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Racism is "alive and well" in Ontario and shares the blame for the recent rise in youth violence, according to a long-awaited report that urges the province to gather racial data and provide anti-racism training to police.

The sweeping report, released yesterday, described a culture where some minority groups encounter systemic barriers, while others - in particular blacks and aboriginals - suffer from an entrenched and more "virulent form" of racism.

"We were taken aback by the extent to which racism is alive and well and wreaking its deeply harmful effects on Ontarians and on the very fabric of this province," it says.

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The panel, headed by former Ontario chief justice Roy McMurtry and former Liberal MPP Alvin Curling, was set up by Premier Dalton McGuinty after the shooting death of 15-year-old Jordan Manners in May of 2007 at C.W. Jefferys Collegiate Institute in North York. Since then, a string of high-profile incidents, including another stabbing at C.W. Jefferys this week, have kept the youth violence issue boiling.

The panel concluded that poverty, racism, lack of decent housing and a culturally insensitive school curriculum create a sense of hopelessness among youth that all too often results in violence.

"Ontario is at a crossroads," Mr. McMurtry said. "Unless we respond with a co-ordinated, comprehensive and sustained effort, then the prognosis for the future could be grim."

In its criticisms of curriculum, the panel also called on the province to make sure teachers and administrators at schools better reflect the neighbourhoods they serve.

Acknowledging that implementing all 30 recommendations will take time, especially with a worsening economy, Mr. McMurtry said the panel has earmarked three as top priorities: allocating $200-million for improved youth mental-health services; creating community hubs, preferably within schools; and initiating anti-racism measures that include the controversial gathering of race-based statistics and anti-racism training for front-line officers.

"It is urgent in our view that we begin to act on these now. They have the potential to not only improve living conditions in our most-disadvantaged communities before next summer, but also to offer a reason for these communities to hope that someone has finally heard them and is serious about addressing their concerns," he said.

Many were reluctant yesterday to endorse the gathering of racial data. Mr. McMurtry said there was a "sea change" in the black community, but detractors, including Toronto Mayor David Miller and black community activist and defence lawyer Courtney Betty, expressed fear that it could lead to discrimination.

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Natasha Gibbs-Watson, who runs a youth justice program for at-risk youth of African descent, said that while the concerns are justified, collecting the data would shed light on problems that the government needs to address.

"We service youth of African descent that have been either pushed out of school, randomly stopped by police on their way to school, have been denied a job, followed around in a store, or even denied housing because race played a significant factor," she said.

Toronto police spokeswoman Constable Wendy Drummond said the force had no immediate comment because there had been no opportunity to review the report's contents.

The panel declined to indicate how much it would cost to implement all 30 recommendations.

"We're going to take the same approach to this as we did to the Ipperwash report," Mr. McGuinty told reporters.

"We broke it down into three parts, essentially: those we needed to move on immediately, those that are medium term and those that are longer term."

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*****

RECOMMENDATIONS

A sweeping report on youth violence, authored by former Ontario chief justice Roy McMurtry and former Liberal MPP Alvin Curling, made 30 recommendations yesterday. Among them, the province should:

start collecting race-based data and ensure that action is taken before next summer to improve police-minority relations in neighbourhoods through youth-police liaison committees and anti-racism training for front-line police officers;

work with municipal governments to build community hubs in or near schools that would provide programs and services for young people;

set aside $200-million for youth mental-health services;

create a cabinet committee on social inclusion and anti-racism, with a dedicated secretariat to provide policy advice and co-ordinate plans between different ministries and community groups;

continue pressing the federal government to implement a handgun ban in Ontario.

Caroline Alphonso

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