Toronto
3 min

Hamilton reels from bashing

Popular café owner slashed with bottle

200 STITCHES. Junction Café owner Ronn Mattai has a high profile as a Hamilton business operator. Police aren't saying what led them to believe the attack was a hate crime. Credit: John Rennison/Hamilton Spectator

A horrific gay- bashing, already identified by police as a hate crime, has set off a wave of unease and activism in Hamilton.



The slashing of Ronn Mattai, 38, owner of the popular restaurant and jazz club The Junction Café, has the police, politicians, faith leaders, business leaders and especially the queer community calling for education, action and statements of outrage.



“An attack against one of us is an attack against us all,” says Hamilton Mayor Larry Di Ianni. “If I’m attacked because I’m a person of colour, because I’m gay, lesbian, bisexual or transgendered, or from a certain religion, it’s inappropriate. It’s not to be tolerated. It’s to be challenged with the greatest vigour one can muster.”



The attack occurred in the early hours of Sat, Feb 21 at Absinthe, a downtown Hamilton bar. More than 200 stitches were needed to fix Mattai’s facial wounds from the attack after he was slashed repeatedly with a broken glass.



Michael Codeiro, 19, is charged with aggravated assault. He appeared in court on Mar 1 and will remain in custody until his Mon, Mar 8 bail hearing. (In an assault, there is no specific hate-crime charge, but it makes a difference in sentencing.)



While police are reluctant to comment on the evidence of the case – including the evidence that led them to declare this a hate-motivated crime – they have provided some basic information.



Hamilton Police Deputy Chief Ken Leendertse told participants at an emergency meeting last week that both Mattai and the accused were at the bar with their respective groups of friends.



At about 2:15am Mattai was in the basement using the washroom. He was approached by his attacker and asked to assist in “moving/placing an object.” He was then locked in a room and attacked.



Mattai made his way up to the main floor of the bar to seek help, and a passing police officer was flagged down. The accused was arrested and taken into custody.



Hamilton Police Chief Brian Mullan says that clear and convincing evidence came forward very quickly indicating that this was a hate crime.



“We very quickly came to learn that there was a component of hate in this offence,” Mullan says. “We’re taking it as the most serious type of incident. The individual has been charged with aggravated assault. We will prosecute the individual to the fullest extent of the law.”



In 2003 there were only two recorded hate crimes in Hamilton against queer people, both against gay men, according to Det Steve Hahn, a hate crimes investigator. In the city as a whole, there were 45 crimes classified as hate-motivated.



More than 100 people attended the emergency meeting. Some attendees spoke out about other hate crimes that had happened to them or other people they knew. Hahn says hate crimes are difficult to prove, and extensive information is needed for a case to be classified as a hate crime; it’s estimated that only one in 10 hate crimes is reported to the police.



“If you’re a victim of crime, please come to the police,” Mullan told attendees. He promised to look into direct complaints made against police officers. He has also asked that any witnesses to the attack come forward to help with preparing the case.



Damien Dommer, owner of the Hamilton gay bar The Werx, said that he got the sense from his patrons that people were treating the attack on Mattai as an isolated incident. Many in the room didn’t echo his comments, however.



Janet Ferguson, a transsexual woman, said she had re-thought how out she should be.



“I considered taking my rainbow sticker off my car,” Ferguson said, though she later decided to keep the sticker as a sign of pride.



In addition to the police meeting, Di Ianni called an emergency meeting of Supporting Hamilton’s Community Initiative (SHCI), which was formed in the fall of 2001 when the events of 9/11 led to an increase in hate crimes, including the burning of the Hindu Samaj Temple in Hamilton.



“I wanted to bring the resources represented by this group to bear on creating a response to the violent attack. I saw the issue as part of a larger symptom,” says Di Ianni. “There needs to be an immediate response, which includes me.”



Marilyn Smith, a member of the Friends Of Ronn Committee, addressed the SHCI roundtable.



“Ronn is a dear friend. His activity in the community has always been positive,” said Smith. “He doesn’t want to be a poster boy for violence.”



Roundtable participants agreed that the focus should be less about Mattai and the individual crime and more about creating a positive climate for the gay, lesbian, bi and trans people in Hamilton; as a first course of action, the mayor will write a letter condemning homophobia in Hamilton.



The bashing of Mattai triggered several other community-based responses. Two faith congregations, First Unitarian and Centenary United, marched on Sunday from their churches to the Junction Café for lunch, as a show of support for Mattai and a protest against hate crimes.



Theatre Aquarius (190 King William St) will be bringing the Toronto cast of The Laramie Project to perform in Hamilton on Sat, Apr 3. The actors are donating their time and proceeds of the event will go to SHCI.



* A trust fund has been established for Mattai. Donations can be made at the BCP Bank at the corner of Victoria Ave and Barton St, account 20050598, or sent to the Junction Café (197 King William St, Hamilton ON L8R 1A7). For more information about upcoming projects from the Friends Of Ronn Committee, contact Marilyn Smith at msmith853@cogeco.com.