Today is Joshua Telemaque’s 18th birthday, but what was supposed to be a happy occasion has been tarnished by a racist message that the teen says left his heart hurting.
“It will be a part of me for a long time; throughout my life, it will always be there,” Telemaque said of the pain caused by the incident.
The recent graduate of St. Mary Catholic Secondary School in Pickering, Ont., just east of Toronto, was stunned when he learned last week that his intended yearbook quote had been replaced with a message that read: “Rip Harambe Dooga booga.O” — referring in part to a gorilla that was killed at a Cincinnati, Ohio, zoo in 2016.
“It made me feel very sad and hurt. I remember that feeling. It was a pain in my heart when I saw it,” Telemaque said in an interview Wednesday with CBC Radio’s Metro Morning.
“It felt like my body just froze. I just broke down. Words can’t explain it.”
The teen’s original message was a tribute to his late grandmother, who played a central role in his life growing up. The two shared a special bond that began just moments after his birth, Telemaque’s mother, Marva Massicot-Telemaque, told host Ismaila Alfa in the same interview.
He says his original entry was supposed to read: “RIP Grandma. Thank you for guiding me through my four years of high school.”
Telemaque said his grandmother was an inspiration, and her kindness motivated him to be “someone like her.”
Soon after the family learned that his message had been changed, Massicot-Telemqaue met with the school principal. She also received a call from the Durham Catholic District School Board’s superintendent of education.
In a statement earlier this week, the board said it has launched an investigation to “determine the circumstances that allowed this to happen and the individual(s) who were involved.
“We assure you that this offensive act of misconduct, disrespect and racism is taken seriously,” the statement continued. The Durham Regional Police Service is also involved in the review.
The high school has recalled the yearbooks, but Telemaque said there is little the board could do make up for the hurt he feels.
“The harm will not go away. It’s permanent,” he explained.
He added that he has received an outpouring of love and support from his friends, and that he hopes to go on to inspire other people in the same way that his grandmother did for him.
After the story of what happened to Telemaque began making headlines, both in Canada and internationally, dozens of strangers — including five Toronto Raptors players — sent him birthday well wishes that were compiled in a video online. You can watch it here.
For more stories about the experiences of Black Canadians — from anti-Black racism to success stories within the Black community — check out Being Black in Canada, a CBC project Black Canadians can be proud of. You can read more stories here.