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  • Daniel Boutilier

In October of 2018, three students report being evicted from their apartment at knifepoint

Last October, only months after arriving in Canada, three students claim they were threatened at knifepoint and evicted from the apartment they shared with their landlord. One student, hearing the argument from upstairs, was able to pack some essential belongings; the other two had to leave behind important documents, cash, credits cards, and their personal affects.

For the protection of all those involved, the names of those referenced in this article have been altered.

When we sat down with Rohit and Anik, our first question was simple – how is this the first time we’re hearing about this? Specifically, we asked if they had spoken to any other media outlets about the incident.

“Actually we were going to do that [speak to the media] but [a student advisor] told us not to do that right away … because the guys is having bipolar, so if he sees the news again, he’ll just flip again. So what if he is having documents, and if he sees the news – maybe he’ll destroy everything. So they told us not to do anything right at that time.”

The students also said that they were discouraged from speaking to the media by some of their peers, who worried that the negative attention in the press would reflect badly on CBU, as well as the local Indian community.

On Dec. 4th, there was a hearing scheduled with the tenancy board – unfortunately, there was a miscommunication as to how the hearing, conducted over the telephone, would proceed. The students claim they were told to be available by phone at the time of the hearing, when in actuality they were required to call in to the hearing themselves. Discouraged by the wait time – two months from when the incident occurred – the students did not reschedule.

October 7, 2018, the Sunday before Thanksgiving.

Rohit and Anik, two of the three international students in the house, shared the space with their landlord and one other man. Their landlord, they say, suffers from bipolar disorder. For the purposes of this article he will be called Bryan.

“One day, [Bryan] was sleeping and I went to talk to him about something, and I just called [to] him, and he got angry. And he told me that this guy [our roommate Rohit] should go out [, be evicted].”

This was the afternoon. The students were taken aback. For some time they had enjoyed a good relationship – even a close friendship – with their landlord; Anik said “He used to take me out for driving lessons, [as recently] as the day before.”

“He was kind of a brother to me, he was that friendly.”

Bryan was technically subletting these rooms as he was in a rent-to-own situation with his own landlord. We spoke with the owner of the home, Jane, over the phone.  She received a call from the students and headed over to the apartment in an attempt to mediate.

When she arrived she said “The police left before I even got out of my car.” Her first priority was to defuse the situation – “I wanted them [, the students,] to leave … the whole thing blew out of proportion.” Jane believed she would have more success speaking to Bryan one-to-one. She knew the situation was a volatile one. “He was threatening the kids, he terrified them.”

The students believe that the argument stemmed from Bryan’s belief that they had damaged the apartment’s dryer, which they claim had already been malfunctioning when they moved in that August. Jane admits that  “it could have been anything.”

Attempting to reason with Bryan, Anik suggested that if Rohit was evicted, the redistribution of the rent might force Anik and his other roommate, Navin, to move as well. Bryan responded poorly, telling all three that they should “get out of the house now.” They agreed to leave, asking for ten or fifteen minutes to pack their belongings. Bryan insisted that they leave immediately, telling them “Go now or I will call [the] cops.”

“At that time we were new here, we don’t know the rules here” said Rohit. “So we thought ‘he can cause some kind of trouble [for] us. So I told him don’t call the cops, we’ll just go out.”

The students tell us that when Bryan moved for the phone to call the police, Anik stuck his arm out, palm open, motioning for him to stop – in order to demonstrate that involving the authorities wasn’t necessary. Bryan seemingly interpreted this as a threat and, even though Anik had not made any physical contact, shouted “How dare you touch me?” According to the students, this is when their friend and landlord threatened them with a knife.

Anik told us that “two days [after the incident] I talked with his mother, and she told me this happens when he gets flipped. He just keeps on making things [up] in his head. And he’ll keep on believing that those things are true, and he won’t listen to us.”

They left the house then, around four or five in the afternoon, and decided to wait there, hoping that Bryan would calm down and the whole situation blow over. They remember feeling cold, wearing what they had on at the time of the altercation – track pants, t-shirts and sandals – and still acclimatizing to the cooler temperatures. When they tried to re-enter the home, Bryan told them if they entered his property again he would call the cops, and further that he would take the situation into his own hands.

At this point the students left and called the police themselves. The officer told them that it was a landlord-tenant issue, and that he did not have the authority to enter the property and recover their belongings.

Anik and his friends believe that, because Bryan had threatened them with a knife, he should have been taken into custody and seen in hospital; at least that there was more the officer could have done. By now they had relocated to a friend’s house in the early evening and were trying to figure out the situation from there. The officer called Bryan over the phone, but ultimately decided there was nothing further to be done, and advised the students that they would have to go to court. To compound the problem, the next day was Thanksgiving Monday, meaning that many services and offices they might appeal to would not be open.

The students called an International Student Adviser at CBU, who arrived the next morning with another police officer. It bears mentioning that the response from the International Student Centre was prompt, especially given the holiday – campus would not have been open at this time. They spoke with Bryan that morning, when the students say he changed his story – alleging that the students didn’t pay rent. The students also told us that Bryan hid a kitchen knife under one of the air mattresses they had been using in an attempt to discredit them, and shared a rare moment of levity in their story, asking “who hides a knife under an air mattress?”

Bryan allowed the officer to enter the house and conduct a search for the student’s belongings – it is then that they discovered their things were missing.

Unmanaged mental illness to blame?

Rohit says that they routinely observed Bryan taking his medication by crushing up the pills and inhaling the powder, his reasoning being that the medication was absorbed more quickly this way. But Anik believes that during the week leading up to the incident Bryan was not taking the medication regularly but was instead selling his prescription in order to supplement his income.

The resolution?

Bryan had used debit and credit cards belonging to the students, but when they filed a charge against him, the resulting investigation concluded that video footage was not of sufficient quality to confirm the identity of the user and, to their knowledge, the case was closed.

Anik says that he had given Bryan $900 as a loan, but wasn’t worried about the money – of more concern to the students were the official documents including passports, study permits, and education diplomas which could take years to replace in India. The students say he also charged approximately $420 distributed among various credit and debit transactions, added to $350 in cash that was in Anik’s wallet when he left.  The student’s think that Bryan believed if he took their official documents they would be deported or otherwise forced to leave Canada.

Jane believes that that situation was partly the result of a “lack of experience on their part, trusting [nature],” and recalled an example where “they bought a licence plate [from Bryan], thinking it was legal.”

The main difficulty for Rohit, he says, is that he does not have access to his SIN number and, as a result, is unable to apply for jobs. “To get the SIN, I need the study permit, to get the study permit, I need the passport, to get the passport I need to go to Ontario.” In order to receive a re-issue of his passport, Rohit must travel to the Consulate General of India in Toronto – a requirement is that he attends in person. Of course without identification he will not be permitted to fly to Toronto, and without a Social Insurance Number he is unable to work and raise funds for his travel, putting him in an extremely difficult position.

After he ‘evicted’ the three international students, it appears that Bryan could either no longer support his living situation or preferred other arrangements, and the landlord confirmed that he left before the next payment was due. The students stayed at their friend’s house for two or three days, after which they were given an emergency bursary of $500 each by CBU to help with their transition to a new apartment in Sydney. At the time, the students say, they “didn’t have [enough] money [even] to pay for our student card, $15.” The apartment they rented in Sydney, after damage deposit, costs $1600/month.

Jane says that when Bryan moved out of the house where this incident occurred, “he removed the hot water tank … he caused a lot of damage.” Hoping that the police might have missed something in their search, she “went through the house with a fine-tooth comb,” but could not find any of the missing documents.

The police have instructed the students not to attempt contacting Bryan. A couple days after the altercation, Bryan’s sister was able to recover some of the students’ clothes and return them; she also recovered a laptop, which showed signed of having been tampered with, but nothing else of value was ever returned.

Jane confessed that she wasn’t surprised the document were not recovered. “Sometimes people confuse mental illness with stupidity … let me tell you, he [Bryan] is not stupid, he is very bright.” She further commented that part of the problem is “when they [people with mental illness] have a breakdown, there’s no support.”

A community group in Toronto heard about what happened and offered some financial support to the students, but Rohit said “If we take money, the story will change again” and say that another student from the University contacted the same group, telling them that the three students were previously aware of Bryan’s unpredictable behaviour and continued to rent from him in spite of this.

Anik says that he does not have sufficient means to pay for University tuition fees, indicating that the money he loaned to Bryan would have been put toward this semester’s balance. With Rohit unable to seek employment and their third roommate having difficulty finding work – he was lucky enough to be in his room when the incident occurred and saved some of his documents – Anik has to spend what he makes at Walmart to support the household, with all three using funds from their GIC that they had intended to divert toward tuition. Study visas generally require that a student works no more than 20 hours a week.

On Firday, Mar. 29th, the Canadian Federation of Students (CFS) hosted a International Student Forum at CBU. Find the CFS report on differential fees here.

When asked if they thought the school had done enough to help them, they said they’re not sure what more CBU could do.

When asked if they knew much about Canada before they came, they responded that they did not, and that perhaps if they knew more the situation would have turned out differently.

CBU, in cooperation with various departments within the school, as well as the Cape Breton University Student’s Union, regularly hosts workshops and seminars designed to integrate new international students. The topics of these talks have previously included tenant’s rights, student banking, and consent culture.

Despite the student’s reluctance to bring attention to their story in the media, it would be a mistake to believe they did not seek help following the incident. Rohit and Anik told us that they had e-mailed the MLA for Glace Bay, Geoff MacLennan, as well as MLAs Derek Mombourquette and Mark Eyking; they only received a brief response from the Shelley Bent, Director of Programs in the Premier’s Office, and no follow-up occurred. With everyone offering competing advice, no concrete resources available to them, and no idea how to move forward, the students admitted “we were living in fear.” With many questions about their future here still unanswered, the students chose to speak out – if only to help ensure that other students, often desperate to find accommodation, make themselves aware of their rights as tenants and as international students at CBU.

The Caper Times would like to thank all those who gave their time to this story, especially Rohit, Anik, and Navin – whose really names many of you already know.

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