Human run-off

We've had more rain than usual in Toronto in recent years. Two years ago there was huge flooding and property damage. As a result, city planners took up the cause of run-off in earnest. Everywhere you look now - alongside expressways, in lakeshore parks, in the modest green belts mandated for new subdivisions - retention ponds are being built to trap storm water and ease its way into nature's hands.

Hundreds of these ponds have been built in Toronto alone, but you're not supposed to notice them. That is, until something happens that flips your entire perspective around.

Two young boys tried to cross just such a frozen pond on their way to a soccer pitch, on December 10. They threw big rocks in, first, to test the ice. But of course they misjudged its strength.

Eleven-year-old Birunthan Nadarajah died at the scene trying to save his friend. Kishoban Alakeswaran, 15, succumbed after almost a week in hospital.

The tragedy was front-page news - every parent's nightmare. But then something strange happened to the coverage.

The next day, Birunthan's father, Muralidaran Nadarajah, made a scheduled appearance in court, facing deportation. He is an illegal immigrant, a Sri Lankan refugee who fetched up here eight years ago with a wife and a young family, and the Canadian government had been trying to deport him since 2002. Suddenly the story - instead of being one of an even greater human tragedy - veered into the inside pages, where it petered out.

I am not sure why this happened. Guilt? Embarrassment? Confusion? Have Torontonians been faced with so many of these hard-luck refugee stories that we've become worn out by them? The refugee situation ended up obscuring the primary message of the tragedy: that these catchments aren't meant to be landscaped and accessible. They are inherently dangerous. It also shone a light on run-off of a different sort.

The Canadian government says Nadarajah is a Tamil Tiger supporter and was a fund-raiser for the outlawed group, which may have been the case. He denies the allegations. He and his family left Sri Lanka 20 years ago and have bounced around the world - living in India, Switzerland, France and the US - before ending up in Toronto, living mostly off the charity of friends.

Canada takes in more immigrants and refugees (at least 20,000 a year, sometimes double that) for the size of its population than any other country in the world. Almost half come to Toronto where they end up, depending on their means, in church-sponsored shelters, cheap motels (paid for by taxpayers) or the many high-rise 'retention ponds' for refugees. Theirs is a cruel, life-sapping limbo, even without the tragedy of losing a child.

I don't know what the answer is to it. I just know that the current pattern is not nature's way.