Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

He had a good heart, a tough life

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Michael Brian Langan, the youngest Canadian to die after a police Tasering, was dressed for burial in a Manitoba Métis Federation ball cap and a blue double-breasted suit that looked too big for such a tiny body.

I don't know if the 17-year-old would have liked the suit.

But I'm pretty sure he would have been proud of the way the father he loved so much -- but hardly knew -- was attired for prayers Tuesday night.

Brian Minchin is a panhandler.

But there he was, kneeling by his son's Métis-flag-draped casket, wearing a finely fitted suit and spiffy dress shoes.

The suit and shoes, it turns out, were gifts from some police officers who know Brian from panhandling and wanted him to have something decent to wear to his son's funeral on Wednesday. They are probably the same officers who, according to a friend of Brian's, tried to get him off the streets by helping him find a job.

The same streets where his son died last week after being stopped as a suspect in a car break-in and refusing to comply with orders to drop a knife, according to police.

As I was saying, Michael would have been proud of the way his father was dressed Tuesday night.

But I'm not as sure that he would have been as proud of what happened to his father at the prayers.

It was after the prayers, with the assistance of David Chartand, president of the Manitoba Métis Federation, that I met with Michael's mother, Sharon Shymko, and his aunt, Shirley Langan.

Last week, they met with Winnipeg police Chief Keith McCaskill and asked for an independent investigation. But they are also concerned about the "spin" they say police put on who Michael was. His father's talking about Michael's love of booze and pot didn't help.

The family wanted a chance to talk about who Michael really was. A good-hearted kid, who loved and cared for his family and whose passion and dream was to be a cabinet maker.

So why would he be carrying a knife?

At the prayers, Father Vincent Herner offered an explanation.

He spoke of "the fear" that leads some inner-city people to arm themselves.

"Had Michael not known that fear, had he not purchased the knife..."

Father Herner had more to say, particularly about poverty and its role in Michael's life. And his death.

"Michael knew how to get by day-to-day," the priest said. "He knew serious poverty first-hand. The restlessness, the lack of roots, the lack perhaps even of belonging."

So where did it start for this boy who ended up scavenging in back lanes like the one he died in?

"When Michael was 15 months old," his mother began, "Brian, his father, said, 'I can't stand this baby stuff. I think I'll come back when he's walking.' So I said just keep walking. I brought up Michael on my own."

At first she lived in Manitoba Housing and worked in housekeeping at Health Sciences Centre.

When Michael was three, Sharon moved in with a guy she met at the Balmoral Hotel.

He was the bouncer.

Sharon always seemed to get involved with the wrong kind of men. One of them lived in Kelowna, B.C., where she moved when Michael was five. According to Sharon, that partner was abusive with both her and little Michael. They moved back to Winnipeg, then back to Kelowna and finally, on July 1, back here again.

Michael decided he wanted to be with his dad, even if he lived in a rooming house.

Why?

"Because he loved his dad," Sharon said.

There's someone else who knew the caring side of Michael in a different way. Robert Bishop, his 16-year-old cousin, grew up with Michael as his "mentor" in Kelowna. Robert took the bus to Winnipeg to be at the funeral.

A lot of what Michael's young cousin said backed up Father Herner's words about fear and poverty.

Robert said they grew up largely unsupervised.

"We had each other. He was someone there to look out for me and we looked out for each other."

The two of them would get into "mischief," breaking into school once and stealing pop and candy.

When was that, I asked.

"Grade 2, Grade 3."

By 11 and 12, they were into smoking pot.

But Michael had one challenge that Robert didn't.

"Kids shunned him."

Even Robert's friends would tell him Michael was a bad influence.

They didn't know him the way Robert did, though.

"There was a side to him that had to be strong and he had to do what he had to do. Then there was a side to him that would open up. He'd be loving. He'd help me out so many times when we were kids. If someone would pick on me, he'd stand up for me. He's just a little guy. But he's a tough kid. He's got a tough soul. He's a fighter really."

Robert also said this.

"He won't back down. He won't give up."

Maybe that's why police Tasered him.

Or maybe there was something else that contributed.

"If you seen him and didn't know what he'd been through," Robert said, "you'd think he was just another bum. Scum. Whatever. But if you took a second, to talk to him..."

It was during the Tuesday night prayers, as Michael's Aunt Shirley was describing him as a boy who always kissed his mother goodbye, that his dad began wandering around the chapel.

Crying out, talking loudly and seemingly incoherently over the eulogy.

The woman in charge of the funeral home quietly asked him to come with her outside.

He never returned.

The last time I saw Michael's dad, the service was over and he was outside, pressed up against the doors, pitifully pleading to get back in.

As I watched, a funeral home employee explained that the man they'd escorted out had taken a swing at the the female funeral home manager.

And they had called police.

So it turned out that Brian didn't get to wear the suit and shoes the compassionate cops bought him to wear to his son's funeral.

In the end, the father Michael loved so much -- but hardly knew -- wasn't there.

gordon.sinclair@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition July 31, 2008 $sourceSection$sourcePage

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