Dozens of people gathered outside the Charlottetown courthouse Thursday to protest the arrest and detention of a man who has been in custody for seven weeks on charges of assault, uttering threats and failing to self-isolate relating to COVID-19.
The gathering, organized by the group Black, Indigenous, People of Colour United for Strength Home Relationship (BIPOC USHR), began by chanting "free Javan."
They said Javan Nsangira was unfairly arrested and should no longer be in custody. They were also critical of local media for publishing the man's name, feeling it's put him at personal risk.
"What happened to all the other people we heard of who were found in violation of COVID-19 self-isolation directives? Out of any of those cases that we heard of this year, how many of them have had their names publicized, released to the public by any media source?" asked President of the Black Cultural Society of PEI, Tamara Steele, who took a turn speaking through a megaphone.
"How many of them have landed in jail? None but Javan," she said to which others responded by shouting "shame."
Even the "unfamiliar" sound of his name, Steele said, was enough for people to turn against Nsangira and write death threats online.
In custody since July
Nsangira was arrested July 15 by Charlottetown police and has remained in custody since that time. During a brief court hearing Thursday, the matter was adjourned until next week. One charge — causing a public nuisance — will be transferred to P.E.I. Supreme Court and will be dealt with next Tuesday. The remaining charges — assault, uttering a threat and mischief — will be handled in provincial court next Thursday, Sept. 10.
During previous court appearances, Nsangira has appeared by video link from jail. On Thursday, he did not. His lawyer, Derek Bondt of Summerside, spoke on his behalf, via teleconference. Judge Jeff Lantz and Crown prosecutor John Diamond were present in the Charlottetown court room.
On July 31, some two weeks after his arrest, Nsangira attended a show-cause hearing via videolink from jail, seeking release from custody. Following the hearing, Justice of the Peace Mark Gallant ordered Nsangira to remain in jail until dealt with at trial. Nsangira's defence lawyer at the time did not appeal that decision.
Other people have been fined for failing to self-isolate under the province's Public Health Act.
Nsangira is also charged in connection with incidents in Brudenell July 17, including causing a nuisance by failing to self-isolate and uttering a threat. Those matters are also in P.E.I. Supreme Court next Tuesday, Sept. 8.
'It's not right'
Following months of rallies, protests and marches continent-wide in support of Black Lives Matter, Nsangira's case is cause for concern for organizers of Thursday's protest in Charlottetown.
Several organizers of the event asked not to be identified by media because they felt unsafe. Protestors called for the reform of the justice system and the dismantling of systemic racism.
"I want to see that he gets a fair trial," said protestor Ashley Perry. "I think it's just like a prime example of basically how Black people are being singled out. They're made to feel like criminals for the most minor of infractions."
"It's not right for Javan to be the person who gets punished and the rest of his life is gone or at least it's a shadow of what it should be," said Jonathan Williams.
Jessika Hepburn lives in Nova Scotia but attended the event during a vacation to the Island, where her mother lives. She took a turn speaking to the crowd and said the treatment of Nsangira speaks to the larger issue of systemic racism on P.E.I. and the justice system.
"The gist is that a systemic racism has always existed on P.E.I., that it is damaging, it is hurtful, it is taking life from people," Hepburn later told CBC.
"So when we talk about Black Lives Matter and we're also talking about Black bodies matter and Black mental health mattering and I see what is happening to Javan repeated and what has happened to my mom throughout her experiences on P.E.I. as one of the first visibly Black women on the Island in the '90s."
Organizers urged protesters to write letters to the Department of Justice and Public Safety to voice their opposition.
First to be arrested, charged
In addition to the criminal charges, Nsangira is also charged non-criminally under the province's Public Health Act, with two counts of failing to self-isolate. Defence lawyer Derek Bondt told CBC News those infractions are now under discussion with the prosecutor's office.
Since the pandemic began, other people on P.E.I. have also been charged with failing to self-isolate under the Public Health Act. Some have gone to court to fight the infraction, but none of those challenges have been successful.
A total of 42 people have been fined as of Aug. 30, according to the Department of Justice and Public Safety.
Nsangira is the only person so far on P.E.I. who has been arrested and charged under the Criminal Code of Canada and been jailed.
He has not entered pleas to the charges. None of the accusations have been proven in court.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.
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