WASHINGTON -- Four years ago this weekend, three chartered buses left Toronto for Washington carrying 163 so-called "at risk" youths, as if all young people are not at risk of peer pressure, violence, ostracism, self-doubt, and even self-destruction. Their goal was the inauguration of Barack Hussein Obama as the first mixed-race president of the United States.
"We thought that to see someone who looks like them assume the most powerful office in the world would be very powerful, very meaningful for those kids," says Bryan Brock, one of the organizers of the trip and now the creative arts program leader at Toronto's Remix Project, an artistic, cultural, entrepreneurial and educational centre built on a foundation of video and music. "But the trip, to say the least, was very trying."
"Oh, my Lord," groans another of the riders, recalling what happened next, especially to the girls who were scarved in prim Muslim attire.
"The first bus got through," he remembers. "The second bus got through. The third bus got held up, and then they called the second bus back. We were there for seven and a half hours, and we had a lot of different emotions.
"Basically, the Americans didn't want to believe that we Canadians just wanted to be a part of the inauguration; like, why should we care? At one point, an immigration officer got on our bus and said, 'I need all the passports of all the Somalians.' I couldn't believe he said that. One girl had to talk an FBI agent. I just kept telling myself that there has never been a significant part of black history that didn't come through struggle, and this was just another part of that struggle."
This is Tyrone Edwards, Montreal-born and Toronto-raised, known now as T-RexXx, host of the weekly RapCity hour on MuchMusic, a talented young professional at the summit of his craft, four years later, on the verge of another inaugural of the same man on the same stage in the same bitterly divided country on the other side of that seven-hour inquisition.
"It wasn't like, 'He's the first African-American president and I have to go support him 'cause I'm black -- I'm not that dumb," T-RexXx says.
As it turned out, the buses did make it to Washington on time, barely -- Bryan Brock managed 45 minutes of sleep at his hotel. (Had his namesake, Sir Isaac, not repulsed the Yanks at Detroit and Queenston Heights in 1812, there wouldn't be any border to have to cross two centuries later.) The at-risk youth shivered with the multitudes, witnessed the swearing-in, and then returned to Canada, where all one 163 of them cleared Canada Customs at Niagara, Brock says, in less than 15 minutes.
Barring a last-minute leap, Bryan Brock and the host of RapCity will not be on the Mall on Monday, when Obama utters his oath again upon the stacked-up Bibles of Abraham Lincoln and Martin Luther King, Jr. T-RexXx is busy with his show, and then there is that once-undefended frontier to be crossed.
"I won't lie," Tyrone Edwards says. "I still get nervous about it."
Four years ago, a doctoral student and activist at Simon Fraser University in British Columbia -- a native of Ghana named Clement Apaak -- organized an inauguration party in his role of founder and president of the Obama Fan Club of Canada. Recalling the euphoria, Apaak notes now that Barack Obama "opened a lot of doors and allowed us as black people in Canada and around the world to stand up and show that we have the intellect to compete at any level of society -- a catalyst for us to finally make the case that every member of the human race has the opportunity to contribute. After all, we are all originally Africans."
Eight months into his first term, Obama went to Ghana -- as Martin Luther King had gone, when the Gold Coast achieved its independence from Britain in 1957 -- and told the national parliament: "I have the blood of Africa within me.' "
"When he said 'Africa doesn't need strongmen, it needs strong institutions,' it became an infectious euphoria for the youth of Africa," Apaak says. "It energized civil society. It has made a difference."
He is telling me this from Accra, to which he has returned to serve as convener of a pro-democracy organization called the Forum for Governance and Justice. So the founder of the Obama Fan Club of Canada will be in neither Canada nor the United States as the African-blooded president begins his second term.
From the vantage point of Ghana, Apaak says, Obama, "given the circumstances, has done a magnificent job. The upper-class elite had defrauded the rest of the people. Truth be told, he has done the best that he could."
I ask Apaak if he dares to see himself as a future leader of his homeland -- a parliamentarian, perhaps, or even a president. He answers: "If my people feel I can contribute, I wouldn't have the capacity to say no."
One more story from January, four years ago: In 2009, a recent graduate of Simon Fraser named Glyn Lewis found himself sitting at the steps of the Lincoln Memorial, right in the middle of the African-American president's extended clan.
"Here's this Canadian kid in the Obama family section!" Lewis remembers. This was no accident; Lewis had embedded himself into the Illinois senator's campaign from the very beginning as one of more than 100 unpaid young Canadian idealists who knocked on doors in Iowa, New Hampshire and beyond.
"I don't get inspired by too many people," Lewis says. "Barack is one of those people."
But this time, four years later, Lewis -- like T-RexXx and Brock and Apaak -- won't huddle beneath the dome of the pure-white Capitol on inauguration day.
"I don't want to sound like we're over the hill, but a lot of us have jobs and careers now," Lewis alibis. Even without them, the Mall will hardly stand empty. For Barack Obama's final crowning, in the pilgrims' place will come a million more.