Andrew ‘Jaydahmann’ Cox is a community developer, creator and social activist working in government, non-profits and independently.
In many impoverished neighbourhoods, what you often feel immediately is a captivating energy, and a strong sense of family and community. I’m the oldest of seven children born to teenage Caribbean parents – raised primarily by my mother – and I grew up in such places in Toronto: Jane and Finch, Sparroway, Chester Le, Lawrence Heights.
Growing up in these communities, which were largely made up of Caribbean immigrants and their first-generation Canadian children, empowered me to embrace my Caribbean heritage. I became steeped in our music and dancing, our food, our household structures, our native language and our impromptu block parties. It felt like everyone was looking out for each other. But police cruisers are also common sights there, and these places also imparted a kind of swagger, as well as a definition of masculinity based in proving one’s toughness.
Even though low-income, predominantly Black communities are often defined by their warmth and have produced so much of today’s pop culture – including modern music’s most influential genre, hip-hop – the people who live there continue to experience systemic discrimination. All too often, youth growing up there get caught in the intergenerational cycle of crime and trauma, and many end up in the criminal-justice system – not because they entered this world as bad kids, but because of their associations with these communities.
I know this firsthand. I was no pushover growing up, but many of my mother’s friends looked at me as “the golden child” – the one who was going to be successful and make her proud. You might see me the same way, if you were to look at my reputation and resumé today. But it took an enormous amount of effort to get to where I am now because I, like too many Black Canadians, was dealt two bad hands: one before I went to jail, and the other when I got out.
For the first few years of their lives, children raised in low-income homes have the same aptitude scores and enthusiasm about life as children in middle- and upper-class neighbourhoods, according to research from educator, social activist and author Geoffrey Canada. But Mr. Canada found that shortly after this period, the experiences of the “haves” and the “have-nots” often diverge based on a child’s home environment and access to resources. This “great separator” is the inflection point where lives can change for the worse – or the better.
Those resources are hard to access in social housing projects. Some of the low-income Toronto communities I grew up in were intentionally and physically designed to be closed off from the wealthier surrounding communities – one way in and one way out. This makes it physically and psychologically difficult for residents to leave, or for people from outside the community to enter. As a result, schools, businesses and recreational facilities in these communities are not plentiful, and they often fall into disrepair and suffer from underresourcing. Discriminatory policing practices and overeager incarceration with disproportionate punishments make it difficult to recover from stepping out of line or making a mistake.
When a child grows up in such a volatile, unstable environment, it forces them to focus on survival rather than on the pursuit of big dreams. And when someone experiences persistent oppression in these spaces, especially in that moment of separation, it can make or break them.
My first “great separator” moment came around 2000, after Ontario’s then-premier Mike Harris cut support to the province’s school staff facilitating extracurricular activities. I had dreamed of getting a postsecondary athletic scholarship all my life, but that was no longer a reality without access to the basketball program. I lost my sense of purpose and I had no other plan.
When the world’s doors feel like they’re closing on you, and you want to feel purpose, survival instincts kick in and force you to make a nearly impossible decision, especially for a young person: walk alone, or join a pack. And so I got caught up in the whirlwind of street life, which required being armed, and that gave me a sense of power – until it put me in jail. I spent the equivalent of a year in jail for illegal possession of a firearm.
In the many conversations I’ve had with others who had their own run-ins with the law, they said that they, too, faced an inflection point where, despite their best efforts, they got caught up in the system, in part because of their station in life. Maybe the separation happened because of the stigma that comes with living in a low-income community, which makes you less employable; maybe it happened because of the neighbourhood’s heavy police presence, with its high stop-and-search rates and their psychological consequences; maybe it happened because shifts in federal and provincial political winds shook up positive momentum in local communities, causing supports to break down, unsustainability to become the norm, and entire generations to potentially fall through the cracks. These things conspire to rob young Canadians from low-income families of the opportunity to succeed at an early age.
These oppressive barriers also exist in the criminal-justice system itself. While the Correctional Service of Canada is legally required to provide programs and services tailored to the unique needs of visible minorities, an Auditor-General’s report last year concluded that the department failed to provide timely access to correctional programs to support reintegration. And last November, the Office of the Correctional Investigator released a report highlighting serious concerns about the overrepresentation of, and discrimination experienced by, Black and Indigenous inmates. That report also called out how little has been done to improve this situation since a groundbreaking report from the office a decade ago, and how, in the case of Black inmates, the situation has even gotten worse: Black Canadians represent 9.2 per cent of the incarcerated population, but only 3.5 per cent of the population at large, and more than a third of Black inmates in Canada are younger than 30.
So most people who come into contact with the law often don’t have a fair chance at success to begin with, but they also lack a fair chance at reintegrating into society. This affects a huge number of people: According to the John Howard Society of Ontario, there are currently four million Canadians in possession of a criminal record.
When I was released, what I needed most was a second chance. For that, I needed a pardon to overcome roadblocks to potential employment. But there is a long waiting period before you can even apply for a pardon or record suspension after a criminal conviction. After being arrested in 2004, I had to wait 10 years after my probation ran out in 2009 before I could apply – so the incident wound up being a stain on my record for 15 years.
After my release, nobody connected me to any services or people that could help me navigate the rest of my life. This was my second separator moment: In the absence of support, I could have easily fallen back into street life, and into the criminal-justice system again.
But I was determined to redeem myself and my mother’s namesake; in my community, for better or worse, parents are judged by what their children do. I was deep into creating music, and tried to use it to raise awareness of what was going on in my community; I scored a local hit and got covered in magazines. But perhaps most crucially, I was lucky enough to stumble across a life-changing program called Partnership to Advance Youth Employment (PAYE), where leading businesses joined forces with the City of Toronto to provide employment opportunities to youth from low-income communities.
That random encounter – a youth worker named Deboragh Rodolphe, pulling me in at a job fair – changed my outlook on the world. Through PAYE, I landed an IT help-desk job at the Bay Street law firm Heenan Blaikie, and I was exposed to the corporate world, to mentorship and to my first taste of real financial security. Between my new networks in the corporate world and in the community, I was led to further my education at George Brown College, and that helped solidify my career in community development and advocacy for marginalized communities. My old friend, former Toronto mayor David Miller, even dedicated an entire chapter in his 2010 book Witness to a City to me, calling me one of the most inspirational people he met during his eight-year tenure.– changed my outlook on the world. Through PAYE, I landed an IT help-desk job at the Bay Street law firm Heenan Blaikie, and I was exposed to the corporate world, to mentorship and to my first taste of real financial security. Between my new networks in the corporate world and in the community, I was led to further my education at George Brown College, and that helped solidify my career in community development and advocacy for marginalized communities. My old friend, former Toronto mayor David Miller, even dedicated an entire chapter in his 2010 book Witness to a City to me, calling me one of the most inspirational people he met during his eight-year tenure.
I acknowledge that my experience is not replicable for everyone; that’s unfair to expect. But my life is an example of the importance of support systems like PAYE, and the many people who helped me along the way, when they’re needed the most. The key, for me, was that my mind had been elevated beyond the walls of the neighbourhood. I knew more, saw more and ultimately wanted to be more. Higher learning helped keep me out of the system. Even the federal government found in its Framework to Reduce Recidivism that postsecondary education decreases recidivism by 45 per cent to 75 per cent.
In 2016, I met Kate Gardner, a staff member for MP Marco Mendicino, who represents Lawrence Heights. Kate became an ally of mine while I was running motivational events for youth in the community. After she left politics and started at the University of Toronto to get a graduate diploma in social responsibility and sustainability, we stayed in touch and I became a key advisor for her diploma’s capstone project. The award-winning report that emerged, The Case for a Pardons Ecosystem, looked at meaningful solutions to the crippling systemic barriers to success faced by so many marginalized communities, and the role that business and government can play in tackling this social-justice issue.
As a member of her advisory committee, Kate and I explored ways to incentivize government and businesses to prioritize meaningful rehabilitation and reintegration for justice-involved individuals. I shared my own experience navigating the justice system, and the positive impact of the PAYE program. Since Kate graduated in 2021, we’ve developed a critical mass of partners to deliver a holistic, culturally sensitive education- and career-focused reintegration program. In January, we officially founded our non-profit organization, myRESET, and intend to launch a pilot program this fall to illustrate how business, government, educational institutions and the community can work together to tackle systemic barriers in the criminal-justice system. I’m proud to now be in a position to lead a movement of like-minded partners who believe that each person’s life has meaning, and that if you nurture and develop a person’s mind, they can escape the incarceration cycle – or avoid it altogether.
Currently, the federal government is focusing on tightening gun laws as a means to creating safer communities. While this may create a small ripple effect of change, if we want to truly curb crime and gun violence, policy makers should focus more on trauma-informed, life-stabilization supports for underserved communities. By reimagining the criminal-justice system and the purpose of corrections, we have a collective opportunity to break the intergenerational cycle of crime in racialized communities, support economic recovery and restore integrity and peace of mind to our brothers and sisters eagerly seeking that second chance.