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Algoma U students taken down at gunpoint. Why?

Travis Syrette feels like crap. He feels that way because of what happened to his friend and coworker Robert Totime last Friday over the lunch hour. Syrette feels that, somehow, he's partly to blame for the screaming cops and pointed guns.

EDITOR'S NOTE: This story was published in 2010

Travis Syrette feels like crap.

He feels that way because of what happened to his friend and coworker Robert Totime last Friday over the lunch hour.

Syrette feels that, somehow, he's partly to blame for the screaming cops and pointed guns.

If he'd known the trouble you can get into, just buying strawberry banana smoothies at Station Mall, he never, ever would have suggested going there.

It was Syrette's idea to go downtown for lunch.

Totime (shown) initially didn't want to go.

A second-year international student from Ghana in Algoma University's law and justice program, Totime told Syrette he always felt uncomfortable at Station Mall.

He felt that people stared at him there.

Totime felt it was because he's black.

He felt safer at the university. Syrette, son of former Batchewana First Nation Chief Vernon "Champ" Syrette, is a third-year student in Algoma University's Anishinaabe-mowin program, studying the language and culture of the Anishinaabek people.

He and Totime both were lucky enough to land summer jobs at Algoma U, working on a residential school archives project.

On Friday, Syrette talked Totime into going off-campus for lunch.

After all, Syrette said, he was Anishinaabe - a visible minority too.

They'd go to Station Mall together.

What could happen, eh?

A lot, it turned out, could happen.

Little did the two students know that they would soon be fearing for their lives, staring at the drawn, very serious guns of the Sault Ste. Marie Police Service.

Around 12:15 p.m., the two men arrived at the mall.

Syrette parked his 1994 GMC Sierra near the Galaxy Cinema entrance.

They proceeded together to Freshly Squeezed to get two of the healthy-eating chain's popular smoothies. They bought strawberry banana.

Totime had never had one before.

Then, the students stopped briefly at the Wireless Wave kiosk to see whether the new iPhone 4 had arrived.

It hadn't.

So they went back to the parking lot, sitting briefly in the truck with their smoothies before heading onto Bay Street.

As they passed Tim Hortons, the two men noticed a City Police cruiser behind them.

The cruiser was still there when they turned the corner at the bushplane museum, prompting Syrette to make some kind of crack about the po-po.

As they passed the hospital, they noticed a second cruiser following them.

Any doubts that they were now the subject of heavy police attention evaporated as they turned off Queen Street onto the university campus.

The roof lights activated on one of the cruisers behind them and the vehicle lurched forward, cutting them off.

Then, the guns came out.

Guilty of no crime more serious than shopping at Station Mall, the astonished students found themselves staring down the barrels of at least two drawn weapons - a service revolver and a long gun.

The officers shouted at Totime and Syrette.

"We are students!" Totime shouted back.

Syrette, the driver, was ordered to place his hands outside the vehicle, then to use his right hand to turn off the engine and throw the ignition keys to the ground.

Totime, in the passenger seat, was ordered to also place his hands outside the vehicle, and to open the door from the outside.

Totime wasn't sure how to do that.

With a long gun trained on his head, and one hand still gripping his smoothie, he started to panic.

"He didn’t know how to open the door," Syrette recalls. "I reached over and opened it from inside. At that point I thought I was going to be shot."

The two men were ordered to get out of the Sierra slowly, told to move backward toward the police and to raise their shirts.

Their pockets were emptied.

They were questioned about the contents.

They were asked whether they had weapons.

Their hands were cuffed behind them.

Totime, a vice president of the Algoma University Student Union, was told he was under arrest.

"This is the first time this has happened to me," he tells "I was really traumatized. I didn't know what was going on."

Neither, it appears, did the police.

It turns out they were looking for an armed, dangerous shooting suspect from Toronto.

A black armed, dangerous shooting suspect.

Totime was not the man they were looking for.

In the police cruiser, Totime could see a computer display that showed a suspect.

The image was poor, but it was enough for him to see that it didn't resemble him at all.

"The face was fatter," he tells

Underneath the picture, he saw the word "black" used to describe the suspect.

Totime handed the officers his Algoma University identification card.

The cops ran some checks, figured out they had the wrong man, and released him.

"I went to the student services office to sit there most of the day. I couldn't think. I was shaken," Totime says.

Algoma U President Celia Ross came down to make sure he was okay.

So did Academic Dean Arthur Perlini and Registrar David Marasco.

Totime was offered crisis counseling.

"I was pretty shocked by the way they pointed weapons at me – at both of us," he said. "I felt it had to do with my skin colour."

Totime was physically unhurt by his encounter with the local constabulary.

Syrette says the handcuffs hurt him when he was forced into the back of the cruiser, almost sitting on his hands cuffed behind his back.

He saw a physician yesterday at Cambrian Mall and was planning to go for wrist X-rays.

"I thought it was about HST," Syrette said of his initial thoughts when the police came at him. "I was protesting at Mississagi First Nation. I just feel threatened when I see police officers."

A police officer wearing a bulletproof vest told Syrette he was sorry that they'd stopped the wrong person.

"Now you have something to tell your kids," the cop told both students.

"It’s not something I want to tell my kids," Syrette tells "I thought it was totally uncalled for. I feel really bad for Robert."

Totime and Syrette are concerned about the possibility that their arrest may have resulted from discriminatory racial profiling.

When the time comes for them to tell stories to their children, they don't want those stories to be about the trauma of having firearms pulled on them because they ventured downtown with the wrong skin colour.

Sault Ste. Marie goes to considerable ends to attract international students.

But is this really a safe, friendly place for them?

Or can they expect, like Totime and Syrette, to be wrongly identified as criminal suspects by mall security guards and police?

In June 2005, Sault Ste. Marie's Police Services Board adopted a "bias-free policing" policy that prohibits racial profiling during traffic stops and other activities.

The policy allows race, ethnicity and other factors to be used to identify possible suspects in the same way that height, weight or other descriptors are used.

But, it also stipulates that there must be trustworthy and relevant information linking a suspect to a crime or other unlawful incident.

In Totime's case, what exactly was the trustworthy and relevant information linking him to a shooting in Toronto?

So far, no one has answered that question for

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David Helwig

About the Author: David Helwig

David Helwig's journalism career spans seven decades beginning in the 1960s. His work has been recognized with national and international awards.
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