The connection between an ethnocultural community and its artists is always problematic. It is widely assumed that only members of a community can speak for it, which is the reason that often there are such passionate charges of voice appropriation when outsiders write about culturally marginalized groups. Along the same lines, it is commonly accepted that, without its own writers and other artists, any community will remain largely invisible to the wider world. Whether or not this principle holds everywhere, there’s no question that the recent publication of Anthony De Sa’s Barnacle Love has brought much attention to the Portuguese-Canadian community. The collection of short stories was widely reviewed by the mainstream Canadian media and was even shortlisted for the country’s most prominent literary award, the Giller Prize. Given that much of the text is set in Toronto’s Little Portugal, it’s not surprising that reviewers would often allude to De Sa’s Portuguese background. Most significantly perhaps, Barnacle Love has led to a re-discovery of the story of Emanuel Jaques, the twelve-year-old son of Azorean immigrants who was sexually assaulted by three men and then killed in the summer of 1977 while shining shoes on Toronto’s iconic Yonge Street.
De Sa, who is himself the son of Azorean immigrants and who was born and raised in Toronto, appears to have been profoundly affected by the Jaques killing. In Barnacle Love, he devotes a story to the case, “Shoeshine Boy.” He also has acknowledged that the whole collection revolves around this one story and that this was the piece that first caught the attention of his agent. Indeed, such is his fascination with the Jaques murder that he’s currently writing a novel about it, tentatively entitled Carnival of Desire. As De Sa subtly illustrates in “Shoeshine Boy,” the Jaques sex murder is one of the most traumatic events in the recent history of Toronto, forcing the city to reevaluate its image as a civil and safe community. According to most accounts, Emanuel Jaques was shining shoes on Yonge Street in the afternoon of July 29, 1977, when he agreed either to help some men move photographic equipment or to pose for them. Four days later, on August 2, his body was found in a garbage bag on the roof of a massage parlour on Yonge Street. It was subsequently discovered that he had been raped by three men and then drowned.
The brutality of the crime provoked cries of outrage across Toronto, but particularly in the local Portuguese community. There were large protests in the city and endless editorials condemning what became known as Toronto’s “sin strip.” Considering that Jaques was sexually attacked by the three men before they killed him, the case also caused a major rift between the city’s Portuguese and gay communities. This was particularly true when, even before the accused came to trial, a local gay magazine decided to publish an article extolling the virtues of “Men Loving Boys Loving Men.” That being said, public opinion was overwhelmingly on the side of the victim and, by extension, of the Portuguese community. In fact, the Jaques case would attract the broadest media coverage of any murder in the region until the Bernardo-Homolka serial killings of teenaged girls of the mid-1990s. Yet soon after his brutal death, and the subsequent sanitization of Yonge Street, Emanuel Jaques would largely vanish not only from the headlines but from the very consciousness of Canadians. When one searches through the archives, one finds almost nothing about the story that captured the imagination of a whole city. Until the publication of Barnacle Love in 2008, which had been preceded by Bill Moniz’s television film Shoeshine Boy in 2006, Jaques pretty well disappeared from Canadian discourse, both popular and scholarly.
How do we explain the fact that a case that attracted so much attention from the Canadian media and public at large could be so easily forgotten? It is tempting to attribute this amnesia to the general invisibility, and cultural voicelessness, of the Portuguese-Canadian community, which has shockingly low levels of education. Yet the only comprehensive scholarly study of the Jaques killing suggests that the case wasn’t downplayed because of the victim’s ethnic background. On the contrary, it appears to have received more attention than similar murders in the city.
In 1981, Yvonne Chi-Ying Ng completed an MA thesis in criminology at the University of Toronto entitled “Ideology, Media and Moral Panics: An Analysis of the Jaques Murder.” Ng writes that the killing of Jaques was “a tragic incident that provoked so much emotion in the community that it can never be easily forgotten by those who know about the case.” Needless to say, this didn’t turn out to be true. Still, it wasn’t because the media and political establishment ignored the case at the time. As Ng shows, only four years earlier, there was a nine-year-old boy named Kirk Deasley who was killed in downtown Toronto. Deasley was from the same neighbourhood as Jaques and he too was sexually abused by men before being killed. Yet, unlike the Jaques case, his story didn’t capture the imagination of the city. Ng’s explanation is that, in the intervening years there had been a concerted campaign by some politicians to clean up Yonge Street, which was becoming a source of embarrassment. However, the politicians had never been able to persuade the public that the “sin strip” constituted a major civic problem.
That all changed, though, with the rape and killing of the twelve-year-old son of Azorean immigrants, which created a real “moral panic” in the city. Based on her examination of the media coverage, Ng concludes that “one thing seems clear-it is not the murder of Jaques, but the ‘clean-up’ of Yonge Street that concerned them most.” That is, the so-called “Shoeshine Boy” case was simply used by the local powers-that-be “to neutralize dissent and to legitimate the ‘clean-up’ campaign” of the Yonge Street strip. They didn’t mean to memorialize his death, but merely to promote their own ends.
Thus, in light of Yvonne Ng’s findings, Emanuel Jaques could be seen as the martyr of Yonge Street, not only because he was raped and killed there, but because he appears to have been the victim of political machinations concerning the image of Toronto’s famous thoroughfare. Such an interpretation would explain why the city’s political, economic, and business establishments were so vocal in the immediate aftermath of the young boy’s brutal murder. It would also explain why Emanuel Jaques would soon be forgotten.
April 23, 2009
Albert Braz is an associate professor of Comparative Literature and English at the University of Alberta in Edmonton, Canada. He specializes in Canadian, Aboriginal, and Inter-American literature, as well as translation. He’s the author of The False Traitor: Louis Riel in Canadian Culture (University of Toronto Press, 2003).