By Jeff Morris
Two years ago, there is a good chance that Jonathan Edouard was on your doorstep at least a few times. The Carleton University student-athlete was working in Barrhaven, delivering advertising material for Glen Schumacher, owner of the Old Schu Flyer Distribution Company.
Edouard, a defensive back with the Carleton Ravens football team, hustled on his deliveries. He was polite, courteous, personal, and he had a mile-wide smile for everyone he encountered. Schumacher said he was a “great kid.”
Little did he know that when he returned to school, his life would be turned upside down by what he called a racial profiling incident at the Canada-U.S. border.
For Edouard, Sept. 15, 2019 seemed like any other day. The Ravens had played their third game of the season at Western the day before. Edouard, a 2018 OUA All-Star, had another good game despite the Ravens’ loss.
Edouard and his girlfriend, Olivia, took a drive down the 416 to Johnstown and crossed the bridge to go to Ogdensburg, NY. Edouard, a Haitian-American who grew up in Orlando, FL, had lost his passport and visa during a move, and he and his girlfriend had planned the trip to get his new passport stamped and his visa sorted out. What he did not know that day was that it would be the last time he would be on Canadian soil for more than a year.
“We were waiting for my passport to arrive so that we could go down and get a new visa,” Edouard said. “My passport arrived the day we left for the Western game, so we planned the trip to Ogdensburg for the day after we got back. I let them know on both sides of the border exactly what I was doing.”
On his way back from Ogdensburg, Edouard was not allowed back in Canada. He lost his football season at Carleton, and he lost his school year. He went for more than a year without seeing his girlfriend. Their relationship went from being room mates to seeing each other only by Facetime.
And this was before COVID-19.
Five months ago, Edouard was in front of a hearing with USports and told his story of what happened to him at the border when he was denied re-entry into Canada. He won the hearing, meaning his eligibility for the 2021 OUA football season has been retained. He took classes online from his parents’ home in Orlando, FL. By Christmas, he had finally arrived back in Canada after a 15-month exile.
“Jondo,” as his teammates call him, is the son of two pastors – his mom also works as a nurse – and he is one of eight children in the family. He came to Canada in 2017 to be a student-athlete at Carleton, opting to come to Canada to play football rather than continue at Henderson State University in Arkansas.
“I was unhappy in Arkansas,” he said. “I was told to switch my major and it seemed that all that mattered was football, not me as a person or my academics. One of my teammates was Canadian and we talked a lot. I realized going to Canada to finish my degree and play football would be something different and exciting for me. After meeting with (Carleton head coach) Steve Sumarah, I realized that Carleton was where I needed to be.”
When Edouard went through the border initially in 2017, his documentation was for a four-year visa. The border agent filled his paperwork out as a one-year visa. Edouard said he was questioned by the border agent about why he would come to Canada to go to school. Edouard alleged that the agent told him that it looked like he was “taking advantage of a situation.”
Edouard said he did not know he was given a one-year visa instead of a four-year visa. He found out trying to return home after that drive to Ogdensburg.
“I had no idea about my visa when I got to Canada,” Edouard said. “Initially I gave them all the right documentation, but they gave me a one-year visa instead of a four-year visa.”
On their way back from Ogdensburg on Sept. 15, 2019, Edouard was told at the border that his visa had expired, and that he had been in Canada illegally for the previous eight months.
“One of the officers was telling me ‘you have all the right documentation for a four-year visa, we don’t know why you have a one-year visa.’ I dealt with the same officer I dealt with the first time and he got really frustrated at me and raised his voice at me and my girlfriend. He threatened me. He really wanted to arrest me but I would not raise my voice back at him. I made sure I complied,” Edouard alleged.
Edouard and his girlfriend went back over the bridge and talked to the border officials in Ogdensburg. They thought they had sorted out what they needed to and went back to the Canadian side of the bridge. Not only were they denied re-entry again, but Edouard was ordered to stay out of Canada for six months, which is standard for someone who has been in the country illegally.
Edouard said one of the border agents saw what was going on and tried to help him. He told Edouard that he walked into that agent’s line, so he was the agent Edouard had to deal with. Edouard was told that they knew it was a mistake, and that’s why he was not headed for jail. Edouard alleged that he was also told that the agent he was dealing with could have made things right, but opted not to.
“I was given a six-month removal order and had to leave immediately,” Edouard said. “I had no money. I had no clothes other than what I was wearing. I had no food. I had nothing. I was on the other side of the border and I thought I was just going to go and make a stop and get my visa and come back. By the grace of God, my girlfriend’s dad sent money so we could get a hotel. We stayed there for a few days. I called the superintendent, people in the Canadian government. I was trying to get my story out there to tell them what’s going on and why I should be able to come in. And if they weren’t going to let me back in could I at least come back in to get my stuff.”
Edouard alleges that on his second attempt to enter Canada, he was dealing with a female officer who was being influenced by the original border officer he dealt with.
“They were in the background laughing and stuff, talking about me,” Edouard alleged. “I was trying not to get frustrated. I was just, ‘yes ma’am, no ma’am.’ That’s my character.
“And then I was approached by another border officer before having to leave the second time, and he stopped me and said, ‘Yo, they’re making racist jokes. They don’t like you. I think because you’re Black and from America and from the south.’”
Edouard and his girlfriend ended up back in Ogdensburg and checked into the Anchordown Motel. His girlfriend’s father arranged to put the hotel bill on his credit card. Edouard’s girlfriend had to return home to go to school. Both thought the situation would be resolved.
It wasn’t. Edouard was stranded in Ogdensburg for almost four days with no money, no food, and no change of clothes.
Parents’ home destroyed
To turn things from bad to worse, Edouard could not go home to Orlando. His parents had just been left homeless a week earlier when Hurricane Dorian destroyed their house.
The office of Leeds-Grenville-Thousand Islands and Rideau Lakes MP Michael Barrett tried to get involved. Barrett’s executive assistant, Randy Hopkins, worked tirelessly on the case for three days to try to help Edouard. He hit nothing but dead ends. No one at the border crossing in Johnstown could do anything for him as Edouard’s case had been kicked up to the Canadian Consulate in New York. His only hope was the Ministry of Immigration, but because the incident happened during an election campaign, the Ministry was shut down.
Edouard wanted to file a complaint against the border agent. He was told they could not give him the agent’s name. He was also told the agent had since lost his job.
“I know how I look,” Edouard said. “I know I’m a black man. I know I have hair that might be frowned upon by someone, but I’m a really good guy.”
Edouard ended up staying with his brother in Milwaukee, and then spent a year couch-surfing with different siblings and relatives. He was in Milwaukee until December. Then he went to Dallas for a couple of months. Then he lived with a friend and mentor in Louisiana who is a former NFL player. By summer time, he was in Orlando in his parents’ new home. Bu September, he was back in school at Carleton, taking his classes online. He was cleared to return to Canada last April, but the border had just been shut down because of COVID-19.
During the offseason, Edouard was courted by several NCAA schools, including Central Florida, Florida South and Florida Atlantic. He was also offered an opportunity to enter the XFL Draft. Edouard said he had already had an American college football experience, and was focused on returning to Carleton, playing football, graduating, and going back to Ottawa, the city he now considers his home.
Facing racism in Orlando
The virulent racial and political climate in the United States made Edouard yearn for Canada even more.
In August, a high school friend of Edouard’s, Salaythis Melvin, was murdered by police at the Florida Mall in Orlando. Police cornered him because they had an arrest warrant for a suspect who looked like him. Melvin, who was unarmed, was scared, and he ran. Police shot him in the back. News footage showed Melvin lying on his stomach, shot, and being cuffed before medical help was given. He died in hospital later that day.
“I went to high school for two years with Slay,” Edouard said. “He lived in my neighbourhood. We knew the same people.”
Edouard said that being Black and in the U.S. with all the racial injustices is surreal. Racism is something he grew up dealing with. His third grade principal told him he would either be dead or in jail by the time he was 18. His parents moved him out of that school into a private Christian school, where he was the only Black student in his class. He faced racism on a regular basis from his peers.
Racial tensions in the U.S. were intensified following the murder of George Floyd.
“It was terrifying to be back in the United States,” Edouard said. “There’s two sides of this. There are people who are mad about this, and then there are people who are scared. And honestly, I was really scared to be there. I’m not afraid of anyone. But I am scared of the police. I just don’t want my life taken away before I reach my dreams. So when I was there, I was just trying to stay out of the way. I had every reason to be inside in quarantine.”
By Christmas, Edouard was back home. His belongings were all still at his girlfriend’s place. In the classroom, he is working toward earning his degree. His major is film studies. On the football field, he is locked in on having another good year and is hoping to make the jump to the CFL.
But most of all, he wants to become a Canadian citizen.
“Ottawa is home to me,” Edouard said. “The Canadian dream is everything I’ve wanted it to be. I went more than 400 days without seeing my girlfriend and my teammates. I didn’t see my coach for a long time and he has held my hand through this whole thing. Mentally, I really leaned on him and on the administration at Carleton.”
Edouard has been working out and practising with the Ravens throughout the winter and spring. He has one year of school left and is getting ready for his final season of college football before he enters the Canadian Football League Draft. He has not secured a summer job yet, but says he would like to deliver flyers in Barrhaven again if he gets the chance and if COVID-19 parameters allow for it.
Most of all, however, he is just happy to be back in Canada, back with his girlfriend, and working on completing his degree.
“Canada is like a dream come true,” he said. “It’s like a fairy tale. It means everything to me. It means freedom. It’s a safe place. When I was away, I really, really want to be back over here. I can’t express it enough.”