standout football player.

According to his bio, he was named an "up-and-coming prospect" by ESPN.

'An all around good child'

CBC News spoke to a mother who grew close to Saint Jean through football.

The woman's two sons also played the game and Saint Jean would often come to her home, which became a safe place for several at-risk-youth, to eat dinner and talk about life. She said he was born in Haiti.

The woman asked that her name be withheld because her workplace prevents her from speaking publicly on the matter.

She said she remained in touch with Saint Jean after he left football and last communicated with him through online messaging on the Wednesday evening before his death.

She said he wrote her, "Hey mama how are you doing" and that he was touching base and that everything was good.

"He didn't really come from a very good background," she said. "Playing football is what gave him a home and a spot where he could achieve something."

Robenson Saint Jean, behind podium and wearing a suit and tie, photographed with the other recipients that year of Spirit of the Capital awards. (Youth Ottawa website)

She remembers once, when Saint Jean was playing pee wee football, he ran 10 kilometres to practice because he missed his bus.

"That is how dedicated he was to it,' she said. "He excelled as a role model. He was never disrespectful. He was just an all around good child, from the child we knew of him."

But football ended after high school and he never went on to play in university, said the football mother.

"It's heartbreaking," she said.

She said he's the fifth young man she knows from Ottawa who walked the same path and is now dead.

"This was not a gangster kid who grew up hustling," she said. "He had a hard childhood; life threw a wrench at him."

About the Author

Jorge Barrera is a Caracas-born, award-winning journalist who has worked across the country and internationally. He works for CBC's Indigenous unit based out of Ottawa. Follow him on Twitter @JorgeBarrera or email him jorge.barrera@cbc.ca.