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Opinion Toronto can look to Vancouver area to see what’s sadly coming next in gun violence

When Toronto Mayor John Tory was asked recently about the recent spate of deadly gun violence in his city, his response hit all the predictable political notes.

He was “damn mad” about a shooting spree that has now claimed the lives of 25 people this year and wanted police to “root out the thugs responsible for this violence.” He would not tolerate “this reckless disregard for life in our city.” And he suggested the solution to solving the problem of gun violence was “easy” if more police were deployed. On that front, he couldn’t have been more wrong.

There are no easy answers, Mr. Mayor. And, consequently, Toronto should brace for what could be a long, hot summer of more bloodshed.

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Those questioning this claim need look no further than Metro Vancouver for the evidence. Communities such as Abbotsford and Surrey have been dealing with gang violence for decades now. And in some respects, the problem is as bad as ever.

Last year, the city of Surrey formed a task force to look into the problem yet again. Its report, issued this week, must have left many residents in British Columbia’s second-largest city with a sense of déjà vu, with so much of it covering familiar ground. Its biggest take-away? To reduce gang violence society needs to focus on middle-school children, those between the ages of 6 and 12, and especially those identified as at-risk. This is the demographic range in which kids can be convinced about the perilous hazards of a gang existence. It’s also the age when some start getting recruited for the job.

RCMP constables attend a call in a high crime area in Surrey, B.C., last year.

Rafal Gerszak/The Globe and Mail

The report outlined a plethora of anti-gang programs that the police, educators and social agencies already conduct during and after schools. Some no doubt help steer kids away from a life of crime. But there are 72,000 students in Surrey. These programs aren’t going to be able to help everyone and gangs only need to convert a small percentage of kids to keep their way of life alive.

The truth is, there is often little the police can do about some of the biggest contributing factors to gang involvement. One, for instance, is family. If a kid lives in a home in which the father is physically abusive to the mother, it normalizes violence and shapes the child’s world view. The Surrey RCMP report that 40 per cent of the individuals involved in gang conflict between 2014 and 2016 were exposed to some type of domestic violence in their upbringing, either as victims or witnesses.

Gangs, guns and Toronto: A primer on this summer’s shootings and the stories behind them

Neither can the police control substance abuse in the home, which also seems to be a common background element in the upbringing of eventual gang members. The young men who find themselves in street fights involving guns were often bullied growing up and had no positive role models. Some are new immigrants who felt socially and culturally isolated after coming to Canada. Some have mental-health issues, such as anti-social personality disorder. Many, not surprisingly, come from low-income, high-crime neighbourhoods.

There will always be kids lured by the perceived glamour of the gangster lifestyle, not to mention the easy money. For a kid who comes from a home with little of it, it’s an attractive option.

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So, cure all those problems and you’ll start making inroads into the gang problem, and shootings on the streets.

But flooding the neighbourhoods with new recruits is unlikely to lead to any quick change. A couple of years ago, the RCMP put 100 new badges on the ground in Surrey to deal with the gang problem and shootings. The fresh recruits had little impact. Gang fighting needs experienced staff, training that takes years to accumulate. Also, swamping the roads with cop cars doesn’t get at the root of the problem. It doesn’t address those formative, early-life negative influences.

Toronto is a big, sprawling, multiethnic community that, in many ways, is a bigger version of Surrey. The wave of gun violence in the city is undoubtedly the result of many things, the clash of gangs being among them. Shootings are often incited by turf wars and retaliations. Sometimes they are touched off by personal grudges or the littlest perceived slight.

And if Surrey’s gun violence history is any indication, these shooting sprees often come in unexplainable waves.

What is common to all of the carnage, however, is the fact that it ends lives, destroys families, scares innocent people and tears at the social fabric of our communities. And we all pay a price for it.

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