Politicians in Canada react to gun and gang violence in different ways. You could see it in recent announcements from the federal Liberal government and Ontario’s Progressive Conservative government.
In Ontario, Premier Doug Ford punctuated a January announcement about increased police funding with tough talk for gang members. “We’re coming for you, we’re going to find you, we’re going to catch you and we’re going to lock you up for a long time," he said.
At the federal level, Public Safety Minister Bill Blair said last week that coming gun-control legislation will include “red flag” provisions that allow courts to order the removal of firearms from legal owners deemed to be at risk to themselves or others. The same law will likely also ban some firearms that are currently legal.
Liberal politicians want to talk about locking up guns and Conservatives want to talk about locking up people. To the degree that such things can make communities safer, both approaches are reasonable.
But they are narrow in focus. They’re designed to appeal to each party’s base, and as such do not come close to addressing the complex issues behind gun and gang violence – in particular the urban variety that has repeatedly flared up in Toronto over the past 20 years.
The headline policies of Canada’s political parties leave the impression that governments are more interested in keeping gang violence out of the sight and minds of the better off, than eliminating it from the lives of those most affected by it. Given that doing the latter would accomplish the former, it’s striking how priorities continue to be focused on the wrong things.
It’s not as though politicians aren’t armed with reams of research showing that you can’t arrest your way out of a social problem, or that tighter gun controls, though they can be helpful, don’t get at the root of the problem.
There has been a large number of studies that have looked at the causes of youth violence in Canada and the United States; none could be more powerful or complete than the massive 2008 Ontario report written by a former judge, Roy McMurtry, and a former MPP, Alvin Curling.
The report’s findings are an eye-opening testament to the fact that the gang violence that occasionally spills into Toronto’s downtown core or affluent neighbourhoods, causing politicians to rush to the microphones, is a constant fact of life in many lower-income neighbourhoods.
There are parts of Toronto and other Canadian cities where parents fear for their children’s safety every time they leave the house. Where, as the report said, "a few apparent gang members in a passageway or on an empty street, or a single youth in a courtyard who seems to have a gun, or actually displays one, can isolate hundreds of people.”
You can and should arrest that “single youth,” but it isn’t likely to stop someone from taking his place. It does nothing to alleviate the hopelessness and despair that can grow in a young person who feels excluded from society.
That sense of exclusion is created by a combination of social factors: poverty; inequality of economic opportunities; badly designed neighbourhoods and poorly maintained housing; poor public transit in some lower-income areas; schools that expel troubled students rather than help them; and a history of aggressive police tactics against some communities.
And then, of course, there is the hard fact of discrimination. The report’s authors were “taken aback by the extent to which racism is alive and well and wreaking its deeply harmful effects on Ontarians." Those words were written in 2008.
How hard is it for politicians to understand that the most effective policies for reducing youth violence are ones that cut poverty, such as the federal Canada Child Benefit, or fight exclusion, such as investments in improving education, social services and living conditions?
Putting effort into those areas is a more permanent and equitable solution than locking up more people from communities that are already struggling. Policies to fight youth violence must not, however unintentionally, exacerbate the sense of exclusion felt by too many young Canadians.
We’ll look at possible solutions later this week.