05/16/2012 03:44 EDT | Updated 07/16/2012 05:12 EDT

Being Ethiopian Does Not Make Me Guilty

When I saw the news bulletin that a Toronto taxi driver had gotten in to a major accident and killed a skateboarder, I understand what the old man in the subway had said to me a second ago: "Why can't you people all take the subway if all you are going to do is drive dangerously?"


Almost two decades ago, I was riding on a bus in Ottawa when the O.J. Simpson murder verdict was announced. The bus driver took it upon himself to announce the "not guilty" verdict over the public speaker. Almost all of us were shocked. I thought he was guilty like most of the riders as well as popular opinion. As the driver announced the verdict, many were outraged; a few people cried. It has been a real legal drama played on our T.V. screen for months.

But then -- in that long ride to downtown Ottawa from the west end -- all of a sudden many riders started staring at me trying to make me feel guilty. I had no idea why. Then, an older woman remarked, "You people got away with it." That was in 1995.

That experience left a huge impression on me in terms of the complex issue of race in my newly adopted country. I knew no matter how close and how many years I would live in Canada, I would be seen as not for who I am, but who I have always been. I instantly discovered no matter how much I can fight to be invisible in Canada, I will always be visible. There would always be people who will always define and judge me based on international stories that I have no connection to because of my distinct background in multicultural Canada.

Earlier this week, as I was riding a TTC subway in Toronto, an older gentleman approached me and demanded to know "why you people cannot all take the subway instead of driving a car if all you are going to do is drive dangerously." I did not understand what he meant and ignored him. I pretended to have misunderstood and blamed his old age for his ignorance without knowing what he was referring to.

As I was transferring to my destination on Bloor and Yonge, like I always do, I started watching a CP 24 news bulletin. Then I read what the older man might have been referring to. A Toronto taxi driver had gotten in to a major accident in which a skateboarder had died.

The police had alleged road rage and the person had been charged with second-degree murder. I also discovered the taxi driver -- Adib Ibrahim -- and I share the same Ethiopian heritage. Besides having that similarity, I have never met him or knew anything about him.

His friends and family tell of a devoted religious family man who had come to Canada looking for a better life. He is also a husband as well as father to three young children. He has been a Toronto taxi driver for the past 15 years.

The victim, Ralph Bissonnette, had been thrown to the curb according to witnesses, while skateboarding on a street meant for cars only. The professional chef and Quebec native was injured badly and died soon after on his way to a nearby hospital.

I felt horrible for the young victim who was killed at such a young age. I felt sad for the taxi driver whose life and that of his family will never be the same. I cannot begin to imagine the sorrow the families might be going through upon hearing the tragedy. I felt all of these not because I am a visible black Ethiopian Canadian immigrant but because I am a human being. I felt invisible in such a profound human loss.

It seems human tragic losses know no boundaries.