‘Kicking the Sky’ chronicles a bloody way to come of age

How the 1977 murder of a shoeshine boy transformed Toronto


Barrie Davis / The Globe and Mail / CP

“It seemed like the person I was now was not the person I would’ve been if Emanuel Jaques had not been murdered,” says 11-year-old Antonio Rebelo, the protagonist of Anthony De Sa’s Kicking the Sky. His fictionalized version of his childhood self is not speaking for him, De Sa insists. Not in a personal sense, that is. But the brutal 1977 rape and murder of 12-year-old Emanuel—a shoeshine boy lured, by a promise of $35 for moving photo equipment, into an apartment above the Charlie’s Angels body-rub parlour on Toronto’s then notorious Yonge Street strip—was in fact a catalyst for wide-scale change in the look and feel of the city.

And much more than that within the poor and previously invisible Portuguese immigrant community that was home to Emanuel, Antonio and De Sa, 11 himself at the time. “ ‘Shoeshine Boy,’ one of the stories in my first book, had the murder as a kind of background,” says the writer about his Giller prize-nominated collection Barnacle Love. “But it brought such a response. So many people my age, not all of them Portuguese, could remember where they were, how they heard the news. Most wanted to talk to me about its legacy, cleaning up Yonge Street. There were so many other implications, though—for the way people thought of Toronto, for the gay community, for police and politicians—who looked out their windows and saw 15,000 angry Portuguese demonstrating. In my own life, like in Antonio’s, it was the first time our door was ever locked.”

Wandering with De Sa through the streets and back lanes of the writer’s childhood neighbourhood just west of downtown Toronto, he points out change and continuity. There are gentrified $800,000 homes nestling beside houses that look as though they need the neighbours’ support to keep upright, cousins met on one block and an uncle’s home passed on another, and the house De Sa lived in until he was 16. “Then we moved next door in the world’s fastest move,” he laughs, describing a human chain of extended family passing their possessions from hand to hand. “We didn’t need the bigger house any more. My father bought it because he knew he’d be putting up his relatives as they came over from the Azores. By then they had houses of their own.”

Antonio—impressionable and shocked to his core as the veil of adult secrecy unravels before his eyes—has his share of happy childhood memories, too. “He thinks, just like my friends and I thought,” says De Sa, “that he’s invincible, that nothing bad will happen to him. But just like us, Antonio sees how the crime has affected his parents, sees their fears and the frustration that they can’t be around because they were both working two jobs. We were latchkey kids and we revelled in it.”

The thematic arc of Kicking the Sky contrasts the dangers of a big city coming into its own—Antonio recalls how Toronto came to a halt to proudly watch a helicopter lower the CN Tower’s last component—with the dangers inside Antonio’s tight-knit ethnic community, from exhausted and abusive parents and free-roaming children. Some of those kids gather in groups and go gay bashing downtown, exacting what they see as revenge for Emanuel. “There was far more homophobia in the wake of the murder than we remember, or want to,” the writer says. “Few in the novel distinguish between pedophiles and homosexuals—and that was true in real life too, an atmosphere fed by some politicians and media figures. Don’t forget that the bathhouse raids, police arresting hundreds of gay men, came after.”

And some of the community’s children, again as much in reality as in De Sa’s novel, were hustling on the edge. “That’s a lot of money for a child in 1977, $35; even as a kid I knew Emanuel knew, or thought he knew, what he was getting into,” De Sa says. “And I knew my parents knew, but we never spoke of it.”

A coming-of-age story with a vengeance—not just an individual, but an entire community—Kicking the Sky also captures a small but enduring turn of the historical screw. Antonio was right, after all: after Emanuel Jaques, everything changed.


‘Kicking the Sky’ chronicles a bloody way to come of age

  1. Saul Betesh, one of the three pederasts (a fourth man charged was later released due to lack of evidence) convicted of serially sodomizing the 12 year old Emanuel over a 12-hour period before drowning him in a sink, admitted to police that he, Kribs and Woods were gay predators who regularly committed similar acts of depravity with small boys they abducted off Toronto streets.

    Betesh, serving out his term at Warkworth prison, apparently goes on periodic hunger strikes, demanding that authorities transfer him to the western Canadian facility that houses his same-sex partner. He is also a Wiccan (not that followers of Wicca are necessarily homosexuals or child murderers).

    • Why exactly do you think this this particular background information is relevant to a book review?

      I suspect I know why. So I’ll remind people that crime statistics show that the vast majority of child abusers are straight not gay, and are usually related or known to the victim. The men who murdered Emanuel were serial child molesters, what was statistically unusual about them was that they were gay.

      • Why is this background information relevant, DC? Because it’s the kind of information deliberately elided with any report/review involving gays. Such is the media zeitgeist. (Heard of the latest Mathew Shepard bombshell? You won’t if you rely exclusively on the FSM.)

        Furthermore, the vast majority of child abusers are straight because the vast majority of normal people are straight. Likewise, the vast majority of catamite-grooming priests weren’t/aren’t straight, statistically speaking. It is what it is.

        As for your suspicion? Spot on. (Which means, according to the logically irrefutable, not-in-the-least-hoary canard routinely trotted out by gays and fruit flies, I’m a closeted ‘bd’ myself. So turn around, Dorothy. That way we can dance cheek to cheek.)

        • I’ll probably regret asking but what is a ‘bd’ (closeted or otherwise)?

          The latest bombshell from Stephen Jimenez about Shepard is the same meth, sex and death theory he has been peddling for years. Despite being widely discredited, it’s stubbornly popular with people opposed to the hate crime laws which were widely enacted after Shepard’s targeted and horrific murder.

          And don’t call me Dorothy.

          • This comment was deleted.

          • There’s nothing amusing about any of your homophobic slights, insults, stereotypes.

            And definitely nothing at all amusing or humorous about a brutal murder regardless of any possible contributing circumstances.

            You’re an ass.

  2. De Sa’s book missed the boat in telling the story on how the murder of a not quite so innocent shoe shine boy ushered in the coming of age to the city and the loss of innocence in Toronto the Good, that was chronicled a few years earlier in another book, A Life in the City which was narrated from an insider’s perspective on the notorious Yonge Street strip.

  3. Henry, I’d like to know what you mean by “Not so innocent” shoeshine boy?

  4. Not really, David. If you compare the number of gay child molesters with the number of gays in the population, the percentage of child molesters in the gay population soars.

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