OTTAWA — A Canadian Muslim advocacy group is calling for a thorough and transparent investigation into the death of an Ottawa man who was involved in a confrontation with police.
The National Council of Canadian Muslims says an investigation must explore whether racism played a role in the death of 37-year-old Abdirahman Abdi, a Somali-Canadian.
Abdi had a confrontation with Ottawa police officers Sunday and was later rushed to hospital where he was pronounced dead, a family spokesman said.
The council’s executive director Ihsaan Gardee says a swift and open investigation must take place in order to ensure trust is rebuilt between police and the Muslim community.
Ontario’s Special Investigations Unit is probing Abdi’s death. The SIU investigates whenever there is a death, serious injury or allegation of sexual assault involving police in the province.
“Many members of the Ottawa Muslim and Somali communities have serious concerns about how this tragic incident unfolded, including whether prejudice had something to do with Mr. Abdi’s treatment,” Gardee said.
“The protection and preservation of human rights and dignity, regardless of skin colour, religious belief, or any other characteristic, are integral to our collective and individual sense of safety and inclusion.”
Matt Skof, president of the Ottawa Police Association, said it would be “inappropriate” to blame what happened on race.
“That it is an inappropriate conversation to be having in the context of this call,” Skof said Tuesday.
“In a situation like this, race is simply a fact to the case. I mean, this is no different than gender or height,” said Skof, adding that police were responding to an assault-related call from the public as required.
Abdourahman Kahin, who leads a group called Muslim Presence, said it is too early to assume the police were racially motivated.
He said members of the Somali community in Ottawa would be gathering for a private meeting Tuesday evening to discuss how to respond to the issue, and he will be urging everyone to avoid ethnicizing it.
“It would be more to answer emotionally, than rationally,” said Kahin, who used to live in the same building as the Abdi family and knows one of his brothers.
“We condemn the brutality of the police — 100 per cent condemn — but don’t put the colour of the victim (first),” he said Tuesday outside the building where Abdi lived.
“Before he was black he was a human being. He was a human being who was treated inhumanely.”
Ottawa police Chief Charles Bordeleau hinted at that broader context in his statement Monday.
“We are well aware of the context within which we police,” Bordeleau said in a statement issued before Abdi died. “Our officers are professional and they are dedicated to protecting the community they serve.”
Ray Miron, 67, said he was watching television from his nearby apartment Sunday when he heard people screaming outside.
Miron said he watched police beat Abdi as he was lying on the ground. The incident has left him angry, he added.
“It just was not right for the beating that they gave that poor guy when he was down,” he said. “I got to the point, I’m 67 years old and if I’d had been 30 years younger, I would have jumped that cop.”
Miron said he has had nightmares about the incident.
Environment Minister Catherine McKenna stopped by the building Tuesday to lay a bouquet of white flowers among others that had been brought to pay tribute to Abdi.
McKenna, the Liberal MP for the area, said she wanted to let the family know she was saddened by what happened.
“It’s a really tragic incident and I wanted the family to know and also to offer any support I can give to the family,” McKenna said.
“It’s a very, very difficult time for them and it’s a very difficult time for the community and I just thought it was important to be here.”