Mary and her siblings came to Canada as permanent residents in the spring of 2021.
Their parents were killed nearly a decade ago in the aftermath of a catastrophic civil war in the Democratic Republic of Congo (DRC). Their grandmother, who lives in Toronto, agreed to take care of them.
But things started going bad for the kids soon after they arrived in Toronto.
They say their aunt, who also lives with their grandmother, had a dream that Mary stole her bank card and permanent resident card.
The kids say their grandmother also had a dream that Mary was a witch, and that she stole her aunt’s cards because she was possessed by evil spirits. They say their grandmother then contacted a Congolese pastor, who told her how to rid Mary’s body of the “so-called witchcraft.”
“(Mary) was locked in her room every day, hands and feet tied from the morning to the evening for the prayer of the pastor, to deliver her from witchcraft,” said Mary’s brother Stephen.
Mary, who is 14, and her two older siblings, who are 15 and 16, say they were then put on a plane back to DRC, where they were told a powerful pastor would meet them to perform an exorcism.
But the kids say that when they got to the airport in Kinshasa, the capital of the DRC, no one was there to meet them. That’s when they say they realized they were on their own, with no money and no way home.
Global News has concealed the children’s identities because of the risks they face and because of their age.
“We felt traumatized,” Mary said.
Experts say this case exposes gaps in Canada’s child protection laws and the laws that govern international air travel for unaccompanied minors.
That’s because there are no rules or regulations that prohibit children over the age of four from leaving Canada alone, according to the Canadian Transportation Agency (CTA).
What rules do exist for kids who travel alone are almost entirely up to airlines to decide and the government doesn’t proactively evaluate these rules to determine if they’re reasonable.
There is also “no Canadian legal requirement” for children to carry a letter with them that says they have permission to leave the country. This is true regardless of a child’s age and whether the child is travelling alone, with one parent, or with someone else.
“I think that’s extremely dangerous,” said Ratna Ghosh, a professor of childhood education at McGill University.
“I’m just astounded that Canada, of all places, is not looking at children’s rights when they see three children going on their own, without any supervision.”
Denounced as a witch
Global News has reviewed immigration applications and sworn statements made by the children that describe their experiences in Toronto and after they returned to Kinshasa. Global News also interviewed the kids and their temporary guardian in Kinshasa.
The kids say everything started falling apart at their home in Toronto when their aunt’s bank card and permanent resident card went missing and when their grandmother accused Mary of being a witch.
The kids say things got worse after the Congolese pastor told their grandmother to lock Mary in a room.
“It was torture,” Mary said.
The children say they were afraid the abuse would continue, so Mary called a friend who called the Toronto Police Service (TPS). But when the officers arrived at their home, they couldn’t communicate with the kids.
“(Mary) tried vainly to ask them to help us, but they didn’t understand French and we couldn’t understand what grandma was telling them in English,” Stephen said.
Global News asked Toronto police about the children’s claims.
A spokesperson for the force said officers were called to the family’s home on June 25 and June 27.
The first call was about a complaint that a teenager assaulted a child. The officers spoke to the complainant “via another family member” and no charges were laid, police said.
The second complaint was about a teenager assaulting an adult. Police said officers “carried out inquiries” at the home and that the complainant “did not want to pursue charges.”
“On both occasions, everyone at the address appeared in good health and officers found no evidence to suggest any other issues,” said TPS spokesperson Connie Osborne. “As part of our standard procedure, Children’s Aid Society was notified.”
The kids say that after the police came to their home, their grandmother was afraid their aunt might be arrested.
They say this fear, along with the accusation of witchcraft, is why they believe they were sent back to Kinshasa four days after the second visit from police.
Witchcraft in the DRC
Accusations of witchcraft aren’t uncommon in the DRC.
Roughly 13,500 children are denounced as witches in Kinshasa each year, according to UNICEF. Many of these kids are shunned by their communities and end up living on the streets.
When Mary and her siblings arrived in Kinshasa they say they had no one to take care of them.
They also say their grandmother, who stayed in Toronto, kept their permanent resident cards and told them they were forbidden to contact any family members.
“This is how our misfortune began,” Stephen said.
The kids say they then called a friend, who contacted someone in Kinshasa and asked him for help.
“These are African beliefs, voodoo witchcraft,” said Sam Llunga, the man who was asked to help the kids.
Global News has used a pseudonym for Llunga to protect the children’s identities.
Llunga says he went to the airport in Kinshasa to pick up the kids and then brought them to a nearby hotel.
He says he then called members of the Congolese community who live outside the DRC, who offered to pay for food and accommodation, plus legal expenses to try and get the kids back to Canada.
“There is poverty, there are no jobs. And there are all these stories that the pastors are putting in the heads of men, women, and many families. It destroys families,” Llunga said.
A 2019 report prepared by UNICEF says the belief in witchcraft in the DRC is driven by “false prophets and pastors” who run evangelical churches and charge fees for exorcisms and other ceremonies.
The report says ignorance, poverty and war are reasons why so many people continue to believe in witchcraft. It also says bedwetting, bloated stomachs and disability are seen as “proof” that a child is possessed.
And while UNICEF says it’s not aware of any cases where a child was killed because of an allegation of witchcraft, there are examples of children who die after an accusation. This includes abandoned kids who become victims of crime and kids who die following botched surgeries performed by pastors.
A recent article in the U.K. newspaper The Guardian also documented a spike in “witch-hunt murders” in the DRC.
The report quoted Congolese officials who said eight women were either lynched or burned to death in South Kivu province in September after they were accused of being witches.
Colonial history of witchcraft
Michel Chikwanine, a former child soldier who was kidnapped by militants in the DRC when he was five years old, is an author, speaker and United Nations fellow for people of African descent.
Chikwanine believes unscrupulous pastors and evangelical churches are responsible for spreading falsehoods about witchcraft.
He also says there’s a colonial history to the belief in witchcraft that’s rooted in the false ideas that anything African is bad and that if someone is struggling, it’s because they’re not a good Christian.
“For many African communities, especially for the Congolese community, their first explanation (when something goes wrong) is that it’s because the devil is in them,” Chikwanine said.
“During colonialism, when they were acting out, when they were speaking their own languages in school, Europeans were telling them, ‘it’s because you have the devil in you.’”
Chikwanine, who came to Canada as a refugee in 2004, also says that the way new immigrants are integrated into Canadian society is insufficient and that more needs to be done to make sure people understand the law and the resources available to them.
“You do a seminar when you come into Canada about Canadian laws, etc. But it’s not robust enough for people to understand truly how different culturally it is, especially for older generations,” he said.
Gaps in child protection
Ethiopian Airlines confirmed the three children departed Canada on a flight that left Toronto. The airline said the children used adult fare tickets and that unaccompanied minor service was neither requested nor provided.
This is consistent with Canadian regulations, given the children’s ages.
But child welfare advocates say this case should serve as a lesson for Canadian lawmakers because it exposes shortcomings in the rules for kids who travel alone.
Lindsay Lobb, a senior support service manager at the Canadian Centre for Child Protection, says these gaps put kids at risk of human trafficking, forced marriages and parental abductions, which is when a parent leaves Canada with their child without the other parent’s consent.
“We have seen that over and over and over again,” she said.
Lobb says parental abductions often happen during custody disputes. She said kids sometimes end up going to countries where either their mother’s rights aren’t recognized or where a father doesn’t need permission to travel alone with a child.
She also says that while many Canadians might think every country requires proof of consent from both parents or guardians before allowing a child to cross its borders, this isn’t a guarantee.
“We have left children to fend for themselves,” Lobb said. “We don’t have people stepping in to question why they’re traveling somewhere and under whose direction.”
When asked to respond to concerns about kids travelling alone or without parental consent, Transport Canada, the ministry responsible for air travel, said that the issue of child protection is a matter of provincial jurisdiction and that it “falls outside of (its) key area of activity.”
“All provincial and territorial child protection laws contain a duty-to-report provision that requires everyone to report suspected child abuse to the authorities, including in the context of potential international travel by a child, with the scope of that duty varying by jurisdiction,” said Transport Canada spokesperson Simon Rivet.
Journey back to Canada
A spokesperson for Immigration, Refugees and Citizenship Canada said the government is aware of the children’s case, but refused to answer any specific questions, despite having a signed consent letter that authorized it to do so.
The children’s lawyer, Michael Battista, provided copies of the kid’s applications for new permanent resident documents, which were approved by the government on Oct. 29.
Global News also reviewed copies of the kid’s visas to re-enter Canada, which were issued at the Canadian embassy in Kinshasa.
Llunga, who became the kids’ legal guardian in the DRC, says Global Affairs Canada also purchased tickets for them to fly back to Toronto in early November.
The kids are now being cared for by a special immigration division of the Children’s Aid Society and have been placed in foster care.
They say they never want to see their grandmother again.
They also say there should be stricter rules for anyone under the age of 18 who leaves Canada alone. This should include screening that asks kids to explain the purpose of their trip and who will take care of them once they arrive at their destination.
Police forces in Canada should also be required to communicate with kids who are in distress in their own language, either directly or through an interpreter who is not a family member, they say. This is especially true when the kids speak French, one of Canada’s two official languages.
For now, the kids are happy to be starting their lives over again in Canada.
“It’s a new beginning,” they said.
Update: After publication, Global News received a phone call from a person who said she is the children’s aunt, but not the aunt mentioned in this story.
This person denied all of the kids’ claims and said their story is completely untrue.
She said the kids’ grandmother adopted them and intended to care for them, but that she couldn’t anymore after they assaulted her at her home in Toronto.
The aunt also said the kids are not orphans and that they returned to the DRC because their parents wanted them back.
The aunt said she has immigration files and police reports that support her comments, but she refused to provide any of these documents.