Last Sunday night I returned to Toronto after a three-week concert tour of Asia. I’d been warned that the tour was too risky: driving through back roads in the Philippines, where kidnappings and murders are not uncommon. In the end, the worst I endured was jet lag. But within 36 hours of being home, I couldn’t help wondering if I’d have been safer in Asia.
Well, not really. But when I woke Tuesday to the news on my computer screen that a shoot-out at a Scarborough barbecue had left two dead and 23 wounded, I simply didn’t believe it.
As the week unfolded, my disbelief gave way to stupefaction, then revulsion. On Wednesday morning, while the city still grappled with the nightmare of the Danzig Street shootings, news came of another murder: 42-year-old Clayton Wright had been gunned down near the soccer fields at Eglinton Flats. Thursday morning, it was 27-year-old Daniel Davis, found dead of a gunshot wound to the face in a schoolyard in Lawrence Heights. It was all so incomprehensible, so, well, un-Toronto.
When the sickening reality hit home, I thought of my son, David. Now 23, he’s only a few years removed from his barbecue-partying days in high-risk neighbourhoods. From Regent Park to Scarborough to Brampton, David had, initially, loved these events. On the face of things what young man wouldn’t? Free food (and booze), great music, lots of girls, balmy summer nights: a young man’s paradise, on the cheap. Except.
Guys, some gang-affiliated, had a habit of showing up with grudges and guns. And we’re talking semi-automatic handguns with 11- or 13-bullet clips that can be shot off in less than 10 seconds.
More than once at these parties, my son froze, immobilized, as the bullets flew. I know of one occasion (thankfully, my son did not attend, but a friend of his, who did, gave me the lowdown), where the party was well under way, everyone feeling no pain, until a kid, after feeling dissed, took off from the festivities, shooting randomly at the crowd behind him. Three guys chased him, opening fire. Remarkably, no one was killed, though one woman, shot in the buttocks, was hospitalized. Even more remarkably, after a pause, the party resumed as though this entire scene had been a YouTube video, a quick flash on an outdoor Jumbotron.
Finding hope on the homefront
In February, 2008, I wrote a cover story for Maclean’s magazine detailing how my son’s involvement with certain gangs and thugs had put my entire family in grave danger. At that point, I had come to know, quite well, three young males who, within a span of 18 months of setting foot in my house, ended up murdered – all by gunshot – in Toronto. As I write this story, nine more young men I’ve met through my son have been murdered. As for the number of young men I know who’ve been jailed, or are constantly in and out of jail, I’ve long since lost count.
What I have discovered through harrowing personal experience, along with extensive research, is that the average age of kids popping off guns (again, mostly gang-related) is between 16 and 22.
After that they’re either in jail, dead, grievously wounded or, remarkably, have come to their senses.
What gives me immense hope is that I’ve seen, first-hand, how a young man’s life can be turned around. How a male headed inexorably to a life a of crime, incarceration and quite possibly early death, found traction in society, and became a tax-paying hard-working citizen, rather than an outlaw.
A few years ago, my son was teaching creative writing at a homeless shelter in Scarborough. David’s program, called “Making the words lift off the page,” was based on channelling the rage, frustration and violent impulses many young men feel, into creative expression.