As police laid a first charge in connection with a brazen block party shooting in Toronto's east end, community leaders and politicians called for more support for the gang-diversion programs they say have a proven record of keeping at-risk kids out of trouble.
Nahom Tsegazab, 19, was charged with reckless discharge of a firearm on Thursday. Police said the Toronto man was among those injured on Monday night and remains in custody in the hospital where he is being treated. Police confirmed he was the "person of interest" they referred to immediately after the shooting.
Tasheka Mason, a youth worker in Scarborough, said she has known Mr. Tsegazab for years, since her godsister met him in high school. Since then, her godsister and Mr. Tsegazab have dated and he helped out Ms. Mason with programs she runs in the community, she said. The charge has taken them aback, Ms. Mason said.
"This is somebody I've worked with for multiple years of his life, not to tell you he's the perfect kid," she said. "But as far as I'm concerned... [he's] somebody who was very intelligent, very sophisticated... always laughing, always talking to people."
Mr. Tsegazab's family had just left the hospital before he was charged, Ms. Mason said. His mother and two sisters are also having a hard time, she added. "The mother is devastated right now," she said.
Ms. Mason said that since the Danzig Street shooting on Monday there's been too much of a focus on gangs, which aren't the real problem. She said she doesn't know Mr. Tsegazab to be involved in anything like that, including carrying a weapon. "These are youth that are under served and marginalized," she said. "It took violence and 23 wounded people and two dead for the police to recognize that this is an under- served community."
Comments by other community leaders about gang-diversion programs came after Mayor Rob Ford suggested the best way to deal with the recent spate of shootings in the city was to impose longer jail sentences and somehow expel convicted offenders from Toronto.
Asked how he planned to force gangsters out, Mr. Ford told a radio host on AM640: "I don't know and that's what I'm going to sit down with the Prime Minister and find out: how our immigration laws work."
Mr. Ford plans to meet with Police Chief Bill Blair and Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty on Monday in what the Premier said will be the first in a series of sessions to discuss what measures are needed to bolster community safety.
Mr. McGuinty said he worries that government leaders and police will respond to the largest mass shooting in Toronto's history by dividing into two camps – those calling exclusively for tougher laws versus those saying the answer is more community supports.
"I think we need to come to the table not so much with demands of each other, but rather questions for ourselves that we need to ask," Mr. McGuinty told reporters in Ottawa. "What is it we can bring to the table as part of the solution?"
All three levels of government as well as law enforcement officials and community members must be involved in the talks, he said.
Scarborough Councillor Michael Thompson, a supporter of the mayor's, said he doesn't see where Mr. Ford's comments about immigration fit into a conversation about gun violence in the city.
"I don't understand the concept or the principle associated with that," he said. "Because that would presuppose that simply that only those who are immigrants... are committing crimes and that's a position I do not share."
The mayor refused to clarify his comments, which some said further stigmatize people who have committed crimes.
"There's an otherness about the conversation," said Victor Beausoleil of Redemption Reintegration Services, which is based in Scarborough. "I think it's crazy. We have to figure out ways to reintegrate folks properly."
Speaking at a press conference in a community centre organized by the African Canadian Legal Clinic, former provincial cabinet minister Alvin Curling said government should offer stable and consistent funding to community organizations and youth workers, rather than running short-term pilot projects. More could also be done to improve public housing and expand mental-health programs.
"Because of the recession, whatever supports the priority neighbourhoods had have been cut back," he said.
Mr. Curling co-authored a 2008 report on the causes of youth violence, but community leaders said the province has not implemented his recommendations.
"I'm not a big fan of more reports or commissions or studies. We have hit a plateau," said city councillor Paul Ainslie. "We need to implement what's already been studied."
Councillor Adam Vaughan said public housing residents should have the opportunity to start small businesses to generate economic development, citing informal hair salons in housing projects and a program in Alexandra Park that allows residents to run food stands out of converted shipping containers.
Mr. Vaughan, a critic of the mayor, also took aim at the notion that more police alone would simply do the trick.
"I've heard people say, 'Let's make life for gang members miserable,' " he said. "But ask any young person involved in that, and they'll tell you it's the misery that put them there."
Mr. Ford's cuts to public housing and other programs, he said, are part of the problem and also pointed to the mayor's vote last month to refuse hundreds of thousands of provincial money for anti-gang programs.
"If when the three levels of government come to talk about this issue, all they want to talk about is jail, they can go to hell," he said, to sustained applause from the crowd.
But the mayor received some words of support from federal Immigration Minister Jason Kenney on Thursday, who said on Twitter that he agrees with Mr. Ford's notion that foreign criminals should be deported. "That's why we've introduced the Faster Removal of Foreign Criminals Act," he wrote.
Tabled June 20 in the Commons, the bill would make it easier to deport landed immigrants convicted of serious crimes.
Under the current system, landed immigrants are already liable to be thrown out of Canada if they're handed a sentence of more than six months in jail.
But those sentenced to less than two years' imprisonment are allowed to appeal the deportation with Ottawa's Immigration Appeal Division and at least delay their removal. The rewrite planned by the Harper government would do away with this right of appeal.
Monday's shooting left two people dead and 23 others injured, after at least two people pulled out guns and began firing in the middle of a community barbecue.
Shyanne Charles, 14, and Joshua Yasay, 23, were both killed.
In the days after the block party shooting, two more people were gunned down in different parts of the city: Clayton Wright, 42, and Daniel Davis, 27.
Jennilyn Yasay, 30, the eldest sister of Mr. Yasay, said Thursday that it was "a good sign somebody's been arrested but this isn't the end of it."
She said there was somebody there that night, possibly a female, who assisted Mr. Yasay after he was shot.
"Please come forth with any information," Ms. Yasay said. "If there's anything Josh would want it's for justice to be served.
"Please help my family," she said through tears. "Bring my brother that peace."
With reports from Matthew Robinson, Karen Howlett and Stephen Spencer Davis in Toronto and Steven Chase in Ottawa