'A feeling of shock': How a Toronto creator's Jane-Finch website drew the ire of police, local radio station
Paul Nguyen vehemently rejects allegations made 15 years ago that jane-finch.com promoted gang violence
This documentary contains strong language. To hear the clean version, click on the audio above. To hear the uncensored version, click on the audio below.
In the mid-2000s, Paul Nguyen was on top of the world.
The York University student was praised by local politicians and media for jane-finch.com, the website he created and used to raise the profile of the Toronto neighbourhood he grew up in.
"We thought, wow, we can maybe do something different with our lives because we've seen a lot of other young kids fall by the wayside," Nguyen told The Doc Project.
But the site would also become the centre of a years-long ordeal for Nguyen after local radio station AM 640 aired multiple segments in which some of its hosts and guests alleged the site's rap videos promoted gang violence.
Nguyen vehemently denies the allegations, saying he and his friends were simply expressing the reality of what it was like to grow up in Jane and Finch — and as such became unfairly targeted.
"We all know the story of the Black guy walking or driving and getting pulled over. Now you have a Black guy walking in cyberspace getting pulled over," said Nguyen.
"This becomes an extension of just being singled out and being targeted, and being ... treated unfairly or suspected of something when you didn't do anything wrong."
Nguyen's love of making videos began at a young age. In high school, he and his friend Mark Simms would shoot videos of themselves around the Jane-Finch area, sharing the cassettes with friends.
After graduating, Nguyen launched jane-finch.com, which featured local event listings, like a virtual bulletin board, before social media made this commonplace.
He also used it to host a growing library of rap videos he and Simms made with friends and local performers like rapper Atiba Ralph, a.k.a. Blacus Ninjah.
The videos featured people dancing, spliced with scenes of kids running around the neighbourhood.
Some featured dramatizations of people smoking marijuana and dealing drugs, or regaled stories about rivalries between cliques and gangs, Nguyen recalled.
Blacus Ninjah called jane-finch.com "a beam of hope" for creatives and activists in the community, who until then had mostly been making music for friends, but could now reach a wider audience.
"Whatever message they were trying to get out, it wasn't being influenced by nothing else but themselves," he said.
The site attracted national and local attention. Nguyen and his co-creators appeared on Global, CTV, and CBC programming.
As letters of endorsement and photos with politicians and local celebrities came in, he would post them on the site.
Starting in mid-2005, however, those same people wanted to sever their connections.
"I started getting emails [saying], 'Can you remove my letter, I'm not comfortable with what it's promoting,'" Nguyen recalled. "And I was like, what are you talking about?"
Some made it clear they did not want to be associated with a site that also hosted Nguyen's rap videos.
One letter, sent from an Ontario politician, read: "After reviewing the site, I am abhorred at the profanity, guns and gang violence portrayed on your videos and musical lyrics, and will not condone its encouragement or adulation."
One removal request was also copied, apparently in error, to Brent Beleskey, a gangs and youth violence consultant at the time.
Nguyen discovered that Beleskey had spoken out against jane-finch.com on AM 640, saying the site promoted gang violence — and that the politicians and other figures who lent their endorsements were being deceived as to the site's true purpose.
"It's called baiting and switching. They've been promoting this hate and racism on their site since their existence. And I've been after them for about two years now," Beleskey told AM 640 host Mike Stafford in May 2007.
AM 640 ran multiple segments about jane-finch.com, some running an hour long, featuring cops, anti-gang advocates and local politicians, claiming the site's rap videos had a dangerous influence on kids.
In one interview, Beleskey singled out a video called School of the Dead in which Simms, wearing a police costume he found at their high school's drama department, is killed by a serial killer.
Nguyen told The Doc Project the video had a horror theme, and was shot in 1999 for "an immature high school project."
"[It] had no political message behind it."
For Simms, who says he had friends who were in gangs and ended up jailed or dead, making videos was a way to escape that lifestyle, not lionize it
"All we really wanted to do was make a movie better than the last one."
Beleskey didn't respond to The Doc Project's requests for comment. Former AM 640 host Bob Pritchard said Beleskey worked with the radio station on the segments as a producer pro bono.
A representative from AM 640, which is owned by Corus Entertainment, declined to comment, but said that no one from that period is still working at the station. However, Mike Stafford, the host who interviewed Beleskey, still has a show with the network. The Doc Project also reached out separately to Stafford, who did not respond.
In another interview, Pritchard lauded the site's community outreach, but now-retired Toronto police Const. Scott Mills insisted the rap videos were a problem, alleging they featured real guns. Nguyen said they were toy weapons.
"I've been trying to talk to anybody who will listen about the negative messages that these videos send out," Mills told Pritchard.
Mills spent years of his police career reaching out to youth, including setting up internet literacy workshops.
He said he heard of kids being contacted and intimidated by gang members online. Around that time, he heard of jane-finch.com and its rap videos.
'No one's going to believe me'
Nguyen described "a feeling of shock" when he learned of the radio segments. He says AM 640 never reached out to him to tell his side of the story.
"A police officer talking on the radio, versus a guy from Jane-Finch who's running a website [with] rap videos? In the public eye, I have, like, zero credibility," he said.
"We were just kids trying to make our way, trying to survive and trying to make it in the world."
He added that to his knowledge Toronto Police never conducted a formal investigation into his videos, because he was never contacted by police over the 15 years since he started the site.
Nguyen would continue to receive these letters throughout the mid-2000s. So would people he and Simms collaborated with.
In 2005, CBC's The Fifth Estate also received a phone call from someone questioning the show's association with Nguyen and Simms. At the time, they were working on Lost In the Struggle, a documentary about life in Jane and Finch.
Nguyen acknowledges that some people who appeared in some of the videos had drugs- or weapons-related charges. But he stressed that he never met anyone who claimed to have gang associations.
He says he wanted people to talk about all aspects of their lives — and that doesn't equal promoting gang violence.
"I'm the conduit for the person from the streets to express themselves. And if they're expressing themselves, whether it's positive or negative, it's their story," he said.
Nguyen says the barrage of negative interviews, and the ensuing removals of endorsements from respected community members on his site, limited his career and networking opportunities.
He asked a lawyer with the Ontario Human Rights Commission whether he could file a case for defamation, but was told it wasn't a "slam dunk," so chose not to follow through.
Instead, the flow of new rap videos to jane-finch.com slowed to a crawl, and eventually stopped altogether. Nguyen and Simms turned away from their childhood passions and focused on community outreach.
A few years after AM 640's flurry of interviews, Nguyen met with Mills one-on-one. He says Mills demanded Nguyen remove all of the old rap videos on his site, dating back to 2004. He refused.
"He said, 'Basically, you can remove your rap videos and I'll leave you alone.' And I felt like that's not a good deal, because why should I stop expressing myself?"
'Race never entered my mind,' says officer
Mills told The Doc Project that he stands by his comments about jane-finch.com, explaining that his focus was always keeping youth safe from what he described as media encouraging guns and gang violence.
"Maybe in hindsight, it would have been a good thing for me to reach out to them [Nguyen and Simms] and say, if you want to make videos that have guns on them, here's the proper procedure as per filming in the city of Toronto," he said.
But he distanced himself from Beleskey and other AM 640 hosts who spoke out against the site, on or off the air.
"I could only speak for myself. I can't speak for the other hosts," he said. "Everything that I said in those interviews, I stand by today."
He bristled at the suggestion that his actions were racist.
"Race never entered my mind as an issue. The issue here was online bullying. The issue here was illegal firearms. And the issue here was, our children being killed on our streets," he said.
"If somebody is portraying you as a racist, that limits career opportunities. It limits your reputation, it affects everything. And so it's not something anybody wants to be accused of any time. And it's definitely not true."
'Be aware of your power'
And jane-finch.com continues to post updates.
Still, he characterizes the years-long ordeal as a "traumatic, tainting experience."
"I understand why now a lot of people, especially people of colour and Black people in the community, are angry and don't trust the police."
He hopes that speaking out now, as the Black Lives Matter movement surges again in North America, can contribute to the ongoing conversations about how people in positions of power, whether through their profession or racial and gender identity, can affect those in marginalized communities.
"People who are … born and have credibility don't understand how it is to not have that; or to always fight for it," he said.
"Be aware of your power; be aware of your position."
Written by Jonathan Ore. Radio documentary 'The takedown of Jane and Finch' produced by Julia Pagel, with contributions from Paul Nguyen.
- A previous version of this article described the School of the Dead video as featuring an actor playing a supposed gang member. In fact, the actor was playing a serial killer. Brent Beleskey said the video promoted violence against police, not necessarily gang violence against police.Nov 28, 2020 11:16 AM ET