Most days, Durba Mukherjee walks past the colourful playground next to her apartment building in Etobicoke, Ont., without looking up, too heartbroken to even hear the children’s laughter.
June 21, 2021 marks two years since her son died. He was 12 years old.
The coroner’s report ruled Arka Chakraborty died by suicide.
“I want people to remember him just for the person he was. He was a brilliant child, he was smart, he was witty. He had an awesome sense of humor. And if you talk to his school, his class, teachers, his friends, he always wanted to make everyone feel proud of him,” recalled Mukherjee, smiling.
A smile that quickly disappeared, as she described the pain of being without her only child.
“I really lost my best friend. I really did. I miss him every single day,” she said.
Since his death, Mukherjee has fought for answers, refusing to accept her son, the boy “with the big bright eyes” who “wanted to be a teacher,” would take his own life.
He begged his mother, she recalled, to come to Canada from their home in India to start a new life together.
Until this day, it is a move Mukherjee questions.
“I feel really, really guilty that it was my decision,” she said, adding, “I wanted to bring him here. I wanted him to grow up in a very open, inclusive, liberal society so that he will not have to deal with what he was dealing with back there in India … there was a problem because he was a single mother’s child.”
Arka died just days before the end of the school year, after being bullied his mother said to the point where he once ended up in the hospital.
“He told me, ‘I’m scared to go to school’… I did everything, just I did not take my boy out of that school,” she cried, her hands trembling.
“I think I should have done that,” she told Global News in October 2019.
The week of Arka’s death, there was an incident at school involving another student’s gaming console.
Mukherjee said her son told her he was given the console under false pretenses and then returned it after playing on it.
It was shortly after the console incident that Arka left the apartment he shared with his mother, and never returned.
A note was left behind.
“I have been a disappointment to you …,” stated the handwritten letter.
While grieving her son, Mukherjee connected with child advocates and her local MPP Jill Andrew, intent on clearing his name and proving her son, for whom she sought support, had fallen through the cracks.
“I did not have much hope,” she said.
She fought long and hard, sending letters to anyone and everyone from the Toronto District School Board to Ontario Education Minister Stephen Lecce to Ontario Solicitor General Sylvia Jones.
“For me, justice was that some day the system themselves will acknowledge that my son did not deserve this. He was not a troubled child of a single mother. That was not his identity. The identity that he made here, coming right in Canada, in his school, in his locality, some day, the system will acknowledge that this was the person he was, he will be known for the person he was, that did not happen for two long years,” she explained.
She challenged the coroner’s report. It went for a review. She challenged it again. Eventually a review was initiated.
“Our voices were heard in the review … that gave me some peace,” she said.
The 33-page report from the Local Death Review Table, produced by the Office of the Chief Coroner, reviewed the circumstances of Arka’s death, “a youth that will never be forgotten … he had a smile with a brightness that could light up the darkest corners of the world,” and offered 23 recommendations.
The report analyzed Arka’s life before and after arriving in Canada and identified a number of key issues, from the “threat and (probable) fear of being labelled a thief and possible police intervention” to “the gaming incident/allegations and that school administration’s approach to addressing” to Arka’s “history of peer conflict and bullying.”
The report offered clear recommendations to the Toronto District School Board (TDSB), Ontario’s Ministry of Education, the Ministry of Children, Community and Social Services, and the Children’s Aid Society of Toronto about how to prevent another death like Arka’s, and what to do should something like it ever happen again.
It also pointed to the need for an “internal review in response to certain deaths” by the Office of the Chief Coroner itself.
“When non-natural deaths occur which may be related to circumstances connected to the education system … the Regional Supervising Coroner should request the involved school board to conduct an internal organizational review,” stated the report.
In October 2019, Global News reached out to the TDSB and was advised that there were no plans for a formal review.
“While we are aware of the concerns raised by the student’s mother, based on the information we have, staff at the school did not observe any bullying, nor were they made aware of any pattern of bullying,” said Ryan Bird, TDSB spokesperson at the time.
The rationale behind the recommendation that schools boards in Ontario, moving forward, “should be prepared to receive such requests to conduct an internal organizational review from a Regional Supervising Coroner,” is to respond and learn from the death.
The report pointed out Arka’s death followed a week at school that included at least two contentious incidents with other students which led to intervention by school staff.
“I call that Arka’s directive … that if a child dies, the school system should be concerned enough to listen to that child in the way that they can once they’re gone,” said Irwin Elman, Ontario’s former child advocate.
“Every time a child dies by suicide now the school board that was involved in that child’s life will be requested to review the death of the child and try to understand what the child’s school life was and was there something that could have been done and contributed to the child’s death … and forcing the school to learn,” he added.
Since the release of the report, Bird sent the following updated statement on behalf of the TDSB.
“As we just recently received the final recommendations, senior staff will need time to review them. We look forward to being able to work through the recommendations to improve our practices to ensure that we’re as responsive and supportive as possible to families who experience tragic incidents such as this. Once staff have had the opportunity to review, we’ll be a in better position to comment on the recommendations.”
The report also suggested the Ontario Ministry of Education should ensure all school boards notify immediately a parent/guardian of any incidents of conflict involving their child(ren) prior to any investigation or disciplinary actions being taken by administration or staff.
Mukherjee said her son was under intense pressure at school by administrators to confess to taking the gaming console, before his death.
“They should have informed me so that if I would have talked to my boy, I could have told him ‘it’s not the end of the world, it’s OK to forgive himself and move on’,” she said. “I didn’t get a chance … I think he felt that his world has crushed because he could not prove himself innocent in school because he couldn’t convince the staff that he actually didn’t take the console.”
“I could have talked in a different tone and I could have given him that courage that ‘it’s OK, you did it, even if you did something wrong, it’s OK to forgive yourself and move on, you corrected your own mistake,’ but I didn’t get a chance to do that,” she said.
The report noted, “It is also important to recognize that being accused or questioned about such serious allegations would have likely resulted in significant shame and fear of public humiliation. Any young person would likely be significantly impacted by this experience, but it is important to recognize how the cultural context and realities of being a newcomer may have emphasized this potential shame and fear.”
“The education system needs to really do a better job in terms of learning more about the demographics and, intersectional identity characteristics in their school systems so that they can better work with communities and really understand what families are going through,” said Cheyanne Ratnam, co-founder and CEO of Ontario Children’s Advancement Coalition.
“If Arka’s mother and Arka himself were receiving the right types of supports as newcomers to Canada … this would have been prevented. Arka’s death entirely was preventable,” she added.
Elman also pointed to “an issue of systemic racism” with Arka and his mother being newcomers.
He said, there was “no real cultural understanding of how to approach Arka in school and in child welfare.”
A spokesperson for Lecce sent Global News the following statement.
“The story of young Arka is tragic and a reminder of the trauma children can face, be it in school, at home, or in the community. The ministry will review the recommendations within the report, and recommit ourselves to protecting children by countering all forms of bullying and discrimination and continuing to enhance mental health supports for students in need.”
NDP MPP Jill Andrew said she hopes the Ontario government acts immediately in the wake of this report.
“What we see in this report is a call for a suicide assessment risk when a child is experiencing bullying, that is something that the minister of education can act on immediately. What we see in this report is a need for more social workers, for more mental health supports in our schools, this is something that the government can act on immediately,” she said.
Andrew also pointed to another recommendation that the Children’s Aid Society and school board “consider conducting a joint review and assessment of their communication, collaboration and partnership practices, based on the circumstances of this death.”
“It broke my heart when Durba told me that Arka asked her to call the children welfare agency to get support for bullying and she was met with a response of, ‘Not in our mandate, call the school,'” She said “What if these two agencies had been working together? What if the left hand knew what the right hand was doing? What if there were culturally relevant responses and interventions and programs and supports for Arka?”
For Mukherjee, the report is not the end of her fight.
Her son’s legacy has been vindicated, but now she said she wants to see change happen in the wake of his death.
“I will fight till the end to see these recommendations actually get implemented and other children like my son and their families, they see the benefits and the children, they enjoy a safer environment at school, in the communities, and they don’t face what my son faced and no other mother ever needs to go through what I went through,” she said.
Elman has vowed to keep walking alongside Mukherjee, in the journey for change to happen.
“It reminds me never to underestimate an individual. It should remind Ontarians, never underestimate their own power, even in the face of huge institutional barriers. What you can do with courage and love, compassion, strength … I saw all of that in Durba. Astounding, really, what she went through for two years to get to this moment of vindication when nobody would listen, nobody would even look at what their role might have been in the death of her son,” Elman said.
Mukherjee sat quietly on a picnic table next to the playground neighbouring her apartment building.
There are a few small children playing on the swings and giggling.
She stared straight ahead into the distance.
“Eighty per cent of my life is gone. And the 20 per cent that is there, I live because I want to make his voice heard,” she said. “My job is not done.”