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Tanasha Smith says the unsolved murder of her 15-year-old half brother Jarvis Montaque has destroyed her family. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)
Tanasha Smith says the unsolved murder of her 15-year-old half brother Jarvis Montaque has destroyed her family. (Kevin Van Paassen/The Globe and Mail)

crime

At Toronto Community Housing, a history of violence Add to ...

It took all of 15 minutes for Tanasha Smith to get from Brampton to Rexdale, but it felt like the longest drive of her life.

It was Family Day, a year ago this weekend, and she was racing to the public-housing project on Jamestown Crescent where she grew up. When she got there, she found her mother Melda, a Jamestown resident for 20 years, bawling. A toddling nephew, too innocent to grasp the gravity of what he was saying, kept repeating the news over and over.

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“Jarvis is dead,” he said. “Jarvis is dead.”

Jarvis Montaque, 15, had been shot dead on the doorstep, just moments after he had stepped outside. A half-brother from Jamaica, Jarvis had joined the Toronto family only a couple of years before.

Shootings can be part of life in some of Toronto’s housing projects – and while growing up in Jamestown, Ms. Smith has been close to homicide investigations before.

Years earlier, she had even been on the fringes of a group who persuaded an eyewitness to one of the Crescent’s killings into testifying at a trial. She thought she had left all that behind years ago.

Today, she is embittered by her half-brother’s unsolved case – and the lack of attention it gets. “Our family doesn’t get involved in guns, gangs and anything like that,” said Ms. Smith, a 34-year-old child and youth worker in a Toronto-area high school.

She wonders, though, if the public sees it that way. “The first thing is to blame where he lives, and think ‘He’s probably a gangster, and he deserves it, and let’s move on,’” she said. “No one cares – It’s just another black boy dead.”

Toronto Community Housing Corporation Security Report No. 434071 logs last year’s slaying of Jarvis Montaque as a murder.

More than 155 such victims have been similarly registered by the TCHC over the past 10 years, according to a long list of homicides on or near properties, or involving people from the properties.

The Globe and Mail obtained the decade’s worth of logs of murders – this is the term used – from a TCHC security database through a freedom of information request.

The homicides logged by the TCHC between 2003 and 2013 is just one stark measure of the problem. To put the overall number in perspective, 158 Canadian soldiers were killed in Afghanistan during a similar time span.

Statistically, Toronto remains one of North America’s safest cities. But not all neighbourhoods share in the peace equally.

Only 6 per cent of the city’s population lives in public housing, but last year, police publicly released statistics saying that in 2011, 22 per cent of the city’s homicides and 35 per cent of its shootings took place on or around TCHC properties.

The released logs of murders, as input by the agency’s own security guards, give added insights to this violence. The information was released to The Globe with victims’ identities and circumstances of the crimes redacted. But most of the listed dates and addresses corresponded with crimes that had been in the news. The Globe counted at least 155 victims.

An analysis showed that most of the victims are killed in shootings – and most of them are young. The median age of the victims appears to be around 26. But last year, five minors were shot dead in public housing properties, including a 15- and a 16-year-old who were gunned down together as three killers fled the scene on bikes.

Too often the carnage comes back to the same places: The crimes cluster around Lawrence Heights (at least eight homicides in the past 10 years), downtown’s Regent Park (10 homicides), Etobicoke’s Jamestown Crescent (14 homicides) and nearby Jane and Finch (20 homicides).

“I wouldn’t raise my kids in metro housing. It breeds a certain mentality,” said Mike Hinds, an outreach worker who rehabilitates gang members for a group called Breaking the Cycle.

A product of public housing himself, Mr. Hinds said many of today’s youth are conditioned to believe they are born rivals. Infighting among gangs centred in Toronto’s community housing projects can be as common as it is in the Caribbean or Los Angeles, he said.

It’s gotten so bad that gunmen sometimes shoot their victims at random, Mr. Hinds said. “It’s not the individual person – it’s where you’re from. Because you’re involved by association.”

Witnesses do come forward, but not often – and that’s another persistent problem that the TCHC faces.

Last August, a 26-year-old man was gunned down in an Etobicoke housing project. Three suspected killers were arrested after the victim’s neighbours called in tips.

That led TCHC chief executive Eugene Jones to announce $150,000 in added repair funds for the Swansea Mews complex – a reward he hoped would spur more of his residents to talk to police. The strategy raised eyebrows, but Mr. Jones stood firm.

“We’re not gonna just give things away; you’ve got to earn it,” he told CBC Metro Morning at the time.

**

There’s a lot riding on management in community housing, given that every dollar counts for the tenants. Yet the TCHC has long been battling perceptions of dysfunctional leaders who spend too much on themselves – including at staff parties and retreats – and aren’t doing enough to solve its problems.

Mr. Jones was hired from the Detroit housing authority two years ago, as a folksy executive who could curb costs while preaching the virtues of self-reliance to his Toronto residents. Yet this week he was under scrutiny amid allegations that he fired his new chief operating officer and paid her a substantial severance without being authorized to do so.

Housing’s board of directors voted 12-1 to strip Mr. Jones of his bonus and send him to management training amid the turmoil in the upper ranks. And that comes as the social housing agency is lobbying for $2.6-billion in taxpayer funds that it says it urgently needs to repair aging properties over the next 10 years.

The TCHC is grappling with a legacy of decisions made decades ago, when civic leaders decided to cram the city’s poorest people into sprawling and insular complexes. Officials are trying to hit the reboot button on several 1960s-era projects – Regent Park, Alexandra Park, Lawrence Heights – by using wrecking balls to smash a path for gentrification, and inviting in mixed-use buildings and hundreds of millions of dollars in private investment.

But that’s a long-term strategy. When Mr. Jones first arrived in Toronto in 2012, he spoke of making community safety an immediate priority. During his first month, he dealt with the fallout from the worst mass shooting in Toronto’s history, when gunmen sprayed bullets across a Scarborough townhouse complex on Danzig Street, wounding more than 20 people and killing two.

For the past year, a Toronto Police Services Board community safety task force has also been trying to wrap its head around TCHC violence. For a rounded look, the task force made a point of including police, politicians, housing officials, along with “Somali-Canadian youth,” to represent one of Toronto’s more troubled communities.

The hope was that multiple perspectives could find solutions, but they seem to be in short supply.

“There is no quick fix,” deputy Toronto Police Chief Peter Sloly said at an outreach meeting held in the TCHC’s Eagle Manor property in December. “There’s not going to be a brand new dawn where everyone wakes up and there is no problems in the buildings and no crime in the areas.”

The public was invited to that meeting, but so few people came that the task force outnumbered the audience.

Public interest in community-housing issues is often minimal, until violence starts spilling out. The records obtained by The Globe show that 23 homicides were logged by the TCHC on its properties during the so-called Year of the Gun in 2005, speaking to tinderbox-like tensions at the time.

Yet most Torontonians remember one homicide from that year more than most, and it didn’t occur in the projects. Fifteen-year old Jane Creba was a bystander caught in a Boxing Day crossfire near the Eaton Centre, killed as shooters aligned with rival Regent Park factions settled scores.

Within days, then-Conservative leader Stephen Harper invoked the crime as he campaigned for the job of prime minister. “On Boxing Day, residents of Toronto watched in horror as the city was ravaged by gunfire in open daylight,” Mr. Harper told a campaign rally. “A Conservative government will crack down on crime …”

**

In 2001, a man known as “Bluenose” (Leon Boswell) gunned down “Beef” (Wayne Reid) right in the middle of Jamestown Crescent.

Both were in their twenties, and so was a witness, “Cookie” (Shaun Sharp).

Facing constant prodding by some of Beef’s tougher friends, Cookie grew convinced of one thing: He was better off taking his chances in the witness box than on the streets. Breaking the code of silence, he testified, and disappeared into witness protection.

Sitting the wings of that investigation was Ms. Smith – then a new mother at age 21 – who was close to everyone involved. She watched the successful prosecution, and she grew to admire how the homicide detective, Gary Giroux, had handled things.

But she could never have imagined she would be seeing Detective Giroux in her family’s kitchen on Jamestown Crescent more than a decade later, in response to her half-brother’s homicide.

“You haven’t changed much, Gary,” she said when she recognized him. She says the detective’s presence was the only thing that lifted her spirits on that devastating day.

“Wow, this guy is willing to go the extra mile,” Ms. Smith recalls thinking. “I was just happy to see him.”

But one year later, justice still hasn’t come for Jarvis Montaque. Police say they won’t be able crack the murder case unless they can get what such prosecutions so often lack: witnesses.

“There are people who have to come forward, present themselves in a public forum, and give statements under oath and then testify truthfully,” Det. Giroux said in an interview. “And it’s a lot to ask for,” he said. “It changes peoples lives.”

Long before Jarvis came along, Ms. Smith was the first of nine daughters raised in that townhouse on Jamestown Crescent. Now a child and youth worker at a Brampton high school, she feels she can relate better than most to the students’ struggles.

As a kid, she says, she had to fight for attention – and sometimes food – with her siblings. A field trip to the SkyDome was the highlight of elementary school.

Ms. Smith says she avoided becoming a casualty of the neighbourhood because of strong influences. She had guidance from grandparents, and from teachers at the Catholic high school she attended across town. As a teen, she was always told to stay indoors and never linger outside – and she listened.

Frustrated with the stalled investigation, Ms. Smith has fired off sharp e-mails to police and housing officials, trying to get them to do more to solve Jarvis’s case and to help her family.

Meantime, on this Family Day anniversary of her brother’s murder, her own family has been torn apart by the tragedy.

“A lot of us don’t speak to each other,” she said. “The family is destroyed.”

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Manslaughter and murder logs from the Toronto Community Housing Corporation

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