#TorontoIsFailingMe: I moved to Mississauga to get away from gang life

#TorontoIsFailingMe: I moved to Mississauga to get away from gang life

Toronto’s inner suburbs have become shorthand for crumbling postwar apartment blocks, underfunded schools or gang warfare. They’re among the neighbourhoods with the lowest incomes in the city, the longest trek to a TTC stop, and the highest concentration of immigrants and visible minorities. This month, we’re sharing stories from Torontonians who live in the inner suburbs, told in their own words. Some are shocking, some tragic, some hopeful. Together, they convey an urgent truth: Toronto is failing too many of its citizens. Have a story of your own? Tweet, Facebook, or Instagram with the hashtag #TorontoIsFailingMe to tell us.

#TorontoIsFailingMe: I moved to Mississauga to get away from gang life

Rajeev Sathiyaseelan, 26

I was born in Jaffna, Sri Lanka, in 1988. My mother moved to Canada a year later, and my father followed soon after. But they left me in Jaffna with my maternal grandparents until 1991, when they were able to bring us all to Toronto. We lived in a three-bedroom townhouse in Rexdale with my mother’s family. There were seven of us in the house—and I shared a room with my parents. My brother was born in 1993.

My dad never got along with my ­mother’s family, and in 2002, we finally moved to our own place at Victoria Park and Lawrence. Still, my parents split up soon after, and everything became harder. I was living with my mother and brother; my father was completely out of the picture. My mother started working four jobs just to pay rent. She worked in the food court in ­Scarborough’s Parkway Mall and various packing jobs in factories. For a while she worked in a strip of townhomes, ­mopping the hallways after midnight. She didn’t have a car or money for the TTC, so she’d ride a bike to work, even in winter. She tried to give us a typical Canadian life. She would take me and my brother to the movies, and to save money she’d wait outside. She’d bring us food back from the places she worked, and that was dinner. She got welfare, visited food banks and bought second-hand toys for us at the Goodwill. She did whatever she could.

I hung out with guys who were four or five years older than me at Wexford ­Collegiate. Some of them were in gangs or knew guys who were in gangs. These guys had cars, money, girls—I wanted to be like that. Our gang would get into fights with gangs from other parts of the city. If we saw a guy from another gang in our neighbourhood, we would rush him with bats or beer bottles, and if they saw someone from our crew, same thing.

I broke into cars to steal whatever was hidden in the glove compartment and was arrested three times. I got lucky: I was charged as a young offender but given community service, no jail time. My mom was in and out of courts, bailing me out, putting up money I knew she didn’t have. We had a lot of arguments. I thought she was just being mean; I felt like she didn’t understand what I was going through and what I wanted from life. Of course, I didn’t think about what she was going through—she had escaped a war-torn island so that her kids could go to university.

In 2008, when I was 17, my mom and brother and I moved in with my uncle and his family in Mississauga, near Square One. My mom was trying to get me away from the gangs and the people she thought were a bad influence. My uncles had come here as teenagers, so they knew what it was like to be a young male growing up. I started connecting with my family, my musical roots. One of my uncles is a drummer, another is a singer. One of them bought me a mike and production software. I began recording myself, singing about my life, and completed a film and TV production diploma at the Trebas Institute.

I set up my own independent label, Freedom Records Entertainment, but my music flopped and I became severely depressed. I saw other guys with degrees and suits and nice jobs. I’d just wake up, turn on the TV and sit there. I had always been obsessed with Tamil movies and Tamil popular music. I decided I needed to go to Chennai, home to the Tamil film industry, to find inspiration. My mom saw the mess I was in, and saved up to buy me a plane ticket. I lived in Chennai for a month and a half. I hustled hard and ended up working for some Tamil film music composers, rapping and singing on 14 movie soundtracks.

I was getting work but only making enough to pay rent. The Ontario government was demanding I pay back my OSAP loans, and I had multiple creditors calling about my credit card debts. All in all, I think I owed around $30,000. So I flew back and moved in with my mom. I got hired as an administrator at Core Logistics, which handles imports and exports. I’m working full-time and still live with my mom. I recently sent her on a vacation to Cuba, the first time she’s gone anywhere since moving to Canada. In my spare time I make music as Tha Prophecy—I’ve built a recording booth in a closet. It seems far off, but I still dream of making it big as a rapper.

—as told to Aparita Bhandari