In some Toronto neighbourhoods, kids are dodging gunfire in the playground. Stray bullets are flying through the windows of people's homes and landing under their beds. "I don't let my kids play outside any more," one mother said. Another said: "My kids were pretty scared. Everyone slept with Mommy last night."
This is not the place Michael Thompson remembers growing up in. "There's a thug culture that's developing in the city of Toronto. And I don't want to support it."
Mr. Thompson is a city councillor, but his message isn't all that popular at City Hall. Most of our politicians would rather duck the bullets and hope the problem goes away.
"I have pictures in my desk of the young boys who've been murdered," says Mr. Thompson. He has a tape of a cellphone conversation, too. It was the last call the murder victim ever made. "You can hear his voice as he's being beaten with a gun butt, pleading for his life."
According to Statistics Canada, Toronto is among Canada's safest cities. But according to the TV news, it's a war zone. In the space of a few hours on Monday night, six people were shot in five separate incidents. On Tuesday, a man was shot to death outside a busy Toronto-area shopping mall in broad daylight.
Incidents of public gang-related violence have increased and, in some neighbourhoods, gunfire has become routine. Mr. Thompson has been told that speaking out isn't good for tourism, but he does it anyway. "Innocent people are dying in our streets as a result of reckless acts of violence."
For reasons that aren't hard to guess, few people will talk bluntly about who's being shot, who's shooting them, and why. According to Mayor David Miller, the problem is lax gun laws in the United States. "The U.S. is exporting violence," he said the other day. Police watchdog John Sewell insists it's our fault, for not doing enough to make sure "kids aren't interested in guns and feel that they're part of the society."
So let's give thanks for Mr. Thompson. He's not afraid to say the problem is drugs and gangs and lax gun laws and the growth of a thug culture. Perhaps the reason he can speak so plainly is because he's black -- as are almost all of the shooters and the shot, as well as those scared little kids who've got to sleep with Mommy.
"The Mayor hasn't done enough," says Mr. Thompson, who, unlike Mr. Miller, thinks the police need a clear-cut mandate and more resources. "We need to make gun crime a priority. We need to provide police with more officers to ensure that communities feel safe." He wants mini-police stations in troubled neighbourhoods. He also wants tougher sentencing for gun crimes. Right now, he says, sentencing is a joke, and many of the criminals are repeat offenders. "Minimum sentencing is an absolute requirement." He wants a stronger witness protection program, so people who help the police don't become targets, too. He wants the police to build a stronger relationship with kids at risk. "No one initiative is going to work."
Mr. Thompson was born in Jamaica and came to Canada when he was 11. He was raised by a single mother, and now has a young family of his own. "There are a lot of people who've come through adverse conditions and haven't resorted to crime and violence," he says. As for the racial issue, "I'm not going to walk on eggshells about it. It's young people from a distinct community who are uninterested in being contributing members of society. . . . The expectation is, let me get what I can as quickly as I can. The fastest way to get there is crime and drugs.
"There's a culture out there of rap music and videos and the lingo and the bling bling, the jewellery and fine cars. The friends and family are very supportive when they bring the money home and drive the fancy cars, but very unhappy when they get arrested or killed."
Mr. Thompson says he's been warned to watch what he says, or else he, too, could become a target. But he's not about to shut up. "It tears at me," he says. "This city is too great a city. I care too much about what happens in it to sit idly by when young kids have to hide from bullets spraying at them in playgrounds."