The federal government announced new funding on Thursday for programs in Toronto aimed at steering young people away from gangs as the city – already suffering a record year for homicides – reeled again from a series of brazen shootings.
In all, Ottawa committed slightly more than $7-million over the next five years. The bulk of it, $6.7-million, will go to double the size of a program that trains young people as mental-health “peer healers” who meet with youth in troubled neighbourhoods.
Another $400,000 over two years will go toward the Toronto Police Service’s “neighbourhood officers” program in targeted areas. It will provide “gang prevention and intervention,” and use officers to connect 350 young people to life-skills training to help with things ranging from résumé writing to “emotional intelligence.”
“I have seen firsthand how effective these programs can be,” said Bill Blair, the federal Minister of Border Security and Organized Crime Reduction and a former Toronto Police chief.
The funding, announced by Mr. Blair at City Hall on Thursday alongside Mayor John Tory and Toronto Police Chief Mark Saunders, is expected to be only the first of a series of such announcements. Earlier this year, city officials applied for $32.6-million from a pot of federal funding for a variety of youth and crime-prevention programs.
A spate of shootings this week has left two people dead. On Thursday, police were investigating a drive-by shooting the day before just steps from a North York elementary school. The carnage put Toronto’s homicide total for the year at 95, a record, with 50 of those deaths from bullets.
Chief Saunders said policing is important, but sustainable solutions to gang violence also involve community programs: “We know that we can’t arrest our way out of this.”
Speaking to reporters, Mr. Blair remained non-committal about pleas from the municipal governments of Toronto and Montreal for a comprehensive ban on handguns.
He said the Liberal government is still open to “any and all measures” proven to reduce violence, but has not yet made a decision after public consultations it held in the fall. He also said he is conducting his review “respectful of those who obey our laws, and who act very responsibly in their firearm ownership.”
Mr. Tory, who noted the city is hiring more police officers, said the solution to gun violence is a multifaceted approach.
“Our mission is clear: Choke off the supply of guns and actually work to discourage people, especially young people, from going anywhere near them,” Mr. Tory said. “And that means doing everything we can to address the root causes of violence.”
With the new $6.7-million, the city’s Community Healing Project for Crime Prevention and Intervention will be able to double its reach from 10 neighbourhoods to 20 and, officials say, get at some of those root causes.
An additional 250 “peer healers” from troubled areas will be trained in how to deal with the mental-health issues that come with living in violence-prone communities.
Jah-Reign Taylor, 24, a peer healer who has worked in Toronto’s Rexdale and Jane-Finch areas, says he wished the program existed back when he was 13 – and ended up involved with a gang.
He says his group meetings grew from five to 15 participants as the violence worsened.
“These youths tell me that they are scared to go outside. They are scared to talk to the police. They are scared to talk to anybody about what’s really going on,” Mr. Taylor said. “Nobody should have to live in fear.”