TORONTO – It sometimes seems like the trajectory of a life that has taken him from one side of the law to the other since his arrival in Canada as an infant three decades ago belongs to someone else.
It’s a tale of disaffected youth, senseless violence and finally redemption.
“When I was nine, I was an altar server; when I was 14, I was a straight-A student; when I was 19, I was facing first-degree murder,” Rohan George tells The Canadian Press. “When I’m 34, I’m being called to the bar. Life isn’t linear.”
In a recent decision, the regulator for Ontario’s law profession decided that the former Tamil gang member has overwhelmingly demonstrated that he’s of “good character” – a prerequisite to his professional licensing.
Evidence before the law society panel was that George, of Markham, Ont., came to Canada with his family as refugees from Sri Lanka in 1986. The youngest of four children, George was a good student despite having moved around Canada a dozen times by the time he was 12 years old.
Things started to unravel in his mid-teens, during his years at Mother Teresa Catholic Secondary in east-end Toronto. Like other Tamil teens of immigrant parents, he struggled to find his place in a system that seemed indifferent at best, exclusionary at worst.
Belonging to some kind of gang afforded a sense of identity.
“My case is a microcosm of Tamil youth at that time,” George said. “We couldn’t integrate. I grew up in a culture of violence. That was what was normal to me. When you’re in that bubble, it’s just another Tuesday.”
There was a 2004 conviction for a stolen bottle of alcohol and failure to attend court, for which he was sentenced to 30 days. But things really went off the rails in January 2005, when George, then 19 years old, took part in what the trial judge described as an “utterly senseless” killing – payback for an earlier gang altercation.
George and three others grabbed their teen victim at his work and forced him into a car. He and a second man then stabbed the resisting teen four times in the back and left him at a nearby park to die.
Some days, he says, he still feels like a killer, other days he knows that’s not who he is. He’s kept his head down, stayed out of the limelight. He’s speaking to the media for the first time now only because the law society decision put him on their radar.
“I’ve stayed silent for 15 years, I’ve stayed in the shadow for 15 years, out of respect for the victim’s family. There’s nothing I could say to them.”
Charged with first-degree murder, George pleaded guilty to manslaughter in March 2007, and was sentenced to eight years behind bars. He was granted full parole in June 2009, having spent time in some of the country’s toughest penal institutions, and immediately ran into obstacles all-too familiar to those who’ve been sucked into the criminal justice vortex.
“I couldn’t apply to Wal-Mart. They had a criminal check. Every point along the way, it was, ‘Sorry, no’,” he said. “I really wanted that to change.”
He plunged into academics. He finished a liberal arts diploma with distinction at Seneca College in 2011, then obtained an honours bachelor of arts degree from the University of Toronto in 2013. He completed his law degree through the University of Windsor in June 2017.
In extensive submissions to the law society panel, George described how he had turned his life around. A key moment, he said, came during talks with a psychologist in Joyceville Penitentiary, where he learned the concept of “active remorse.”
The idea, he said, was that simply feeling guilty about past misdeeds does little to improve the world. More important is to try to make a positive difference.
More than two-dozen letters of reference – from faculty members to friends and family to work colleagues – attested to his good character. The panel decided his turnaround was the real deal.
“The concept of rehabilitation is based on the capacity in human nature for someone to recognize their mistakes, to make amends, to correct the course of their lives, and to become productive and positive members of their community,” the panel found. “He is an excellent example of rehabilitation.”
Still, George says he won’t be diving into legal robes or roles just yet. He wants to take time off, he says, to properly process the past years of his life before taking on the responsibility of practising law, of perhaps one day getting to address a jury – this time on behalf of a client.
“For me, it’s a super-power. I’m scared. It’s a really powerful thing and I don’t want to mess it up,” George said as he struggled for words. “I’m a little bit shaken.”