Paul Croutch: A casualty of the war on the poor

| May 15, 2008
What kind of evil lies in the hearts of men?

Men who are soldiers, who are supposed to defend this nation. Soldiers who are sworn by duty and honour to protect its citizens.

Not to get drunk and beat the shit out of them. Not to use their army boots to stomp someone to death.

Two years ago in April, two army reservists killed someone. They didn't kill an enemy combatant or a terrorist, and this didn't happen in Afghanistan or Haiti or Iraq. They attacked and killed a defenceless citizen in Toronto. His name was Paul Croutch.

The attack

On April 31, 2006, 59-year-old Paul Croutch âe" a former journalist with a family - lay resting in Moss Park, having turned a bench into a bed.

At night the park, in Toronto's notorious corner of Queen Street East and Sherbourne Street, is lit from the stadium-sized lights from the adjacent sports field. It's relatively quiet except for the wiz of taxis or the occasional rumble of a streetcar. It's relatively dry if you stay under the trees.

On its west end sits the Moss Park Armory, with its two canons glaring out towards the Fred Victor drop-in centre. The Armory is home to the Queen's Own Rifles of Canada. The park surrounding the Armory is home to the homeless. So much so that the building has been used as emergency temporary shelter in the past. There's history here.

This park is where the "sleeping rough" go for shelter âe" shelter meaning a safe place to let down your guard to sleep, safer than the bug filled, violence plagued Toronto shelter system in the downtown core.

This is where Paul Croutch laid down âe" to take the pressure off his swollen legs wrapped in garbage bags against the pouring rain âe" to sleep.

This is where he died.

He died on the ground, a few feet away from his park bench; having been kicked by Canadian army reservists "like a football" âe" blows that literally lifted up and moved his body.

St. Michael's hospital staff found that Croutch had suffered fractured ribs, a torn spleen, and a fatal brain injury.

The judge presiding over the subsequent trial stated it was a "sadistic" attack carried out "with military precision."

At their sentencing hearing, the three men who were later arrested for the attack said they were sorry.

The trial

On May 1, 2008, two of the tree men convicted of the crime pled to manslaughter charges and were given ten years each: Private Brian Deganis and Corporal Jeffrey Hall, both 24 years-old.(Deganis, based on time served, will serve the remaining five years and six months. Hall will serve ten years, eight months.)

The Crown at the trial failed to prove that the third reservist, Corporal Mountaz Ibrahim, 25, participated in the beating and he accepted accessory charges and received ten months.

All three men were also charged with assaulting Valerie Valen, who rushed in to protect Croutch. She had dog tags shoved in her face and received a beating for her heroic efforts.

All three were suspended from military duty shortly after their arrests and will be discharged from service because of their convictions.

In a surprise move on April 17, 2008, the trial was paused and it was announced that Deganis and Hall had accepted reduced charges, from 2nd degree murder to manslaughter, since alcohol could have played a factor in the events. All three men admitted to drinking heavily at a function off base earlier than night.

Bonnie Briggs, a Toronto anti-poverty activist and organizer of an annual memorial for those who die on the street, believes the charges should not have been reduced. "Alcohol or not, these men would have probably done it anyway, their hatred towards the homeless was obvious."

Justice Eugene Ewaschuk stated during sentencing that the accused, "used him (Croutch) as a combination punching bag and soccer ball ... "the accused literally stomped Mr. Croutch to death," he said and noted that the savagery of the beating put to shame the violence of "soccer hooligans."

Evidence of a hate crime

According to testimony, Deganis had tried first to attack another man on the street, and when beating Croutch, shouted that he "hated bums and homeless people and wanted to take them on."

When Valen intervened, she reported that Deganis shoved his dog tags in her face and screamed, "this gives us the right to kill all the homeless bums, crackheads, whores."

Michael Shapcott from the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee, wrote to Attorney General Michael Bryant, asking him to consider Croutch's death a hate crime. The Ontario government did not proceed with this request.

Statistics Canada provides a definition of a hate crime as an offence that, "[is] motivated by bias, prejudice or hate based on race, national or ethnic origin, language, colour, religion, sex, age, mental or physical disability, sexual orientation, or any other similar factor."

Justice Eugene Ewaschuk, during sentencing, stated that the reservists' "attitude must be condemned âe¦ Mr. Croutch was killed simply because he was a homeless person who they despised."

Complicity in the crime

Gaetan Heroux, an anti-poverty activist and organizer with the Ontario Coalition Against Poverty, noted the dearth of comments on the case from Toronto politicians.

This apparent lack of concern is disturbing and, according to Heroux, speaks volumes beyond its silence, "In terms of the city and in terms of the public, we should be concerned as to where these attitudes come from. This attack happened in the middle of a big campaign by the city to basically begin to remove people from the downtown core. In my opinion, it would be wrong to say this was an isolated incident."

Heroux goes on to note the Toronto Police's use of Ontario Safe Street's Act, as well as noting that, according to a May 8, 2007 report on homelessness by the Wellesley Institute, the homeless experience 35 per cent higher rates of violence than their housed counterparts.

While the city has reportedly just announced a (yet another) new, soft touch, anti-panhandling program to house the homeless, this streets-to-homes boost has not been ratified by council. In the City of Toronto, promises come and go.

Duty with honour

On the Canadian Forces website much is made about the issue of "fighting fear," but we can only wonder what emotions ran through Croutch's head before his brain shut down from massive internal hemorrhaging.

We do know the testosterone, alcohol and hatred that pumped through the perpetratorsâe(TM) heart. That evil was very clear.

Now let me make something else clear.

Toronto is not a battlefield. These army reservists attacked not because they were attacked, not because they were ordered to. Their actions and that hatred is all their own.

Two of them were supposedly men of leadership with non-commissioned ranks. This failed to prevent them from stopping the savage beating that would cost a man his life. All three men were supposed to stand as leaders in their communities and we, as the public, were supposed to be proud of them.

Even if they had yet to be deployed overseas, it's not longer boys playing soldier when somebody dies.

"These were men being readied to be sent to war âe¦ and it raises very serious questions about who we're sending over there," said Heroux.

I can only wonder what kind of damage would they have done if they were let loose on the streets of Afghanistan?

May Paul Croutch's death be considered a casualty of war.

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