To those who know him well, his calmness is amazing. Nevertheless, as we spoke recently, on a day when he felt particularly wronged by his landlord, I could sense his frustration. But all he said was: “I just want to keep my cool. I do not ever want to find myself again on the wrong side of the law.” Instead of taking matters into his own hands, as he might have in an earlier life, Canis Lionel had sought police assistance— despite that 30 years ago that had cost him the rebuke of a female cop, with deadly consequences.
Canis, 47, had been especially candid during our interview in March. Referring to some who he says continue to judge him wrongly: “To tell you the truth, I know God is on my side. Others who have done worse are still hiding but I won’t judge them. All I want is someday to have a normal life.”
As teenager, having left primary school with no chance of higher education (Universal Secondary Education was not yet even a concept) the devil does what he does best with his idle hands. Liming the streets of Marchand and Lacou Dou, Waterworks, Lionel soon found himself in trouble. First he was arrested as a petty thief. That was back in 1982.
“It was a difficult time,” he recalled. “As a young boy you have a little girlfriend, you want nice things, you have no money, your parents cannot help.” So he started stealing.
His first offence got him three months in prison that had little impact on his circumstances, at any rate, none that was good. His rap sheet started growing. Soon he had entered the underworld of money laundering and drug dealing. Before long he had been recruited by one of the most notorious local drug bosses. It didn’t take long before he’d built his own strong client base that he says included prominent lawyers, doctors, businessmen and women, and a number of visitors from overseas. “They were the ones who at the time could afford cocaine at a hundred dollars a piece,” he said. “A good day would bring me three to four thousand dollars after the boss took out what was his.”
He loved feting back then. And fast women. And expensive clothes, all of which he could easily afford. Through a friend, he extended his portfolio to include carnival, impressing the girls in the mas camps and bargaining with them for their costumes and whatever else they needed. After playing mas for the very first time in 1987, Lionel was ambushed by a gang.
“They beat my girlfriend,” he recalled. “They beat me up and tried to snatch my chain but it was so thick they could not get it away from me.” He went to the police the next day to file a report, only to be told by a female officer that he deserved all he got because of his own drug connections. Crestfallen, he returned home only to be informed that the gang that had earlier beaten him was on the hunt for him.
Lionel says he went back to town, purchased a cutlass, sharpened both edges, then placed it in his pants, secured at his waist. On a particular day in March of 1987 he bumped into one of his attackers and pursued him into Wilton’s Yard.
“I am not making any excuses for what I did,” he said during our interview. “I am now sorry for what I did that day. Looking back, all I can say now is that it was as if some evil spirit had taken control of me.” When the man he was chasing tripped over a clothesline, Lionel went to work on him with his cutlass. The man died in hospital three days later. Lionel was arrested, charged with murder and sentenced to death by hanging. His lawyer appealed. Lionel was resentenced to prison for ten years.
“That was a sign that God was already answering my prayers,” he told me. “From the time I did what I did I was
praying, seeking forgiveness and a way to change my ways and get my life back.”
By all accounts he proved a model inmate, helping out in as many areas as were possible at the dilapidated Bridge Street prison. After seven years he was pardoned by the Governor General—another sign, as far as Lionel was concerned—that God had heard his prayers.
Nineteen years ago Canis Lionel walked out of prison a free man. However, his road to recovery, rehabilitation and assimilation into the Saint Lucian society has not been easy. Still, he says, he has not returned to his old ways. Now a father of three, he has been embraced by the Archdeacon and other members of the Castries Anglican Church who have been helping him to readjust. He has held several jobs, among them as a porter with a local manufacturer as well as at the Boys Training Center and as a school caretaker.
Financially, things couldn’t be rougher. Legal fees had swallowed up what money he had set aside and then he’d had to dispose of a piece of land. Then there was the debt he had settled for his former girlfriend and their son.
“At the end of the month,” he said, “after Courts and the bank take what’s theirs, I am left with hardly enough to pay for food and my rent.” He had tried doing odd jobs, washing vehicles, power-washing places of business and private residences. But he was back to square one after someone stole his tools. When I encountered him in Constitution Park, following our interview, he seemed in high spirits. He proudly showed me a certificate from BelFund, having completed a course in small business and marketing.
“I went to BelFund for a loan for which I was successful after I did the interview,” Lionel explained. “But first they wanted three guarantors which I got, including a lawyer and a police officer. Then before they could give me the
check I had to do the course where I learnt things about marketing, how to save,
how to grow your business and so on.”
Out of thirty applicants he had been one of six who qualified for the BelFund loan. He has purchased a pressure washer he expects to land him regular cleaning jobs. “I do not want to be begging people to help me. If I can help myself, I will do it. I am hoping I can get enough work to help me survive and take care of my son who lives with me.”
He says the boy left school last year and is unemployed. “I talk to him all the time,” said Lionel. “I have told him about my past.”
With things as they are right now, it is no surprise that Canis Lionel is having a rough time finding work. Still he is determined to persevere. “I keep knocking on doors,” he says, convinced that with God on his side, it can only be a matter of time before the right opportunity shows up!