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.
David became friends with a 20-year-old attending the program, frequently bringing Stephen home for dinner. Stephen began staying with our family, and continued, off and on, for the next several months. No formal arrangements were discussed – our house is big, with four distinct floors, and I was suffering from a guilt hangover for not taking in vulnerable teenagers in the past. Then Stephen returned to the States to visit his mom and we lost contact.
Fast forward 12 months: Stephen’s life had taken a criminal turn. He had been charged with a serious offence and was in jail awaiting trial. No one was willing to post bail. David asked my wife, Bev, “Please Mom, can you help Stephen? An inmate was just killed in the same jail and I’m afraid Stephen could be next.”
My wife is unusually kind and generous, but she’s no fool. You don’t mess with her. Bev sensed something special about Stephen – a spark, an intangible goodness – and after consulting with me, we agreed to post his bail.
When he was eventually convicted, Bev’s intense intervention, combined with a devoted legal aid lawyer, resulted in Stephen receiving an 18-month conditional sentence. As long as he stayed with us under house arrest, he did not have to go back to jail.
When Bev posted bail for Stephen, one of the parties in the justice system warned: “You’re naive and wasting your time. You’ll never get this kid on track.”
With next to no contact with his father, Stephen’s rage at the world in general, and white people in particular, was palpable. But when he phoned his mom from our kitchen, a different person emerged. Affectionate, vulnerable, kind, child-like: If ever there was a kid starved for love with a reservoir of his own to give back – if he trusted you – it was him.
And once you peeled back his raw swagger and strutting bravado, he was bright, honest and very funny.
Preternatually loyal, he was still vulnerable to the temptation of the easy money that comes with lawless behaviour. This was the deal: So long as Stephen complied with the house rules, many of which were tougher than the court’s conditions, he could live with us indefinitely.
It was not a seamless transition for any of us. But despite the hiccups, and the occasional family meeting where Bev and I read Stephen the riot act, our new family dynamic was workable.
Through Bev’s connections, Stephen completed an employment training program funded in Scarborough. Studying hard when not in training, he managed to get his high school equivalency.
Several months later, Bev found a facility downtown that provides a training and employment program for young men. Stephen is now working at a trade, 10 hours a day, five days a week. And, rather than costing the taxpayer money rotting in jail, learning new and better ways to commit crimes, he’s paying taxes. Stephen is still living with us.
The need to give back to the community
So what do we do about all this violence? As I write these words, I feel as saddened and burned out by the week, and its subsequent reportage, as any other Torontonian. Do we round up the gang-bangers and send them away forever? Boot them out of our precious city?
Certainly, this kind of political talk plays into people’s feelings of helplessness and anger. And in a world where people are hungry for quick fixes and sound bites, for instant gratification, there’s no patience for the long, slow rebuilding process: implementing after-school programs, hiring more community workers to act as mentors, adding more job training programs in marginalized areas.
However, if we don’t invest now, in so-called priority neighbourhoods, with music classes, athletic facilities, and skills training and mentoring, we will all pay more in the long run.
My son tells me, “Dad, you should be giving back more to your community.”
He’s right. Certainly, I’m no celebrity. That status faded long ago. However, I do believe that the powers-that-be who are currently influencing our community – artists, musicians, authors, filmmakers, journalists, athletes (the Argos and Raptors have already made profound and far-reaching contributions) – need to do much more in reaching out to children and teenagers at risk.
Presently, there are more black songwriters and producers creating international hit records than ever in our country’s history. I’m not just talking about say, Drake, but the musical geniuses behind Drake’s records. Their influence, their reach, among young people is enormous.
Media campaigns, 30-second PSAs discussing violence and how to combat it, and maybe a few more people simply opening up their homes and hearts to one kid at a time, would surely make a difference.
What can we, as citizens of (as my dad described Toronto to his dad in a 1949 letter) this “splendid but tainted city,” do to help?
We need to become more involved with high-risk youth. For example, my brother, Lawrence, has taught creative writing to inmates. My wife and I have done volunteer work in prison, and trust me, it’s strangely uplifting to be struck out by an inmate at a prison softball game.
If you have a business, connect with excellent programs such as Eva’s Phoenix and create an opportunity to work or intern in your business. There are dozens of these programs out there, and they need money and, even more, staff and volunteers.
Without these programs, Stephen would be in jail.
Be a Big Brother. Invest, attend or give instruments to music programs such as the ones at the Regent Park School of Music. Volunteer to tutor at public schools in at-risk neighbourhoods and in youth shelters.
If you play an instrument, even better. Sling your guitar to wherever you’re going and you’ll be amazed by the connective power of music: It knows no boundaries, cultures or class.
Regardless of your political affiliation, lobby for more municipal, provincial and federal funding for youth programs. Yes, it costs money now, but it saves all of us even more money in the long run. Remember: Jails, lawyers, judges and courts cost a hell of a lot more tax dollars than social programs.