Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Executive Summary

Ontario at a Crossroads

We acknowledge that Ontario has been making progress on certain of the issues we identify. Much of its work on early childhood learning is very much in the right direction, the full-day learning initiative for four- and five-year-olds has the potential to be powerfully transformative, the increased spending on education is impressive, and the appointment of a Poverty Reduction Committee at the Cabinet level is inspirational. And both before our work started and fairly frequently throughout it, the government made program announcements that are consistent with the directions we propose.

For example, during our mandate the Ministry of Education amended the Education Act to address some of the concerns expressed to us by both educators and the community around “safe schools” issues and their disproportionate impact on racialized and marginalized students. Other announcements included funding for more psychologists, social workers, child and youth workers and guidance counsellors in schools (August 2007), the appointment of Dr. Charles Pascal to recommend the best way to implement full-day learning for four- and five-year-olds, the expansion of the Pathways to Education program (both November 2007), additional funding to keep schools open for community use (February 2008), the establishment of 34 new Parenting and Family Literacy Centres (May 2008), and funding for Big Brothers/Big Sisters Canada and other community groups to provide role models and mentors in schools (June 2008). Other examples of government initiatives that may help address the roots of violence involving youth are discussed in Chapter 8 and noted elsewhere in our report.

All of these programs support our conclusion that Ontario is starting to make some progress in addressing the roots of violence involving youth. But in other ways, serious problems remain. The positive announcements to which we refer do not form part of any comprehensive strategy for youth because Ontario does not have a coordinated strategy for its youth. The very serious problems being encountered in neighbourhoods characterized by severe, concentrated and growing disadvantage are not being addressed because Ontario has not placed an adequate focus on these concentrations of disadvantage despite the very serious threat they pose to the province’s social fabric. Racism is becoming a more serious and entrenched problem than it was in the past because Ontario is not dealing with it. The significant new investments in education are not reaching many of the children who need the most help because long-identified barriers to learning are not being addressed. Ontario’s youth justice system is harming some youth because it has no overall coordination, remains punitive in ways that are not strategic and permits increasingly problematic police-community relations.

That said, our point is not to unduly critique the present government for the ongoing effects of past policies, most of which it inherited. Instead, our point is that Ontario is now at a very important crossroads.

The trends we identify in our report, although largely masked by the overall stability of the crime figures, suggest that Ontario is incubating an increase in youth violence, and in more serious violence. These trends are deeply troubling. They include the increasing concentration of violent crime among younger people, the increasing frequency with which guns and knives are being used in disputes that might previously have been settled with fists, the increasing intensity and ferocity of the violence, the increasingly public nature of extreme violence, the growth in the prevalence of both guns and gangs, neighbourhoods trapped in a downward cycle of disadvantage and being challenged to provide the solidarity and positive role-modelling needed to help stem the violence, and a broader community inclined to write off these youth and these communities because they see them as the source of this problem rather than its victims.

In these developments, we see powerful signs that core social bonds are being stretched beyond the breaking point. As those bonds break, violence is normalized, sensibilities are brutalized and communities are isolated. The sowing of the seeds for community retreat, the ceding of public space to violence and the silence that arises from the fear to speak out all increase the opportunities for violence.

The summary our consultants prepared of the Neighbourhood Insight Sessions we conducted makes for very troubling reading. It pulls together what we heard in Ottawa, Thunder Bay, Hamilton and Kitchener-Waterloo, and in four Toronto neighbourhoods. Similar messages are found in the report of our consultation with urban Aboriginal youth across the province.

In the neighbourhoods we visited, we heard about gun violence, violence around drugs and drug dealing, robberies on the street, swarmings, verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, gangs, claims of turf, attacks with knives, fights at school, violence in sports, domestic abuse, sexual assaults, dating violence and violence that flows from systemic issues such as racism, inequality and poverty.

In these neighbourhoods, we also heard about impacts this violence is having on communities. These included fear in neighbourhoods being on the rise, a code of silence taking hold, communities and youth being stereotyped and becoming desensitized to violence, violence becoming an acceptable way of dealing with conflict, gangs proliferating, police presence increasing and leading to harassment, students having more difficulty focusing on school, teaching becoming more difficult, schools being unsafe, youth suffering from depression and social service agencies increasingly unable to keep up with the demand for services.

The worst impacts are being felt in neighbourhoods that are often already isolated from the rest of the community because of the circumstances of poverty. What is particularly disturbing is that many of these communities are largely composed of members of racialized groups. We trace in Chapter 4 how racism and other barriers have concentrated poverty in these groups, and how the housing market has then driven them into concentrations of those who suffer from high levels of poverty.

When poverty is racialized, and then ghettoized and associated with violence, the potential for the stigmatization of specific groups is high. That stigmatization can, in turn, further reduce opportunities for those groups. If we allow these trends and impacts to grow in intensity and impact and fail to mobilize as a society to address the conditions that give rise to them, the prognosis for the neighbourhoods and for the future of this province could be grim.

At the same time, we need to note that Ontario is in the relatively early phases of this degree and kind of violence. And, importantly, even the most disadvantaged communities in our province have good leaders, positive networks and many committed individuals working every day to strengthen and solidify them and to make them safer.

It is because this balance still exists, however precariously, that we consider Ontario to be at a crossroads.