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I was a teenage thug Add to ...

Toronto's spate of deaths and casualties from gunfire has drawn comments from all quarters, from political opportunists to family members to police, about what we must do to stop the violence and protect the innocent. I'd like to add my perspective, as someone once engaged in monstrous acts myself.

At 41, I can look back and see the error of my ways. As a man-child, I could not. I am that archetype, the son of a single mother with no father to guide me. I must have been 12 when I figured out that I was stronger than my mother and could do what I wished. When a boy hits puberty and there is no older, trusted male to guide him, the streets seem like the best available teacher. And their lesson is that might is right.

Back in mid 1970s, we didn't call our groups "gangs" but that's what we were. We'd skip school and attack random strangers in the subway system or venture to other schools to beat people up in order to show them not to mess with the guys from the High School of Montreal. We engaged in horrible deeds and we loved every minute of it.

Eventually, I started to worry about myself: What if someone we'd roughed up caught me alone and beat me? Engaged in a brawl in the subway system, I began to worry that I might get tossed onto the tracks in front of an oncoming train.

I've had many years to look back and wrestle with my conscience. It was fear for myself that made me stop and think; the pain of others was simply not enough to warrant my attention back then.

Now, I can offer you this -- the reasons we engaged in this behaviour. We were not inherently psychopathic. But we were poor. When you see what looks like wealthy children, happy with the latest toys, clothes and treats, you become resentful. Even a trip to McDonald's was a luxury. You envied those who could go when you could not.

I'll always remember the moment when I made the calculation to commit crimes. I must have been about 10. The older boys from the neighbourhood had brought me along as a decoy on a shoplifting trip. I was a little apprehensive, but then, walking down Milton Street toward downtown Montreal, it hit me: Why should I be deprived of the things that make life enjoyable simply because I didn't have wealthy parents? A mere chance of birth determined that my life was a horror show. I would not let chance destroy me as an individual. I was poor through no fault of my own -- and so I had a right, no, an entitlement, to take for myself what others had only because of the random occurrence of their birth.

And so I became a thief -- petty to be sure, but a thief nonetheless. Of course, I feared getting caught, but I could set that against a return-on-investment calculation: What would the punishment be? Was it worth the gain? Given the lax laws of the time, my friends and I even spoke of murder as being something we could get away with. Back then, we expected we'd be locked up until the age of 18 and then let go.

There are many things I could tell you, but I want you to know this: While the unfairness of poverty will sometimes lead to criminal behaviour, you should know, too, that if the laws are too easy on adolescents, then they will make their calculations of brutality. If the consequences are short and not too severe, the risks become irrelevant.

Luckily, guns were rare in those days. While we used knives, chains, or anything else we could get our hands on, no one died as a result of our acts (a few friends who stayed criminals did die -- but that was later).

The solution to the youth violence problem is, in my opinion, two-fold:

1. Courts must deal severely with any use of guns. Why not hear crimes involving firearms in a military court -- after all, if you use weapons of war against a civilian population, shouldn't you face military justice? More realistically, I'd like to see those who use guns in the act of committing crimes be excluded from the provisions of young offender laws;

2. The federal government must look at the causes of poverty, such as our high immigration levels. Pouring desperate people into large cities isn't helping poverty, it's adding to it. We all know that there are many benefits from immigration. But despite Ottawa's wishful thinking, the vast majority of newcomers do not want to live in small-town or rural Canada. What is happening right now is that underemployed newcomers put a downward pressure on wages, while resources that could go to skills training and upgrading instead go to teaching English and soft skills. If you were born into poverty in this country, this seems monstrously unfair.

Until it is clear to young people that there are severe and long-term consequences to using firearms, and until the federal government stops adding to poverty instead of reducing it, Canadians can look forward to more murder and mayhem. The feds have the tools. It's up to whoever forms the next government to implement the solutions to the problems they have helped create.

Michael Tripper is a graphic designer who has worked in Montreal, Ottawa, Toronto and Vancouver.

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