In sentencing reports for gang and gun violence cases in Toronto – and there are hundreds to comb through over the past decade – familiar patterns stand out among the offenders’ backstories. Young. Often men. Often black. Often raised in poverty. An early exposure to violence and drugs. Systemic barriers and struggles in school.
Amber Kellen is keenly aware of the role that poverty, racism, mental health and ideas of masculinity play in the lives of gang-involved youth. The director with the John Howard Society of Toronto rhymes off a list of social factors when asked to explain what’s behind a recent surge in brazen gun crime in Toronto.
One jarring insight, however, goes further than any other to distill the problem: young men tell them that they don’t expect to live past the age of 20.
“There’s this idea that there’s not much to lose,” Ms. Kellen says.
With Toronto edging toward another record year of shooting victims, there is a growing push to tackle gun violence from a public-health perspective rather than simply an issue of criminal justice. Instead of debating the merits of street checks and bail conditions, researchers and advocates argue that the focus must be on the social inequalities they say lie at the root of the problem.
It’s a message Toronto has heard before. Every year, incidents of gun violence – which this year have already surpassed 200, with 274 victims – are measured against 2005, the so-called “year of the gun” when 15-year-old Jane Creba was killed in the crossfire of a gang shootout near the Eaton Centre on Boxing Day. In the months and years after that tragedy, the root causes of violence were highlighted and solutions were offered. Money was spent. But those efforts, that funding, and the political motivation behind them, have largely petered out.
At the same time, the economic divide has worsened. A report by the University of Toronto and the United Way noted that there were five very low-income neighbourhoods in Toronto in 1980. In 2015, there were dozens.
The shock and outrage from the city after two recent downtown shootings provokes a bitter reaction from neighbourhoods that have long been disproportionately impacted by gun violence.
“For those of us who work in neighbourhoods like Rexdale or Lawrence Heights or Regent Park, there is a sense that the pain our neighbourhoods go through – almost on a weekly basis – is not responded to until these kinds of extremely reckless, very public events unfold,” says Paulos Gebreyesus, executive director of the Regent Park Community Health Centre.
Police have not said officially whether any of the recent shootings are linked. But community workers on the front-line, like Mr. Gebreyesus, fear they must be − and worry about further retaliation.
There are well-known neighbourhood rivalries – or “geographic conflicts” – in the city that go back decades, Mr. Gebreyesus says; feuds that are inherited by each new generation of young people. Fights they are born into.
“It can be a very difficult and complex situation. That’s why, for me, this notion of ‘good guys and bad guys’ really needs to be put away,” he says.
“Who is the victim? Who is the perpetrator? [Maybe] today, I’m a victim, [and then] tomorrow, I’m on the attack. And the next day, I’m the victim. And the next day, I’m on the attack.”
Toronto Police Superintendent Ron Taverner oversees divisions 12, 23, and 31 in the northwest part of the city − a segment of the city that has been similarly impacted by gun violence. Collectively, those three divisions have had 74 shooting occurrences so far this year; more than 35 per cent of the city’s total. Supt. Taverner laments the seeming inevitability of the violence.
“Sometimes they don’t even know why they have the rivalry,” he says. “It’s just geographic and it’s always been that way.”
Five days before Jahvante Smart (a rapper who went by the name Smoke Dawg) was killed along with another man, Ernest Modekwe (a fellow rapper who went by Koba Prime), he posted a music video online in which he is filmed at both a Regent Park housing complex as well as a co-op in Alexandra Park − two neighbourhoods that are known to have historic rivalries.
One day after Mr. Smart and Mr. Modekwe were killed, shots were fired in Kensington Market, near Alexandra Park, and one man − whom police have not identified − was killed.
But while this timeline might seem linear, rivalries and tensions are fluid.
Jooyoung Lee, an associate professor of sociology at the University of Toronto, says the narratives that play out on social media and in the news after a shooting incident are, at best, partial − and often simplified.
“It’s an easy way for the public to make sense of [the violence],” he says, cautioning against the racist stereotypes and “moral assumptions” we make about shooting victims.
Even the identity of being a gang member is complex, he says. There are many reasons someone might join a gang; for a feeling of belonging, for protection – against rivals or even police – or for money.
The promise of money, in particular, he says, can be “tantalizing for someone who doesn’t feel like there are a lot of options in front of them.” And someone who is in a gang could also simultaneously be a contributing member of their family and community.
Social media has compounded the crime problem. Rivalries that used to exist on the street are now being amplified online − which poses challenges for parents and educators.
“The social and virtual worlds that young people live in … are not well understood, and are not well monitored, by adults,” Mr. Gebreyesus says.
The link between income disparity and violent crime has been well studied. When traditional markers of success – steady work, home ownership – feel unattainable, that can instill a sense of hopelessness, according to a 2002 World Bank report that offers universal lessons.
“The feeling of disadvantage and unfairness leads the poor to seek compensation and satisfaction by all means, including committing crimes,” it reads.
Money is certainly a key factor, says Ken Williams, co-ordinator for the John Howard Society’s HIPP program, a gang exit program for young African-Canadian men coming out of custody.
“These kids feel a sense of social isolation. They don’t feel part of anything,” he says.
“They connect to a group of people that they feel a sense of comfort with − and motivation is usually money or survival … they’ve kind of figured out the system is skewed against them − and the only way they can get something is via shortcuts.”
In generations past, United Way Greater Toronto President and CEO Daniele Zanotti says, hard work and an opportunity were usually enough to lead to a good job and a path out of poverty.
“What our research indicates is that today, with growing income inequality, the disappearance of middle-income neighbourhoods replaced by either low- or high-income neighbourhoods, that opportunity equation is lost,” he says. “And when that opportunity equation is lost, there is a risk, also, that hope is lost.”
Governments need to do more, Mr. Zanotti says − but it is crucial that the communities affected by income inequality be deeply involved in the design of programs meant to help them.
“We believe that nothing short of long-term, sustained investments in neighbourhoods, in young people, will get us through this long-term, sustained income inequality gap that we are seeing.”
Communities in mourning
Sureya Ibrahim, a mother of three who has lived in Regent Park for more than 20 years, bristled at Mayor John Tory’s use of the word “thug” in describing the men involved with recent gun violence.
She feels as though her community has been in a constant state of mourning. Last year, 18-year-old Ali Rizeig was shot and killed outside his home in January. One of last weekend’s victims, Mr. Smart, was also a resident.
“We are losing young people every day, black people every day.”
Ms. Ibrahim works closely with mothers who have lost their children to gun violence through the support program Regent Park Mothers for Peace. She worries that the families left behind are being neglected.
“This is someone’s child,” she says. “All kids are the same.”
But not all kids, she adds, have access to sports teams or dance lessons or after-school and summer job programs.
At the Boys & Girls Club in Regent Park, waiting lists for summer youth programs are constantly full. The problem, program director Ian Edward said, boils down to a lack of funds.
There has been no consistent funding for programs that assist children over the age of 12, leaving a gap in programming during some of the most vulnerable years of a child’s life.
It’s a challenge voiced by community agencies across the city. Core funding is rare. In the 1990s, non-profit organizations would be given lump sums to spend as they best saw fit.
“We don’t have that any more,” says Ms. Kellen, of the John Howard Society. Today, funding is sought on a per-project basis.
“Everything is tied to deliverables and outcomes,” she says − which is challenging in a sector where results can be difficult to quantify. The agencies cannot measure how many crimes were not committed because of their work.
“I think when you’re looking at a population that is so vulnerable, and managing so much violence, you start to look at success differently,” she says. “Maybe success looks like one of these participants is actually still alive in six months. I think we have to be more realistic about our expectations.”
Precarious funding means that organizations are forced to adapt to the moulds of their funders, she says − “or the flavour of the month or the year or the current political party and their interests.”
Supports for criminalized men can be a difficult sell.
“If you’re fortunate to get a three- or four-year grant, you spend the first two years breathing and then spend the next two trying to get more funding,” she says.
It can take months, even years, to earn a young person’s trust. And when these programs get cancelled, or shifted to another organization, they feel abandoned.
Donna Harrow has worked in Alexandra Park for more than 40 years. She interacts with youth daily through her work as director of its community centre − a lifeline in the neighbourhood that she says continues to be underfunded.
For kids ages 12 to 16, the centre provides after-school programming during the academic year and day camps during the summer. Children from all backgrounds come for homework help, meals and to participate in physical activity. The centre also runs a one-on-one mentorship program for youth over the age of 13 that is focused on employment and career growth.
But in Ms. Harrow’s view, our societal systems work against the youth who most need help.
If a young person acts out at school, they get suspended. If they get suspended enough, they get expelled − or drop out. Once out of school, they are cut off from many of the programs and supports for youth. Without an education, they are unable to land a steady job. And without that path, they turn to drugs and gangs as a means of income, and act out of “frustration and alienation.”
“They will go in other directions because they don’t get the love, support and respect that they need,” Ms. Harrow said.
She knows firsthand, because gun violence is a crisis that Alexandra Park has been dealing with for years. According to police data, there have been 13 shootings – and 18 shooting victims – in 14 Division, where the neighbourhood is located, so far this year.
“We live it every day.”
Shift in policing
Police are recognizing that their role is changing. In order to be effective, they need to build relationships with the communities they are serving. Enforcement is not enough.
They don’t hold the solution to violence, but they play a critical role in the communities the violence affects − and in the past, it has at times been a problematic one.
One of the things that came out of “the year of the gun” was the creation of the Toronto Anti-Violence Intervention Strategy (TAVIS) − a program that was found to use street checks that disproportionately targeted people of colour and specifically young black men, leading to fractured relationships between officers and communities.
The province has implemented new regulations to end street checks and TAVIS has been shut down. The service acknowledged that it was a flawed program, but some police officers maintain that they lost an important investigative tool − and some have even blamed the end of street checks for the rise in violence.
In a letter to the mayor this week, obtained by Global News, a 30-year veteran of the Toronto Police Service criticized Mr. Tory as a “direct contributor” to the shootings for cutting TAVIS and supporting the demise of carding.
He said TAVIS “kept gangs at bay and always looking over their shoulders.”
Yet community advocates argue that the social cost far outweighed any investigative benefit.
Deputy Chief Peter Yuen stresses that the service’s focus is on reshaping its community policing − recognizing the importance of embedding in a community and “humanizing the badge.”
The service is rolling out an “enhanced” neighbourhood policing program this fall in eight neighbourhoods, in order to repair relationships and build trust with communities across the city.
They already have neighbourhood officers in 33 areas. The big difference with the new program, Deputy Chief Yuen said, is that the community was consulted and involved in the planning process. These new officers will be assigned to a specific community for years at a time to ensure they become a familiar face.
“I’ve been a police officer for 30 years and I have to say, we continue to progress and learn from our past mistakes,” he said. “This is a departure from ‘us against them.’ ”
Each week, Supt. Taverner sits down with a panel of stakeholders in the Rexdale neighbourhood – FOCUS Rexdale, the program is called – to discuss specific issues that come up in the community, and how they can all chip in to solve them.
Of 295 people helped by this collective, 75 per cent have shown improvement over the long term, according to Lisa Kostakis, a core member of these meetings.
She says police play an essential role in these meetings, where the focus is placed on long-term outreach rather than putting individuals through the judicial system.
Ms. Kostakis said youth aged 12 to 17 are a key demographic to focus on, as anti-social and negative behaviours tend to manifest during that time. For this reason, support groups focus on reaching out to children as young as 11 years old. There is also a growing emphasis on helping females, as agencies are noticing a rise in their involvement with violent crimes.
The collective response is critical, Ms. Kostakis says.
“Police can’t do this alone … we can’t overcome these challenges alone,” Supt. Taverner says. “We need community partners, community support.”
In addition to Rexdale, similar FOCUS programs exist in three other police divisions across the city, including 51 Division, which encompasses Regent Park, and 14 Division, where Alexandra Park is located.
The group receives funding from United Way Greater Toronto and the City of Toronto, as well as private donations. But Ms. Kostakis said funding has been frozen for more than five years. This has proved to be challenging as the number of cases the group handles has been steadily increasing.
There’s growing consensus that gun and gang violence is not a problem the city can arrest its way out of.
More than 70 people were arrested and 75 guns were taken off the street during the Project Patton raids last month into the notorious Five Point Generalz gang − but seven people have been killed in shootings in Toronto since that was announced.
“They did an amazing job on that,” Supt. Taverner said of the project. “But the shootings continue.”
Mr. Gebreyesus would like to see a public-health emergency called. Violence, like poverty, he notes, is a social determinant of health.
“It would enable us to bring a whole set of different tools and resources to address this issue − and to discuss it plainly. It feels as though as soon as something occurs, someone’s rushing to say ‘everything’s fine,’ ” he says.
“When we compare the mortality and morbidity rates of gun violence to SARS, to measles, any of those issues where we have been quick to call an emergency … it’s astounding.”