Ex-Canadian diplomat Roxanne Dubé draws lessons from a family tragedy

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“Then everything began to take on meaning as if the exercise of putting words on paper … was gradually revealing the truth to me.”

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The carefully constructed world of diplomat Roxanne Dubé, Canada’s consul general in Miami, shattered to pieces early on the afternoon of March 30, 2015.

That was when her two teenage sons, Jean and Marc Wabafiyebazu, pulled a Black BMW with diplomatic plates into a parking lot behind a Coral Way apartment building. Jean went through a back door, while Marc stayed in the passenger seat of their mother’s car.

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Inside the apartment, Jean, 18, brandished a gun in a bid to steal $4,800 worth of marijuana from a young drug dealer, 17-year-old Joshua Wright. Both teenagers died in a chaotic exchange of gunfire.

Although he wasn’t involved in the shooting, 15-year-old Marc was charged with felony first-degree murder and a handful of other offences. Florida authorities said the teen knew of his brother’s robbery plan and was culpable in the ensuing crime.

He faced 40 years or more in prison.

Jean Wabafiyebazu
Jean Wabafiyebazu and another teen died after an exchange of gunfire in a Miami residence on March 30, 2015. Photo by Family photo /Handout

Dubé reflects on that harrowing afternoon in her new book, Understanding at Last. The book seeks to make sense of the tragedy, to understand her role in it, and to offer parents some lessons from her painful, nine-year journey.

In an interview, Dubé said she decided to write the book primarily for her children.

“I felt it was important to distinguish what was their responsibility versus mine,” she says. “Along the way, I came to understand that parents who have children involved in crime don’t often write about it. I understand why. Because I do not believe you can move on with your life without looking at your role as a parent — and it’s not easy.”

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She found the act of writing a form of therapy. “In the beginning,” she writes, “I did this simply to keep from toppling into the void, always so close, sucked in by guilt and the deep sadness of losing Jean. Then everything began to take on meaning as if the exercise of putting words on paper … was gradually revealing the truth to me.”

The book revisits the past in search of truth.

The second youngest of seven children, Dubé grew up on a dairy farm in the village of St. Louis du Ha! Ha! in the Bas-Saint-Laurent region of Quebec. She studied political science at the University of Ottawa, where she fell in love with a student from the Democratic Republic of Congo, Germano Wabafiyebazu, a Black man 10 years her senior.

After university, she worked for Liberal MP Lloyd Axworthy, then the opposition international trade critic, and continued in his office when he was named the minister of foreign affairs in 1996.

After giving birth to her first son, Dubé joined the public service as director of parliamentary and cabinet affairs in the foreign affairs department. Her second son, Marc, arrived in March 2000.

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In 2005, Dubé was appointed Canada’s ambassador to Zimbabwe, where longstanding cracks in her marriage grew into chasms. In the spring of 2008, she told her husband she wanted to return home and separate.

Jean was 14 and Marc 11 when a judge decided they would remain with their mother full-time and visit their father each week. Dubé thought it meant she could provide her children with “a normal new home.”

Then came adolescence.

When he was 16, Jean began to lose interest in school, Dubé says, and increasingly came under the influence of his friends, the internet and gangster rap. Jean wanted to be an entrepreneur and saw in the drug trade a shortcut that didn’t involve school. He idolized Jay-Z, a rapper and record producer who dropped out of school and sold cocaine before launching a successful music career.

Dubé and Wabafiyebazu sought counselling for their son, but, in her unflinching book, Dubé finds fault with her own inability to be “emotionally present” for Jean. Deep down, Dubé says, she was disappointed and frustrated that her son couldn’t “walk straight” and live up to her expectations.

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“I was putting the responsibility for Jean’s well-being on his shoulders when he didn’t have the means to regain his footing on his own,” she writes.

Dubé believes her son’s embrace of crime was the action of a “lost child,” someone looking for support, belonging and a meaningful identity as a Black youth. She believes she let him down by not being the one he turned to for help.

“Right from the start,” she writes, “in every situation where I felt misunderstood or offended by Jean’s behaviour, I should have asked myself: Is this about me and my expectations, or is this about my child and his needs?”

In an interview, Dubé said it was painful, but necessary to examine her behaviour as a parent.

“The narrative I was telling myself was that I had done everything for my children: provided for them, sent them to the best schools, set an example for them,” she says. “But I did not accept what (Jean) was telling me: that he was lost.

“If I could go back to that moment, I would stop everything and say, ‘I’m here for you, no matter what. I want to see you for who you are in the circumstances you’re living. What can I do for you?’”

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In 2014, Jean was arrested and charged with drug possession and trafficking in Gatineau. The case was still before the courts when Dubé was appointed as Canada’s consul general in Miami.

Dubé believed the move would give Jean a fresh start and would remove him from his friends in the drug world. The family settled into a gated Florida community. In retrospect, she believes the move was a mistake since it uprooted her children at a turbulent time in their lives.

It was one of the things that burdened her in the aftermath of the confrontation that left her son Jean and Joshua Wright dead just two months later.

miami shooting scene
Students attend an impromptu memorial at the front of a Miami residence on April 1, 2015. Joshua Wright and Jean Wabafiyebazu died there from gunshot wounds on March 30, 2015. Photo by William Marsden /Postmedia

“I felt I carried an immense responsibility in Jean and Joshua’s death, as well as in Marc’s incarceration,” she writes.

Denied bail and with his case transferred to adult court, Marc spent 11 months in custody before pleading no contest to reduced charges of third-degree felony murder, aggravated battery and attempted armed robbery. He was sentenced to six months in a boot camp as part of a plea deal.

Marc returned to Ottawa on probation in September 2016. Soon after, he told his mother he had embraced Islam as part of his effort to change, rejecting alcohol, cigarettes, drugs and video games.

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In September 2019, Marc began a social sciences degree at Carleton University. Today, at 23, he’s the married father of a young girl, teaches Arabic and works as office manager at the Ottawa Islamic Centre.

Roxanne Dubé
Roxanne Dubé says she’s proud of son Marc’s resilience and grateful for what he has taught her about acceptance and understanding. He encouraged her, she says, to write her book. Photo by Jean Levac /Postmedia

For her part, Dubé retired from the public service in January 2022. She now works as consultant in the area of intercultural and inclusive leadership.

She’s proud of Marc’s resilience and grateful for what he has taught her about acceptance and understanding. He repeatedly encouraged her, she says, to write the book.

“This is a child who in prison didn’t know if he wanted to live,” Dubé says. “He went through grief, he thought about life, saw his brother in a different light, searched for meaning. He found it in Islam.

“He is a young man who is at peace, who has no grudges. He has sadness about his brother, but a sense of purpose now.”

Andrew Duffy is a National Newspaper Award-winning reporter and long-form feature writer based in Ottawa. To support his work, including exclusive content for subscribers only, sign up here: ottawacitizen.com/subscribe

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