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Review of the Roots of Youth Violence

Volume 1, Chapter 1:

Introduction to the Report

Ontario is at a crossroads. While it is a safe place for most, our review identified deeply troubling trends in the nature of serious violent crime involving youth in Ontario and the impacts it is having on many communities. Those trends suggest that, unless the roots of this violence are identified and addressed in a coordinated, collaborative and sustained way, violence will get worse. More people will be killed, communities will become increasingly isolated and disadvantaged, an ever-accelerating downward cycle will ensue for far too many, and our social fabric as a province could be seriously damaged.

To open the door for this kind of review required wisdom and foresight. We commend Premier Dalton McGuinty for asking the bold questions that led to these conclusions. In an era when many seek short-term political gain by simply calling for more law enforcement, despite chiefs of police stressing that “we cannot arrest our way out of this problem,” the Premier took a different approach. He gave us a wide mandate and full independence to look at where the violence is coming from, and to identify ways to address its roots, in order to advance the health, safety and long-term prosperity of Ontario.

This has been a most challenging assignment. Ontario is a large and diverse province. The issues are interconnected and controversial. Time was limited, and both the pressures and expectations have been high. We nonetheless thank the Premier for the opportunity he gave us to explore the deep and complex issues that lie behind the roots of violence involving youth.

We describe in our report the process we followed to understand those issues. In a little over 10 months, we or our staff met with over 750 people, whether in their individual capacities or as representatives of organizations. We met with more than a dozen Ontario deputy ministers, several on more than one occasion. We met with Ontario’s Poverty Reduction Committee and its political and public service staff, and separately with certain Cabinet ministers. And, as directed in our mandate, we established a strong working relationship with the City of Toronto and the United Way, whose leadership on these kinds of issues is well-known.

We also commissioned a youth-led neighbourhood insight process to delve, as deeply as time permitted, into the issues facing eight neighbourhoods in the province. We engaged the Grassroots Youth Collaborative, a consortium of highly diverse youth-led organizations, to help us hear youth voices in Toronto that might otherwise not have come to our attention. We also engaged the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres to bring us the views of urban Aboriginal youth from across the province.

As well, we commissioned five major research papers and two comprehensive literature reviews, obtained 11 background papers from Ontario ministries, provided provincewide access to our work via a website, an online survey and a 1-800 number, and travelled to England to better understand some particularly relevant approaches there.

Nonetheless, we do not profess to have studied all that could have been studied, nor to have met with all who could have helped us with our task. We have almost certainly not done full justice to the work of all who shared their ideas and insights with us and may have failed to fully credit everyone whose ideas inspired us.

In all of our work, we joined a conversation rather than started one. We have been encouraged by the large number of people, most certainly including youth, who are bringing expertise and energy to bear on the issue of violence in Ontario. They include people within all orders of government, in community agencies and organizations, and in communities themselves. We have also been encouraged by the commitment the Premier has shown to addressing some key aspects of this issue in recent initiatives such as full-day learning for four- and five-year-olds and the appointment of a Cabinet committee to develop “a focused poverty reduction strategy with measures, indicators and reasonable targets by the end of 2008.”

For reasons we discuss in our report, we focused on the most serious violence involving youth. We also address the other forms of violence that can be its precursors, but consider the heart of the matter to be those youth who are so alienated and disconnected from our society that they carry guns and often use them in impulsive ways, demonstrating indifference to the consequences and placing no value on human life. We inquired into the mindset of those youth and, from that analysis, we identified the immediate risk factors for their behaviour. This then led us to the roots of those factors and to actions to address those roots.

We found the roots to be extensive and pervasive. They permeate society, but are intertwined and particularly virulent in certain neighbourhoods, and made worse everywhere when they include racism. Our core finding can be simply stated: neither the breadth nor the depth of the roots is taken into account in shaping public policy in Ontario. The initiatives underway to address various aspects of them are largely inadequate for the task, and there is no structure to give coherence to those initiatives. Overall, Ontario has not recognized how vital it is to the health of this province to put an aligned and sustained approach to the roots of violence involving youth at the heart of the government’s agenda.

In reaching these conclusions, we did not adopt a rigid definition of youth. The roots of the immediate risk factors can take hold even before birth and continue to pose threats all through a child’s life. Similarly, there is no accepted upper limit on who should be considered a youth, and we do not propose to create one. Certainly, the definition should go beyond the age limit for the Youth Criminal Justice Act (18), up to some point in a youth’s early to mid-20s, but there is no benefit in trying to be more precise than that in looking at violence involving youth and considering actions to address its roots.

In approaching our work, we were asked not to reinvent the wheel. We found little need to do so. Good work and good ideas abound. To work with that metaphor, we found many excellent “wheels.” The problem, however, is that they are not all connected to the same vehicle, and those that are on the same vehicle frequently have separate steering systems and often separate drivers with different ideas of what the destination is and how to get there.

That is why we give the highest priority to governance, and otherwise tend to provide more advice than recommendations. What matters most is getting the wheels onto vehicles that are following an agreed-upon map to a shared destination.

We are confident that the destination we describe in our report is the right one. It focuses on repairing a social context that is broken for many youth; strengthening neighbourhoods and community agencies; establishing clear outcome goals for initiatives for youth; providing youth with engagement, hope and opportunity; and aligning the provincial ministries to deliver a coordinated, collaborative agenda of change over the long term, including by working effectively with other orders of government and community residents.

Having described that destination, we are largely content to leave the details to the planning process we describe in the balance of this report. We do not make a lot of detailed recommendations because so doing would suggest that there are neat, discrete solutions to problems that are deep and intertwined. In our view, only an integrated, collaborative and sustained approach to the roots will succeed. That is why we propose a body at the centre of government with the mandate and resources to consider our advice, situate it within the context of the balance of the government’s agenda, determine priorities, make linkages among ministries and with other governments, and manage a process of both building and being responsive to communities across the province. Only this kind of body and approach will be able to produce a coherent, long-range plan for the province, set agendas for ministries individually and collectively, establish overall and interim targets and monitor work towards them to ensure an aligned and sustained response.

We are confident that, with this kind of strong coordination and leadership, we can rely upon Ontario’s ministries and their partners to do the detailed planning required to respond to the advice we offer throughout our report. This need not be a lengthy exercise, but it will call for a major focus from many ministries. Given that focus and the leadership structure we propose, we believe that the planning exercise can be completed, and the plans made public, by May 2009.

In the result, the recommendations we make to the Premier emphasize the need to recognize the breadth of the issues and to address them by creating significant new governance mechanisms to coordinate the energy and capacity that are waiting and eager to take on the work that must be done.

We conclude this introduction with a brief acknowledgment of the tremendous work and dedication of those who accompanied us on our journey, starting with those who were with us full time. In alphabetical order, they are Jim Cowan, who led our communications and consultations process, drafted the Community Perspectives Volume and pulled together much of chapters 5 and 8; Lu-Anne Dacosta, who provided advice in a number of areas and helped in particular with Chapter 2 and the analysis of the previous reports for Chapter 6; Doug Ewart, who was responsible for our overall analytical framework, provided ongoing policy advice and drafted most of the main volume of the report; Irwin Glasberg, who led our team, maintained liaison with the government and managed the review through a complex and challenging time; Roxanne Kalimootoo, who assisted with the administration of the project and provided expert advice on issues, including racism and education; Lorrie MacKinnon, who also assisted with administration, managed our procurement processes, helped analyze previous reports for Chapter 6 and managed the publication of our report; and Roberta Ross, who provided high-quality and high-energy administrative support to the entire process.

On a part-time basis, also in alphabetical order, we had the benefit of strong administrative support from Judy Bew at the Gowlings law firm; of the important perspectives of Ryan Charles, a high school co-op student; of the analysis of stakeholder input provided by Arda Ilgazli, a Cabinet Office intern; of ongoing policy advice from Kevin King, a public servant with wide experience and excellent contacts in the areas of youth, race and violence; of the steady guidance and wise advice of Lynn Mahoney of Gowlings; of strong administrative support from Sandy Prosa of Gowlings; and of the skills and professionalism that Mary Roy brought to preparing most of the manuscript.

We also wish to acknowledge four other individuals who worked with us and made a major contribution to our work. Frances Lankin of United Way Toronto and Nancy Matthews of the City of Toronto participated in several of our meetings and policy discussions, accompanied us to England and provided wise and insightful strategic advice on many key issues. Alan Riddell, former director of the Neighbourhood Renewal Unit in England, provided very valuable information and briefings in Toronto, helped plan our meetings in London and accompanied us to most of them, and contributed important insights and policy conclusions on key U.K. initiatives. Prof. Scot Wortley from the Centre of Criminology at the University of Toronto provided strong and experienced research support to our review, participated in many of our meetings, authored two literature reviews and a significant paper, and contributed the expertise he has gained in his years analyzing many of the core issues we had to confront.

We also wish to acknowledge the brief but important contributions of three individuals at both ends of our project. At the outset, Debbie Strauss and Elizabeth Kay-Zorowski provided significant startup expertise, and, towards the end, Jill Arthur devoted several weeks to helping prepare what is now Chapter 8 of the report.

Finally, we wish to express our sincere thanks to Canada’s High Commissioner in London, James R. Wright; his acting deputy, Bob Rochon; and political officer Gillian Licari of the High Commission, who made inspired contacts and superb arrangements for us in London and, as well, provided gracious hospitality to us and a number of those we met.

We have already noted our debt to the large number of individuals and organizations who met with us or made written submissions to advance our work. We have listed them in Appendix 2 and thank each of them sincerely for their time and expertise, and for the trust they placed in us. We could not have produced this report in the time available without the unfailing dedication and commitment of all of these individuals and organizations.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews