As communities are left reeling amid rising incidents of violence and loss of life, public safety and gun violence is an urgent concern among GTA voters as they head to the polls in the upcoming federal election.
In 2018, Toronto experienced one of its most violent years on record, with 428 shootings leading to 51 deaths of a total of 81 homicides counted at year’s end.
This year, so far there have been 342 shootings, contributing 29 deaths to a total of 54 homicides to date.
What the federal parties are promising
Proposals for prison or criminal code reform and stricter gun control measures are among party promises.
The Liberals have vowed to ban military-style assault rifles and to give individual municipalities the authority to ban hand guns in their communities. They have also committed to giving $250 million over five years directly to cities to help develop “on the ground” solutions to gang violence.
The NDP is focusing on ensuring funding for youth programs that will keep young people away from gangs and will create a $100 million fund dedicated to such programs.
Toronto Mayor John Tory says he was pleased to see the Liberals and NDP committing funds for community investment in their respective platforms.
“I’m heartened that at least two of the major parties have this in their platform and would intend to proceed with commitments to invest in the community. And they’ve indicated that that money would come, as much as it can, directly to municipalities, which is where we’re delivering those things on the ground, to help kids and families and neighbourhoods,” he said.
The Green party is highlighting prison reform in their platform, promising to eliminate mandatory minimum sentences, end solitary confinement and re-invest in rehabilitation of prisoners. They’re also looking launch an anonymous national gun buyback program for handguns and assault weapons.
The Conservatives say they will target illegal firearms and crack down on gang activity. They’re proposing the creation of a Canada Border Services Agency task force to work with colleagues in the United States to disrupt gun smuggling routes. In addition they would introduce mandatory minimum sentences for some gang related crimes and end bail for repeat gang offenders.
Tory commended Scheer for addressing bail laws but added that if the Conservatives focused only on things like tougher sentences and criminal code reform, it would be a “substantial missed opportunity for any one of the major parties to not provide for an increased amount of money for community investments.”
“I think those investments are vital, I’ve always said so, as part of the trifecta, which is: supporting the police, changing the laws — including the gun laws, and investing in neighbourhoods. So I think it would be a significant omission for any party not to provide for that in their platform,” he said.
What the Toronto police is doing
Toronto police chief Mark Saunders said this week that a police initiative called Project Community Space Project Community Space has been effective in curbing shootings.
The 11-week program, is aimed at stemming a surge in gun and gang violence in the GTA.
Under the program, police are monitoring bail compliance, engaging with communities and increasing police presence and visibility in areas associated with street gangs and gun violence. The program was funded with $4.5 million given to police by all three levels of government.
Six weeks into the program at the end of September, Police Chief Mark Saunders said officers arrested 240 people and laid 525 charges.
Thirty-five per cent of those arrests were for firearm offences and 12 people who were free on bail for firearm offences were re-arrested.
Saunders said at the midpoint of the project, there was a 30 per cent decrease in shooting events as compared to six weeks prior to its start and emphasized the positive results of officers being on the ground and in the communities.
“This enhancement has allowed our officers to be where communities need us most,” Saunders said on Monday. “The increased visibility of officers, in their patrol cars and on foot in areas where street gangs are prevalent has been effective as a deterrent.”
However, since the program began around August 15, there have been 71 shootings in Toronto. During the same six-week period last year — when the project wasn’t up and running — there were 56 shootings.
What the city is doing
The City Of Toronto runs 160 community and recreation centres offering a wide variety of programming. About 38 of them offer free programming to all.
Thirty-six centres offer youth spaces, with programming specifically aimed at young people including leadership development and employment. Ten of those are “enhanced youth spaces” which have various facilities like recording studios, photography labs and study spaces and they offer WiFi, TV, gaming consoles, computers and other recreational activities. They also have free programs including photography, hairstyling, yoga, nail art, DJing and music recording.
However, Sharon Butler, Manager, Community Recreation for Parks, Forestry and Recreation says it is the city’s 31 youth outreach workers that do the most impactful, on-the-ground work.
“They offer the opportunity to connect, engage with youth as well as referring them and connecting them to other city services and important community services as well,” she says.
Butler says they also run specific workshops and specialty events based on feedback they receive from kids in various neighbourhoods about what would engage them the most.
Along with programming, Butler says the community centres offer a safe space for youth who may need a break from their home, school or neighbourhood.
“There are things that happen in the community. But youth know that they can come through those doors and leave some things behind, maybe some baggage or some problems they’re having,” she says adding that they hear through evaluations that the centres are a “home away from home.”
“Our doors are open to help anyone that requires that help,” she says.
What the community needs
Community activists say that the issue must be tackled at the grassroots level — much like the police is doing — but not just from an enforcement standpoint.
Marcell Wilson, a former gang member who now works to keep youth away from gangs and rehabilitate former gang-involved individuals, says the police is taking the right approach and that he is “hopeful.”
“We had some good interactions with the city, with Toronto Community Housing and with Toronto Police Services showing a great interest in tackling the root cause of issues and really getting into the meat of these problems,” says Wilson, co-founder of the non-profit organization One By One.
In the riding of Eglinton-Lawrence there have been 26 shootings with 42 victims injured this year.
The community of Lawrence Heights within the riding has been dealing with a spate of gun violence in recent months.
“People that come from communities like this feel like they have no voice. They feel like they have no chance, no real shot at making a difference,” says Wilson. “I think if you go to the seed — the actual seed that the roots sprout from would be marginalization and poverty.”
Wilson says while getting guns off the street is one way to approach the problem, a more effective strategy would be to conquer the demand for guns.
“From my life experience and my lived experience, for me what helped was community programs and community outreach,” says Wilson. “It’s not that we’re underserved. These communities are poorly served. We need to lead them and help them understand that there are some resources out there — it’s just that they don’t know about them. They have no clue that they exist,” he says, adding that One by One also acts as a liaison between the community and available resources.
Melissa Hood who used to live outside the riding in another marginalized neighbourhood echoes Wilson’s call for community outreach.
“You look at why people are doing what they are doing — and its like there’s nobody to help elevate and empower them,” she says. “If they had resources and tools to empower them, people would not be conditioned and want to stay in housing. People would want to evolve and make themselves better and be determined to become something more in life.”
Hood says a majority of those who grew up in the neighbourhood and are involved in criminal or gang activity went down that route due to severe a lack of programming. She adds that a continued lack of access to community resources sets up a repetitive, “generational cycle” of people who get sucked into the lifestyle.
“When I lived here there was no programming. If we had programming like basketball, safe zones where we’re able to go and get acquainted with taking trips … seeing what Toronto’s about …if we had another outlet for these youths we would have a better [outcome],” she says.
Hood says the government should channel funding toward local, grass root causes within communities to help “rewire” how people think about themselves, their potential and their circumstances.
“We need to start focusing on — how are we going to start changing the narrative in these marginalized communities? We don’t have hope here. And we need hope.”
Liberal candidate for Eglinton-Lawrence Marco Mendicino agrees with both Wilson and Hood, saying investment in community-led programming is essential.
“[These programs] will help prevent these crimes from occurring in the first place and that means looking at some of the root causes like homelessness and poverty and mental health,” he says, adding that community-led organizations will ensure that residents “voices are heard on what they need.”
The Eglinton-Lawrence riding is largely considered a two party race between the Liberals and the Conservatives.
The conservative candidate for the riding, Chani Aryeh-Bain, declined CityNews’ request for an interview.