​'Absolutely ludicrous': City staff stood in the way of annual event to mark Rwandan genocide

A Rwandan-Canadian community leader and a city councillor are criticizing a city staff decision to deny permission for an annual event at Toronto city hall commemorating the Rwandan genocide, which resulted in the deaths of as many as one million people.

Rwandan Torontonians normally mark genocide with a flag raising at city hall

Caleb Mabano, president of the Rwandan Community Abroad Toronto, says flying the Rwandan flag is part of the healing process for genocide survivors. (Lorenda Reddekopp/CBC)

A Rwandan-Canadian community leader and a city councillor are criticizing a city staff decision to deny permission for an annual event at Toronto city hall commemorating the Rwandan genocide, which resulted in the deaths of as many as one million people.

People from Toronto's Rwandan community normally gather in front of city hall on April 7 — the day the mass slaughter of the country's Tutsi minority by the country's Hutu-led government and militias began in 1994 — to see the Rwandan flag fly.

This past year, Caleb Mabano says he was told that couldn't happen.

"We were absolutely told no we can't," said the president of the Rwandan Community Abroad Toronto, who says he's attended the flag raising for the past five years.

It appears the group was denied because an effort is in progress to create an official city policy on marking international events, including genocides, and the Rwandan group was caught in the middle.

"Recognition of genocides or massacres is currently under review as requested by Toronto City Council," reads an email sent to Mabano on March 24 by Theresa Bailie, a project manager with the City Clerk's Office.

"Flag raisings to recognize such will not be facilitated until a direction has been provided by Toronto City Council," Bailie wrote. 

"If you would like to submit a request to raise the flag of Rwanda in recognition of your Independence Day which meets our criteria, please send me a formal request on your letterhead and I can check availability close to the date of July 1st."

'It's critical to the survivors of genocide'

Mabano says the attacks "wiped out" almost everyone on his father's side of the family, with just two people surviving. Seeing the flag fly, he says, is important to him and his community, usually attended by around 150 people.

"This is the time we actually come together to mourn, to grieve... support each other, something that contributes to our process of healing," Mabano said in an interview at city hall. 

A previous ceremonial flag-raising at city hall by Toronto's Rwandan community to mark the slaughter that resulted in the death of between 500,000 and one million people in 1994. (Rwandan Community Abroad Toronto)

"We take it very seriously and it's critical to the survivors of genocide."

Mabano wrote a letter to the Mayor John Tory's executive committee about what happened and spoke at Tuesday's committee meeting.

Coun. Jim Karygiannis calls it an injustice.

"Ludicrous, absolutely ludicrous," he said, adding that he plans to raise the issue at next month's city council meeting. Karygiannis says he'll ask council to officially apologize to the Rwandan community.

Motion aims to stop long debates over international events

The executive committee passed a motion Tuesday aimed at avoiding long, divisive debates at city hall over international events, such as genocides and massacres. That motion will face a vote by city council as a whole.

Coun. Denzil Minnan-Wong put forward the motion, which calls for a genocide or massacre to be automatically marked by the city of Toronto if it has already been recognized by the federal government. Then, each April would be declared Genocide Remembrance, Condemnation and Prevention Month.

Minnan-Wong feels the city is in over its head trying to decide on sometimes complex foreign issues, such as whether an event should be labelled a genocide, something the federal government already does.

'We made a mistake'

"Some of these things happened over a century ago," he said in an interview with CBC Toronto. "[The federal government has] historians, they have people in consular offices around the world ... They're equipped to deal with these things. We are not."

However, when questioned by Karygiannis at Tuesday's meeting, staff admitted that under the proposed policy the city would definitely recognize the Rwandan genocide.

"We made a mistake," Minnan-Wong said, in terms of how the Rwandan community was affected, but he says "this community will be recognized going forward," if his motion is successful. 

This past April 7, when the Rwandan group realized it wouldn't be able to gather at city hall, they ended up putting together another event.

They met at the shores of Lake Ontario, where each person picked up a red rose and commemorated the people lost by placing a flower into the lake.

About the Author

Lorenda Reddekopp

Reporter, CBC Toronto

Lorenda reports on national and international news, as well as local stories based in Toronto. She grew up in small-town Saskatchewan and spent three years reporting from Guatemala.