Ottawa is quiet in the summer. Though it is normally a vibrating hive of journalists, politicians, and staffers, the city settles in the doldrums of summer. Legislators empty the nation’s capital around June, migrating back to their home ridings, to see and be seen with constituents at barbecues and block parties. Staffers take long-awaited vacations or hole up in air-conditioned offices to prepare war plans. Reporters, who usually scramble about to chase down government ministers through the ornate stone hallways of Parliament, relish the tranquillity and spend the summer trying to catch up on forgotten work and passion projects.
But this year—2015—there’s an election underway, which many expect would set Ottawa alight. Not so. Unlike American races, Canadian elections don’t generally last for more than a month and a half. Election day, now, is still five months away, meaning the pacing is absolutely glacial. There’s also some conventional wisdom: the best place in the country to be if you want to avoid politics during an election is Ottawa. My title says I’m Parliamentary Reporter for VICE News, but there’s not much politics to be reporting on.
So on a languid, humid Thursday in July, I swivel in my chair. I stare out at the grey cubicles that line my office space, on the third floor of the capital’s Parliament buildings. My desk is the one closest to the window, on the aisle second from the left. The surrounding desks look more or less as mine does—piled high with papers, books, newspapers. The room is tucked off a long marble hallway. A few doors down, to the left, is the well-adorned Senate chamber. To the right, farther down the hall, is the House of Commons. The well-placed office space is set aside for reporters in the Parliamentary Press Gallery. It’s commonly referred to as the Hot Room, a name inherited from a time when the building was so replete with journalists that you’d have to loosen your tie and dab the sweat off your brow. It was so packed that tables had to be set up in the hallway to accommodate the reporters.
On this summer day, it is anything but packed. Hot, though, it is. I’m practically hugging the air conditioner next to my desk. I zone out, my gaze focusing somewhere beyond the yellowing framed photos of political journalists who worked here decades before, out through the tall windows, overlooking the waterfall that feeds into the Ottawa River.
With the political world hibernating, I’m racking my brain for a new project.
And then, a thought jumps into my head. It’s a sudden shock, like being jolted awake at night with the sudden realization you’ve left the oven on. I can picture the headline, one I saw years prior. A story about men who had been disappeared from the Gay Village in Toronto.
On this quiet afternoon, I grope around in the dark, trying to recall details. All three were brown-skinned, right? They were in the closet—or, maybe not all of them. Were they last seen at the Black Eagle?
I can see the outlines of three portraits of the men. Brown-skinned. Bearded. Middle-aged. But the portraits are a little too far away, and it’s a little too dark, to really make out their faces. But I can tell just how similar all three looked. I remember a gut feeling, from when I read that story: serial killer.
I snap back to reality and open up the best memory aid for our collective psyche: Google. I try some vague search terms—missing men Toronto. Too broad. Missing gay men. Still too broad. Missing men Toronto Gay Village.
The second hit is the story I’m thinking of. “Piecing together the story of three missing men from Toronto’s gay village,” the headline reads. June 8, 2013. It’s on Xtra, Canada’s main gay news outlet. Underneath the main photo is the smiling face of Andrea Houston. Her bright pink hair matches the brilliant rose hue of the website’s banner. I wrote for Xtra for years and got to know Andrea very well.
More details are emerging about three missing men who vanished from the Church-Wellesley Village.
Toronto Police Service investigators say the three missing-persons cases are connected through “similar ethnicities.” Detective Deb Harris, who is leading the investigation, says the three men were not all openly gay. “They frequented the Church and Wellesley area and lived similar lifestyles.”
That word, lifestyle, always makes me cringe when it’s applied to queer folk. As though it were describing a love for crochet or Caribbean cruises. It strikes me that collapsing such a core part of someone’s identity into a signifier as fleeting as a lifestyle also robs police and the public of a vital piece of the picture. A detail that could help tie cases together and expose trends.
But here were the personal details of all three men. Skandaraj “Skanda” Navaratnam: Last seen, September 6, 2010. Abdulbasir “Basir” Faizi: Last seen, December 29, 2010. Majeed “Hamid” Kayhan: Last seen, October 14, 2012.
Skanda “left a new puppy,” a police spokesperson said. Basir had called his wife to say “I’m coming home late tonight,” his sister reported. Hamid “just disappeared off the face of the Earth,” recalled a drinking buddy.
I hit Back and scroll through the search results again, reading through a dozen other news stories.
Navaratnam was last seen leaving a bar on Church Street. . . .
Faizi’s car was found in the Leaside neighbourhood. . . .
Kayhan was last seen at a family wedding. . . .
Those stories are all from 2013.
I start poring over the stories: had police made an arrest?
In the two years since, there has been almost nothing. No triumphant police press conference, announcing they had caught a serial killer. Alternatively, no quiet announcement that any of the three men had been found.
A local newspaper in Mississauga, near where Basir lived, followed up on his story in 2015 reiterating his family’s plea to see Basir come home. The South Bayview Bulldog, a community paper serving the Leaside neighbourhood, published a story some months later, wondering why Basir’s car had wound up where it did. No other media—not one of Canada’s major newspapers or television stations—had revisited the incredibly troubling story of the missing men. Nor would they, until years later.