It began as an act of hatred targeting a young couple in love.
But the words designed to hurt — Ni--a lover — instead triggered an outpouring of support for the interracial high school sweethearts in Port Colborne.
Hundreds filled a community hall Friday afternoon, offering hugs to Jayden Hannigan, 15, and Ruby Benner, 16, and harsh words to the person who broke into the Benner family home.
On Feb. 15, Ruby's father, Tim, got home and found the house ransacked. The offending phrase had been spray-painted in his daughter's bedroom.
Breaking the silence
At first, Benner was so upset he wasn't sure he wanted to show his daughter; but both she and Jayden amazed him, he said, by wanting to share their story.
"We've turned an act of hate and racism into a showing of community support, with loving and caring people coming forward," he said over the chatter of the crowd at the anti-racism rally. "These kids shouldn't have to deal with this."
It was a sentiment echoed by Port Colborne Mayor John Maloney and the other speakers who called on the community to denounce racism and support diversity.
Niagara Regional Police are still investigating the incident as a hate crime.
They have not yet made any arrests; in fact, none of the 23 hate crime complaints in the past two years in the region have resulted in charges.
The frequency of that type of offence, however, has been declining with 10 cases reported last year — down three from 2015.
The rally Friday emphasized that these incidents are not representative of the larger community, Jayden's mother, Shannon Hannigan said.
"It shows us that just because there's a few bad seeds it doesn't mean the tree itself is spoiled," she said. "Maybe there are a few people that did this crime, but look at all the people who love him. It's overwhelming, it really is."
Jayden echoed his mother. He had expected no more than 50 people to turn up.
"Then I got here and it's practically the whole community," he said. "I feel pretty special right now. I wasn't expecting this much support and I just want to give everyone a big hug."