Review of the Roots of Youth Violence

Volume 1, Chapter 4:

The Roots of the Immediate Risk Factors


Having identified in the first part of Chapter 3 the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth, in this chapter we outline the major conditions in which those factors grow and flourish within our society. Some of these conditions — which we consider to be the roots of this violence — have been identified by the criminological theories that we summarized in the second part of Chapter 3; others arise from our consideration of the broader social science literature or from previous governmental and community reports; while still others arise from the experiences of those with whom we met.

We will not attempt in this chapter to outline every aspect of the roots we have identified. We were asked to avoid reinventing the wheel, and it would serve no purpose for us to restate here the large volume of research findings and reports detailing the existence and nature of the roots we discuss in this chapter. Instead, we will review how each of the many well-documented roots can lead to alienation, a lack of hope, no sense of belonging, a sense of deep injustice, or to a combination of any of these and the other immediate risk factors. Our focus in this chapter is on the effects, rather than the existence, of these roots.

While we will discuss each root separately for ease of exposition, it will be immediately obvious that many, if not all, of them frequently interconnect and intertwine in ways that create devastating cumulative impacts for far too many of our youth. In our view, it is only by recognizing not just the roots, but also their interconnections, that we can identify and design the long-range comprehensive strategies necessary to address them and the serious violence that confronts us as a society.

We note in this context that our report does not have the benefit of the kinds of statistical analyses often available when similar issues are looked at in other jurisdictions. Ontario has limited data, particularly on the many issues where racism intersects with other roots. We will discuss the need for this and other statistical information in Chapters 9 and 10. In its absence, we have necessarily relied on the advice we received, the robust and persuasive data available on similar matters elsewhere, and the experience and lived reality of those working in the relevant fields.

We do not accept that those who have refused to collect data can resist change because there are no data. When the available evidence supports the need for change, that change must be undertaken. In our particular context, we note that if our advice about the critical importance of data, monitoring and evaluation is followed, information will be available in time for any required mid-course corrections along the path we propose for Ontario. We are confident from all we have seen and heard during our review that the data will support taking that path and, indeed, will most likely accentuate the urgency of so doing.

The purpose of this chapter then is to give the reader a good working understanding of how a large number of circumstances, especially in combination, can produce the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. The core message will be the breadth and intensity of the response needed to come to grips with this issue.

The Roots

1. Poverty as a Root of the Immediate Risk Factors

Poverty does not directly cause violent crime. If it did, then given the extent and depth of the poverty among us, our levels of violence would be truly frightening. The reality is that most people living in poverty are working hard to hold down one or more uncertain, low-wage jobs, to improve their skills or education, to hold together families and communities against a bombardment of negative circumstances, or sometimes are doing all three. Their hard work and their strong commitment to a society that fails them in so many ways are to be admired.

But poverty without hope, poverty with isolation, poverty with hunger and poor living conditions, poverty with racism and poverty with numerous daily reminders of social exclusion, can lead to the immediate risk factors for violence identified in Chapter 3. We say can lead to because numerous protective factors or counterweights operate to block these risk factors arising for many, even in the worst of conditions, or act to mitigate and contain them where they are created. But, at present, there is both too much poverty and too little by way of counterweights to prevent poverty being a central issue for anyone concerned about the extent of violence involving youth in this province.

In our view, poverty can lead to alienation, a lack of self-esteem, the experience of oppression, a lack of hope or empathy or sense of belonging and other immediate risk factors through three different but linked pathways:

The Level of Poverty

In relation to the first of these pathways, we heard through the Neighbourhood Insight Sessions and other consultations about the reality of the hunger that pervades our society. We heard as well about parents whose struggle to hold down two or three jobs leaves them with no time or energy to parent, of youth being humiliated by the obviousness of their poverty, of the impact of precarious and substandard housing on their ability to study and learn and engage with friends, and about the numerous other daily stresses of living on the margins of a prosperous society. And we heard about the enormous pressure our society puts on youth to have material possessions or to at least see themselves as being able to obtain them through work that is reasonably within their expectations. As we will discuss in Section 7 of this chapter, this culture of consumption is pervasive, fed by advertising campaigns and intense media coverage of affluent lifestyles, and feeds the alienation of youth.

For all of these reasons, and more that anti-poverty activists could cite, we have no difficulty concluding that the state of being excluded from the minimum conditions of living that are seen as normal in Ontario can lead youth to feel alienated and marginalized, to see themselves as victims of an unfair and uncaring society and to believe that they have no real stake or future in that society. We will see in the next section how racism produces similar effects. Given the staggering extent to which poverty is racialized in Ontario, as discussed in the next section, these two factors often combine to create a situation that should deeply trouble all Ontarians.

Whether or not combined with racism, but especially when they are, the impacts of the level of poverty are made worse by concentrations of poverty and the circumstances that accompany poverty. These factors not only can themselves lead to the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth and magnify other conditions leading to those factors, but can also seriously erode the capacity of families and communities to provide timely and effective counterweights. Because they are so central to the roots of violence involving youth, we devote most of this section to these aspects of poverty.

Concentrations of Poverty

By concentrations of poverty, we mean the unacceptable way in which the poor are effectively being forced to live in functionally segregated parts of our cities. In Toronto, this phenomenon has been powerfully documented by United Way Toronto (Poverty by Postal Code), by Prof. David Hulchanski of the University of Toronto and by the city itself (see United Way Toronto and The Canadian Council on Social Development, 2004; Hulchanski, March 8, 2007). National statistics used to measure relative deprivation for over 30 years have shown this to be the reality across England. And, in most of Ontario, those familiar with their communities can identify the same reality even without the benefit of statistics.

A perfect storm of factors has contributed to this over time: the erosion of the middle class, rapidly escalating property values and rents, the severe reduction in affordable and decent housing anywhere and in rental accommodation in the relatively more affluent parts of our cities, the mistakes of earlier times when subsidized housing was concentrated in large isolated developments, the withdrawal of governments from the provision of social housing for a long period of time, and the failure of governments to foster economically integrated communities through the tools that have been available to them. As the External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities concluded in its 2006 report to the Prime Minister:

Places can also reinforce the penalties of poverty. The places of the poor are often located in less green, less clean and more mean streets and failing communities (External Advisory Committee on Cities and Communities, 2006: viii).

There is almost universal agreement that these economic ghettos have very negative impacts. Toronto’s Police Chief, Bill Blair, asked us to imagine the impact of living in a community where if you get a job, you have to leave. From our perspective, we do not deny — indeed we respect and value — the fact that many living in these communities build strong networks and relationships and take pride in where they live. But we see that as a strength to build on and protect as economic integration is pursued, rather than as a reason to not recognize the pernicious impacts of that isolation for all too many.

Those pernicious impacts are pervasive. They start with the basic fact that Chief Blair noted: people who get jobs that are stable and even relatively well-paying will often move out. This may be because they were living in assisted housing for which they no longer qualify, or because they want to and can get away from a neighbourhood that is unpleasant and often dangerous to live in, or just because they want better schools for their children or shorter commute times for themselves. Whatever the reason, the impact is the same: the community loses a strong member, and youth have fewer positive role models to emulate and less contact with people who might provide leads or opportunities, or advice around options and how to pursue them.

As well, the fact that a community is constantly in flux, as many residents see it as a place from which to escape as soon as possible, deprives the community of the cohesion and continuity that make for a strong neighbourhood. This reality, plus the relative paucity of people with the time, energy and knowledge to lobby hard and effectively for improvements to the community, puts these neighbourhoods at a serious disadvantage in comparison with cohesive communities, whose members can lobby for improvements and services. Without the benefit of “the sharp elbows of the middle class” lobbying from within their communities, they not only fail to be heard, but as well become increasingly disadvantaged as communities with those sharp elbows obtain a larger slice of a finite pie.

But the effects go beyond these. Businesses avoid neighbourhoods where poverty is concentrated, with the perverse result that the poorest among us have the worst access to decent shops with decent prices. Residents then face expensive and time-consuming travel to get even basic groceries and supplies at a reasonable price, with the result that poor nutrition is all too often the fate of many children. Similar issues lead to less access to important services, such as full-service banks or doctors. At the same time, this lack of businesses means there are fewer local jobs, whether full or part time, than in other communities.

Similarly, professionals tend not to locate their services in or near these communities, creating the same time and financial barriers to these services being accessed by neighbourhood residents and, at the same time, removing potential role models from the immediate environs. And even where professionals such as teachers do provide services within the community, they rarely live there or even nearby because of the concentration of poverty and all that goes with it. This not only has the impact of depriving the community of role models, potential leaders and strong voices, but also means that the youth who most need a teacher or other professional who understands their day-to-day realities are the least likely to have that benefit.

Those public services such as education or health care that do locate within these neighbourhoods are often under-resourced for the enormous needs of the local residents. This can lead to substandard services, especially when combined with the fact that some of the best and most senior service providers opt to work in less stressful environments, or burn out and leave. Whether through high turnover or sometimes the lesser skills or experience of their staff, the public services offered to the most needy can be of a lower quality than is required to address the local needs and circumstances.

As well, we were told on many occasions that just having an address or postal code known to be in an area of concentrated poverty can lead to individuals not being called for interviews when they apply for work. This stigmatization by postal code runs through a raft of other circumstances, from policing to education, and for all too many becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy. For many more, just knowing of the potential to be held back or undervalued simply because of their address is enough to weaken their self-esteem and reduce their sense of opportunity and hope.

As if all of this were not bad enough, the combination of negative circumstances where poverty is concentrated and the resulting lack of a strong social structure can often encourage crime. The circumstances and pressures of life in these communities can mean that many residents are isolated and keep to themselves. This withdrawal from public life and public spaces can then create a neighbourhood in which criminals feel more free to operate. If police-community relations are also such that crime or suspicious activity is not often reported, or not effectively acted on when reported, this is accelerated, and the “safety zone” for criminal activity is further expanded.

As crime grows in this environment, it makes the area more unsafe. This reality and the perceptions flowing from it magnify the social isolation that facilitates more crime and even greater fears of going out. When this happens, then as we discuss in Chapter 5 parents won’t send their children to after-school or evening programs, and the youth themselves face enormous pressures to join or support gangs for their own safety. Crime and violence are normalized for them, and indeed gang members often provide the strongest role models available. Parents are reluctant to get involved in community associations, and the potential to build the kind of solidarity that could tackle the crime problem is reduced to almost nothing.

Nor is the matter necessarily made better by the extra police these activities sometimes bring to the neighbourhood. Many youth also told us that they felt uncomfortable walking through policed areas within their neighbourhoods for fear of being harassed. One senior civic official highlighted this for us when he explained that in one community the youth favoured the use of surveillance cameras in public areas because they created zones where the police did not harass the youth. Supporting this perception, many parents told us that they discouraged their children from going out because of what it might lead to, with obvious consequences for the mobility of youth and their quality of life.

Whether the resulting isolation is attributed to crime and gangs or to concerns about the police, it makes conditions in the neighbourhood worse. It further stigmatizes the neighbourhood and increases its disadvantage, thereby feeding the impacts we note above and in Chapter 5.

While we have only sketched the most obvious consequences of concentrated areas of poverty, it does not take a lot of imagination to appreciate the multiple, mutually reinforcing ways in which they create alienation and low self-esteem, destroy hope, and demonstrate unfairness and a lack of opportunity. To speak only in terms of our immediate mandate, the fact that poverty is concentrated in certain areas of our cities makes the experience of poverty worse, and worse in ways that can create the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth.

Circumstances Attaching to Poverty

This brings us to our third concern about poverty: the circumstances that accompany it. This set of issues is often closely linked to the impacts that arise from concentrations of poverty, but merits separate attention because, as we see in Chapter 9, the responses to it are different, and because the circumstances often apply to people who are poor regardless of where they live.

In relation to those who live in concentrations of poverty, we have already noted the issues around the lack of nearby businesses. Sadly, the same lack is often apparent in relation to public services. Indeed, as we see in Chapter 7, the City of Toronto’s first indicator for a deprived neighbourhood was a relative lack of accessible services, such as parks or recreation, community health centres, libraries or youth services. We discuss this in more detail in Section 3 of this chapter, and outline there just how isolating and alienating a lack of anywhere to go or anything to do can be for young people.

For those who are poor but live in more economically integrated neighbourhoods, the same deprivation can result when they cannot afford the fees for services that are relatively proximate, face language or cultural barriers or lack the time or money to get their children to these services or the resources to access child care or other supports to deal with one child while another is taken to an appointment or activity. The effect on youth is the same: fewer opportunities to play and learn and engage in positive ways with the world around them, more isolation and a lowered sense of opportunity or belonging.

When, as is so often the case, poverty is combined with issues of language or culture or race or confidence in dealing with authority, the problems can be magnified. Even accessible and free programs may not be used by the most disadvantaged if these additional barriers exist. Without aggressive targeting and outreach, and active measures to design and operate programs so that they are relevant and accessible to the most disadvantaged, these services will fail to reach those who need them the most.

Moreover, whether in concentrated areas or not, people who are poor tend to suffer equally from the lack of affordable housing and the impacts of substandard housing. With rent levels where they are, the kind of private sector accommodation available at the bottom of the market is often substandard. And, for reasons we will discuss elsewhere, in at least some parts of the province, including Toronto, a major maintenance deficit means that conditions within public housing are often just as bad, if not worse.

This has enormous impacts on youth. Not only do they lack suitable space to do their homework or read or play with friends, but they are also given daily reminders of their low status in society and how they are perceived by it.

There is no doubt that the quality of their housing imprints itself on the minds of youth. Comments on this reality were among the most forceful and eloquent we heard from youth. They made it very clear to us that they are sophisticated readers and interpreters of their environment, and take to the core of their being the powerful messages of marginalization and exclusion that these living conditions convey. Challenging as it is to live with insufficient resources in this society, it is many times worse to live in accommodation that constantly confronts you with evidence that you are undervalued now and that you are widely perceived as having no valued future role in society. As we discuss in Section 3, similar impacts arise in relation to the physical conditions of some of these neighbourhoods themselves; the combination is obviously doubly disadvantaging.

And it is not just a question of messages. The practical effects are also deeply troubling. Where there is no place to do homework, school achievement suffers and both self-esteem and hope decrease. Where conditions are so cramped that family stress ensues, youth suffer. And when those conditions mean that outdoors is the only place to play, chances for unsupervised interactions with youth who are not on the right path, or confidence-reducing encounters with the police, multiply. The potential for alienation, impulsivity and low self-esteem is powerfully driven by these housing conditions as well as by the messages they convey. Overall, the effects of substandard housing are immediate, happen every day and will continue to happen until we put these units into a decent state of repair.

A further important consequence of poverty lies in the domain of transportation. This affects access to work and services, the amount of time and energy working parents in these neighbourhoods have to engage with their children and their communities, the sense of isolation experienced by youth and their limited exposure to the resources and perspectives of the broader community. We will discuss these and other impacts of poor access to transportation in more detail in the Section 3 of this chapter, but note them here because of the way they are associated with poverty and of the ways they make poverty worse.

The last circumstances of poverty that we address here are the barriers that Ontario’s own laws and regulations place in the way of those seeking to advance while receiving social benefits. This complex and troubling area was very recently ably documented by John Stapleton in a report for the Metcalf Foundation entitled Why Is It so Tough to Get Ahead? (Stapleton, 2007). We note here for illustrative purposes just a few of the very serious issues he raises about the circumstances faced by many Ontario families, focusing on those that can all too easily erode hope and impede opportunity for youth.

Ontario families that have to rely, fully or partially, on income maintenance programs, such as Ontario Works, the Ontario Disability Support Program, Workers’ Compensation, Employment Insurance or the Canada Pension Plan (Disability), and who may also rely on other social supports, such as subsidies for housing and child care, face a bewildering array of rules and standards. Each of these programs has its own rules, which operate in isolation yet often combine to create barriers to employment and higher education. The result, as Mr. Stapleton points out, is that our most disadvantaged families are penalized, and their lives are made more precarious, if they try to become self-sufficient or their children take advantage of scholarships or employment-related programs.

The penalties on these families start when some ordinary and (seemingly) good things happen. For example, if either parent finds employment, then, depending on the social programs involved, reductions in the family’s support can add up to more than 100 per cent of every dollar earned by the employed parent (Stapleton, 2007: 29).

Then there are the artificial constraints on the decisions that arise at normal developmental stages for the youth themselves. To quote Mr. Stapleton’s analysis:

In our wider society, children often stay in the family household long past the age of 18. They do so while they pursue further education and training, for example, or while they get their first full-time work experience, or pay off student loans, or save to move out….

When children in families receiving social assistance reach 18, they are no longer considered children. They often stop receiving social assistance as part of the family. They can only apply for assistance in their own right if they are no longer dependent on the family. In most instances, that means they must move out of the family home.

Public housing provides housing to families based on a similar definition of adulthood. The public housing landlord may evict a family if the size and activity of the rental unit does not confirm to the ‘benefit unit’ (the family). In other words, once a child turns 18 and the child moves out, the rental unit can be deemed too large. This can result in an eviction notice for the whole family.

Student loans and grants through Ontario Student Assistance Program and Millennium scholarships can also reduce social assistance payments and have an impact on rental charges…. The approach of an 18th birthday, and even the prospect of an honour such as a scholarship, can be the cause of high stress in a poor family.

[O]ur social policies for welfare recipients force independence on 18-year-olds, discourage them from further schooling, and threaten to take away their shelter.

It is reasonable to assert that these misdirected social policies serve to perpetuate poverty and welfare dependence in the next generation.

Overall, when we look at the way opportunities are limited for the disadvantaged, and many services are effectively denied to them, we see a society that seems all too ready to accept that poverty should mean precarious housing, fewer and poorer parks, recreation facilities, arts opportunities, stores, public services or transportation options. Many in society seem to accept that higher education is not for the disadvantaged, and that attempts to better oneself should be discouraged. The impact of this approach on alienation and a lack of any real sense of opportunity or belonging is palpable across this province and plays a significant role in incubating the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth.


And so we conclude this section as we began: with profound respect for the countless Ontarians who work so hard to overcome the effects of poverty and poverty itself, and profound distress that we as a society have failed to appreciate how hard we are making it for them. We draw hope from the Premier’s establishment of a Cabinet committee to address poverty. But we also note that for far too many, the level, the concentrations and the circumstances of poverty in Ontario have created almost insurmountable obstacles to any sense of hope or fairness or belonging, with consequences we see all around us.

2. Racism as a Root of the Immediate Risk Factors

Deep concerns about racism pervaded our consultations. We were taken aback by the extent to which racism is alive and well and wreaking its deeply harmful effects on Ontarians and on the very fabric of this province.

We were taken aback not because we believed that Ontario had become free of racism, but because we believed that far more would have been accomplished in this direction in the more than 30 years since we were first active in getting this matter recognized by the general public, and embraced by governments, as a priority issue. We felt that progress had been made in those early years when the Ontario government took the initiative to increase the public’s awareness of the devastating impact of racism on our quest for both economic and social strength, and also took the lead in combating racism. We had assumed that progress was continuing to be made even though the discourse was less evident. Recent instances of racial profiling and other related matters of course kept the issue alive for us as it did for many, but perhaps hid the depths to which racism is ever more embedded throughout our society.

In connecting with a new generation of youth through this review, and hearing from front-line service providers and community leaders in more direct and intense ways than we had in recent years, the startling degree to which racism continues to plague this province was driven home to us. This racism affects all racialized groups in Ontario.

Racialized groups are highly diverse, and the manifestations of racism affect them differently. Most encounter subtle and systemic barriers, including “glass ceilings” and other limits on their ability to participate fully in society. Others, in particular Blacks, continue to also suffer from a seemingly more entrenched and often more virulent form of racism. Sadly, the following comments of Stephen Lewis in his 1992 report to the then Premier remain apposite:

First, what we are dealing with, at root, and fundamentally, is anti-Black racism. While it is obviously true that every visible minority community experiences the indignities and wounds of systemic discrimination throughout Southern Ontario, it is the Black community which is the focus. It is Blacks who are being shot, it is Black youth that is unemployed in excessive numbers, it is Black students who are being inappropriately streamed in schools, it is Black kids who are disproportionately dropping out, it is housing communities with large concentrations of Black residents where the sense of vulnerability and disadvantage is most acute, it is Black employees, professional and non-professional, on whom the doors of upward equity slam shut. Just as the soothing balm of ‘multiculturalism’ cannot mask racism, so racism cannot mask its primary target (Lewis, 1992: 2).

Searing as this reality remains for African-Canadians, and applicable as much of it is to Aboriginals, they are not the only targets of racism. Throughout our meetings, whether with youth, service providers or government officials, racism was regularly raised as serious and pressing, especially in relation to how it affects economic outcomes for many groups.

Indeed, particular attention must be paid to the racialization of poverty in Ontario. As Prof. Michael Ornstein’s study of socio-economic differences among racialized groups in Toronto demonstrated, the income difference between European and non-European groups has grown steadily since the 1970s (Ornstein, 2006). He found that, as of 2001,

40 per cent of the members of African ethno-racial groups are below Statistics Canada’s low income cut-off, compared to 30 per cent for the Arab and West Asian groups and about 20 per cent for the South Asian, East Asian, Caribbean and South and Central American ethno-racial groups. The figure for European ethno-racial groups is 10.8 per cent (Ornstein, 2006: 83).

Prof. Ornstein also observed that:

[t]hese figures on the extent of poverty represent the average condition of entire communities in Toronto. In a highly individualistic society, it is easier to think about a person or family living in poverty, and often in the context of bad luck. Indeed, research shows that losing a job and dissolution of a family are the events that most often result in a person’s becoming poor. What these tables describe is the quite different idea of an entire community where the average income is very low and many, many people live in poverty. Even ethno-racial groups with the highest income experience some poverty. Once overall poverty levels in a group reach 20 or 25 per cent, it is no longer possible to think of poverty as the unfortunate result of unusual circumstances...

The poverty and income statistics ... describe a community in which the experience of extreme disadvantage is highly racialized. Every one of the twenty poorest ethno-racial groups is non-European. Moreover, there are huge differences in the extent of poverty dividing the distinct ethno-racial groups into global regions. The differences in average incomes are less dramatic, but still demonstrate a highly racialized divide between rich and poor (80–81).

This focus on the intersection of racism and poverty is not to deny that middle-class members of these groups experience racism, including in ways that also disillusion youth and contribute to their sense of alienation and lack of opportunity or hope. We agree, though, with those we met who made it clear that it is racism combined with poverty that has the greatest connection to the issues facing this review.

In our discussions, we heard not only of deteriorating police relations with racialized youth, but also of barriers to creating a representative public service and teaching force, of an education curriculum that discourages racialized youth because it does not include people like them in the history of this province, of a lack of opportunity and role models in many parts of society, and of the continuing and devastating impacts of racial profiling in many aspects of day-to-day living in this province.

Indeed, the Supreme Court of Canada has put to rest any doubts that could reasonably be raised about the pervasiveness of racism in this country. In its 2005 R. v. Spence decision, the Court said:

The courts have acknowledged that racial prejudice against visible minorities is...notorious and indisputable...[it is] a social fact not capable of reasonable dispute (R. v. Spence, [2005] 3 S.C.R. 458, para. 5).

And yet, there are fewer public structures in place to address this reality than we had in the past. There is no recent record of strong statements from the government about the manifold ways in which racism is dividing our society, denying opportunity and defeating the hopes of our youth. There is no Cabinet Committee on Race Relations, no Anti-Racism Secretariat, no Race Relations and Policing Directorate, few if any Mayors’ Committees on Race Relations; in short, most of the structures needed to confront and address racism no longer exist.

A modest step in the right direction is found in the re-establishment, in legislation that came into effect in the summer of 2008, of a small body within the Ontario Human Rights Commission to bring some anti-racism focus to its ongoing, and now to be reenergized, public policy role across the entirety of its broad mandate. But this is not located at the core of the provincial government. And while we are pleased to see some movement by the Province in the direction of gathering data to address racism, neither this nor the commission’s role is enough to deal with the issues nor to give hope and confidence that they will be dealt with.

Why do racism and Ontario’s inadequate public response to it matter so much? At the most fundamental level, they matter so much because racism is a fundamental wrong that brutally denies the inherent dignity and worth of those who are its victims, and will undermine our society and weaken our future if it is not addressed. And, in terms of the specific mandate the Premier gave us, they matter so much because racism is one of the central conditions that can produce the immediate risk factors for violence.

It is important to stress that we speak in terms of racism, not race. Race has nothing to do with violence. No race is inherently more violent than another, even assuming for the moment that it makes sense to speak of distinct races, as opposed to speaking of people who have been placed into racial categories, or “racialized.”

Studies and experience show that if the negative circumstances in which many racialized groups live are neutralized, their involvement in violence is no different than that of any other group. As we were advised in England, there are well-documented circumstances that produce alienation and the other immediate risk factors, and the sad reality is that a disproportionate number of racialized groups are subjected to those circumstances. It is because of that subjection, and not their race, that they are disproportionately present in the groups we are concerned about.

But while race is not something that creates a risk of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth, racism is. Racism strikes at the core of self-identity, eats away the heart and casts a shadow on the soul. It is cruel and hurtful and alienating. It makes real all doubts about getting a fair chance in this society. Whether seen as a barrier or a hurdle, it is a serious obstacle imposed for a reason the victim has no control over, and can do nothing about.

And there is no doubt that racism is pervasive in Ontario. As noted in the paper prepared for us by Prof. Rinaldo Walcott and his colleagues:

Racism takes many forms: from individual insults, stereotypes and physical violence, to more wide-ranging practices that involve systemic practices of deliberate exclusion from the nation’s institutions, to unconscious ways of privileging whites, to disadvantaging racialized people through social and cultural networks, to cultural assumptions and practices which place non-white or racial minorities outside legitimate avenues of power and decision-making. Racism is both historical and contemporary; it changes over time, but it also builds on its history to accrue the power to name, place and displace, and by so doing to render violence on those at its receiving end — those whom racism makes into racial minorities through history and through the power to control the lives of other human beings (Volume 4: 322).

That many overcome these multiple manifestations of racism and succeed, become role models and inspire us all does not detract from the fact that, for many, it can lead to violence: there is a clear and devastating link among oppression, poverty, racism and a lack of belonging. To again cite Prof. Walcott and his colleagues:

Racial minority scholars studying violence and crime in North America have by and large reached the consensus that ideas of race, practices of racism and the history of racial oppression play a fundamental, significant and determining factor in the outcome of violence and crime among certain groups or communities... the history of racial oppression plays a primary role in the manner in which violence and crime are experienced and practised within, among and beyond marginalized groups in their communities (Volume 4: 320).

The very real potential for this to create the immediate risk factors should not be hard to understand. How can it not erode your self-esteem to feel that, no matter what you do or what you achieve, you can be excluded or undervalued simply because of your race? How can it not be alienating to know that you can be or have often been stopped by the police or followed in a store or denied housing for that same reason? How could your willingness to study and work hard to get ahead not be eroded by a clear sense of having more limited prospects than others, and how could that not reduce your sense of hope? When society can at any time, overtly or covertly, single you out for negative attention or cut you off from opportunity because of your race, how can you feel connected to or bonded with or invested in that society, or fail to feel confused about your value to the community and anger towards an unresponsive social structure?

And, as well, when you look to society’s major institutions for leadership in confronting these insidious realities and find almost no focus on this issue, how can all those feelings not be made more deeply hurtful and exclusionary? This is all the more so when today’s racism takes place in the shadow of a long history of racism and exclusion, often led and generally supported by governments of the day. This history, some of it quite recent, is a lens through which racialized groups view their current interactions with the rest of society, and necessarily undercuts relationships with governments and the police when they are not clearly positioned as leaders in the work to end racism.

For these reasons, it is apparent to us that all of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth can easily arise from the diminished sense of worth that results from being subject to racism, and from the often accurate inference of what that racism means for the hopes of advancing, prospering and having a fair chance in our society. When, as is so often the case, racism is combined with poverty and other sources of serious disadvantage discussed in this chapter, its central role in the issue that concerns us is all too evident.

3. The Impact of Community Design on Violence Involving Youth


The conditions of the communities where young people live not only greatly affect the quality of their lives and the opportunities available to them, but also how they perceive themselves, society and their role in it. According to the Ontario Healthy Communities Coalition (, the qualities of a healthy community include: a clean and safe physical environment; adequate access to safety and recreation; learning and skill-development opportunities; strong, supportive relationships and networks; and broad participation of residents in decision-making. Unfortunately, many youth do not live in such communities.

In Section 1 of this chapter, we outlined how concentrations of poverty and the circumstances that often accompany poverty can give rise to the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. In this section, we will expand the analysis to explore how the physical conditions in many different parts of our province, rural as well as urban, can have the same regrettable impacts. There are obvious overlaps between the two sections, with the main distinction being that the conditions discussed in this section can operate independently of very low economic status, although they often coincide with it in multiply disadvantaging ways.

Regrettably, right across Ontario there are many examples of poor planning and poor design of the built and the developed natural environment, creating places that make some youth feel powerless and isolated, leading them to believe that their options are as limited as their horizons. In addition to the already-discussed conditions that attach specifically to poverty, these negative factors include: physical and psychological isolation from the broader community; bleak landscapes with no inviting places to gather or play and little usable green space; a lack of adequate and accessible social and physical infrastructure; limited or non-existent transportation services; and unsafe streets, common areas and passageways. All of these are too often accompanied by a dispiriting failure to involve youth in designing or planning how to use the space in which they are destined to spend much of their time.

While these conditions garner the most attention in large urban areas, poor planning, design and use of space are not just an urban phenomenon. Some small towns and rural and remote communities are poorly planned and designed, or do not have or commit the resources to provide for their youth. Although each area is unique in many ways, including their histories, design, population and industries, the neighbourhoods we visited in Thunder Bay, London, Hamilton, Toronto and Ottawa, and others we were told about during our review, all seemed to require youth to struggle with similar issues.


In our meetings with communities and youth, we heard that housing, and not only social housing, was often unsafe and unhealthy for residents, including youth. In the earlier section on poverty, we discussed the impact on youth of poor-quality housing units, and are fully aware that this issue resonates across the province, often being worse in smaller towns where affordable housing is limited.

Apart from the quality and affordability of housing, we are particularly concerned about the isolation that many youth face because of their housing situation. In rural areas, this can be primarily a function of distance; in some urban areas, it can result from the fact that much of the affordable housing consists of clusters of aging apartment complexes, surrounded by large open spaces with few amenities (e.g., grocery stores or community centres) within walking distance. This presents a major physical barrier for youth and essentially creates an island, making it difficult for youth in these neighbourhoods to come and go.

We were, for example, surprised by the number of times we were told of youth who seldom leave their neighbourhoods. In Toronto, we were told that when some youth from priority neighbourhoods are taken downtown, they react to it as something seen previously on television, as if they were visiting a foreign country they had previously seen in a documentary. This is in part due to inadequate transportation, but can also be attributed to a very real feeling of social exclusion from the rest of the city.

In smaller towns, where distance may not be an issue, this same sense of social exclusion can be produced simply by the way youth are looked at or treated by residents, merchants or the police when they enter the “better” parts of town. In a number of ways, these youth can be made to feel different and unwanted, leading them to spend large parts of their lives in their own islands of isolation even in areas that are near better-off areas.

Whatever the cause, the sense of exclusion from the broader and better-off society can easily lead to alienation, impulsivity and a lack of any sense of belonging, as well as depriving youth of positive influences and broader horizons. It can also increase the time spent with youth who have no ambition other than to profit from a neighbourhood’s disadvantages by exploiting them to further their own, often illegal, ends.


In addition to the physical and psychological isolation that can arise from a lack of decent housing, and the self-perceived difference between youth living there and the broader society, isolation can also be a function of poor transportation. For many youth living in rural or remote areas, transportation is an enormous barrier. Often, there is little or no public transportation, placing those with no or limited access to cars at a further disadvantage. As well, often youth must travel a great distance from their home to go to school, leaving them little time to socialize in the communities where they go to school, or in their own communities when they return to them at the end of a long day. As a result, they can be isolated from both.

Similarly, an increasing number of young people growing up in Ontario suburbs find it hard to get around. Many newly planned subdivisions were designed around the use of a car and on the assumption that they would be populated by middle-class families, for whom this would not be an issue. As the poor are increasingly forced into these suburbs by trends discussed elsewhere in this report, the failure to plan for adequate public transportation becomes not just a significant environmental issue, but also a major isolating force for youth.

Even where there is public transit, it can still pose a barrier for some urban youth. They may not be able to afford to use it, or the system may not adequately serve their neighbourhoods and the places they need to get to. Youth have told us that they have to wait a long time for buses in their area, sometimes in bus shelters located in isolated areas that are unsafe for youth, particularly after dark. This greatly limits young people’s mobility, causing youth to stay isolated within their neighbourhoods.

Not only is this isolation itself potentially dangerous for the reasons discussed above, but it can have other negative impacts as well. For example, when it takes two or three transfers and a couple of hours to get to a job interview, for which a youth already feels disadvantaged, that reality, plus the cost of transportation, can constitute a real barrier to the will to search for work.

When youth do get work, the transportation costs can seriously erode part-time minimum wage earnings, such that the cost-benefit analysis, when the cost and the time required to get to and from work are taken into account, is often not favourable to working part time. These youth are then not only then faced with limited economic resources in the short run, but as well do not build the kind of work history that would make them attractive to future employers. When these youth ultimately have to compete for jobs with better-off (or sometimes just better-located) youth who have built a resumé, and who also do not face the kind of discrimination by postal code discussed in Section 1, this short-term disadvantage can take on serious longer-term consequences.

Youth are perceptive. They not only understand the immediate, structural discouragement from engagement in economic activities that would help build a solid future, but also fully realize that they are going to be disadvantaged as a result.

At the same time, the location of much of the lower-cost housing, and the accompanying poor transportation options, means that working parents face long commutes to work, an issue that is magnified when they are holding down more than one marginal job. This travel time creates obvious pressures and stresses, and also means that these parents have limited time or energy at the end of the working day or week to engage with their children, much less with the broader local community.

When whole communities live this way, not only do youth have less access to their parents, but also there are just fewer adults around to engage with casually and positively as role models or mentors. There are also fewer adults with the time and energy to coach teams, organize and lobby for facilities and space, supervise play areas, or just generally contribute to an active and positive street life in the community.

The children of these parents not only often lack an energized and engaged parent, but as an obvious corollary, also have a large amount of unsupervised time every day. When the community cannot fill after-school and weekend time with positive activities, the potential for disengagement at best, and involvement with the wrong kind of peers at worst, is obvious. For those youth who are suspended or expelled from school, or drop out, the lack of any supervision for 10 or 12 consecutive hours a day can even more easily feed engagement with exactly the wrong kinds of peers.

While the negative impacts of the combination of the location of these communities and poor transportation options are serious, we are by no means suggesting that they all lack a strong sense of community and “organic” support structures to deal with their challenges. As with so many of the issues we are raising, the issue is that the policies of all orders of government sometimes frustrate those community strengths, rather than supporting and building upon them.

Space for Play and Community Building

The isolation created by the design of some neighbourhoods and by issues of transportation and limited access to the broader community is made worse when there are few opportunities within these physically or psychologically isolated neighbourhoods for youth to play or socialize, or for youth or adults to meet to engage in even the most rudimentary forms of community building. In the Grassroots Youth Collaborative (GYC) Report, Rooted in Action, they state:

... Many times young people live in small apartments sharing accommodations with a lot of family members. These young people need space to hang out with friends, quiet space to do their homework, a safe place that is free from police harassment/brutality, to express themselves in the arts and to access social- recreational programming. Community Centres and programs run by mainstream social service providers that have facilities are not ‘youth-friendly’ or accessible to youth, especially Black youth (Volume 3: 137).

Indeed, the lack of space was one of the loudest messages we heard: youth and those working with them repeatedly expressed a need for youth-specific space within their communities. Far too many disadvantaged neighbourhoods lack space for youth to play sports, engage in the arts, dance or just hang out. This includes a lack of open and attractive green space for young people. While sometimes overlooked in the drive to obtain sports and recreation complexes, green space is important to the health and wellbeing of young people.

Even where green space appears to be available, many of the youth we talked to told us that they still do not have anywhere to play or socialize. Often, adults design existing open space for adults or young children but not youth. Other times, the space is designed for activities that are of limited or no interest to the youth now living in these neighbourhoods. And in some areas, youth, particularly youth of colour, feel discriminated against in public space by adults who fear that they are in a gang or up to no good and who seek to discourage them from using these places.

Similar issues arise in relation to the availability of indoor facilities for sports or arts or other forms of engagement. To begin with, there is the reality, discussed above in Section 1, that often the neighbourhoods that now contain much of the low-cost housing are poorly served by such facilities. This is a shocking shortcoming given the plain and obvious impact of youth having no positive outlet for their energy and time, no place or facilities for creative self-expression and no place that fosters contact with coaches and other positive mentors.

Where they do exist, the recreation or other spaces within community centres are often booked by seniors’ or other local community groups or by people from outside the community who have the time and the organizational structure to compete for space, and the money to pay the fees. Indeed, we heard story after story of youth hanging around a local rec centre while the facility was being used by adults who had driven in from considerable distances away. Not only are these youth denied access to nearby facilities, and thus visibly reminded of their lack of status in society, but they are often also then stigmatized and harassed for hanging around outside the facilities from which they have been shut out.

The lack of space also means that those who want to put on programs for or with youth have no place to do so, or have to spend an inordinate amount of time chasing often fleeting opportunities to obtain access to space. To again cite the GYC Report:

The bureaucracy that community organizations must go through in their attempts at securing space for youth programming is highly unnecessary — not to mention counterproductive.

Vathany Uthayasundaram, the former Program Coordinator at Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre…described the ‘drawn-out and oft unsucceVathany Uthayasundaram, the former Program Coordinator at Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre...described the ‘drawn-out and oft unsuccessful bureaucratic process to get space for a basketball drop-in…. [W]e have to run around asking all the community centers for a gym... some [of which] are pre-booked a year ahead of time.... And then there’s funding for permits... There is a whole process you have to go through.... You call a certain department and then you fill out an application and then take it to another department... but you don’t have that time... and are often unsuccessful, and youth don’t understand the process.... We have money issues, space issues, permit issues!’ [S]taff are usually underpaid and over-worked — and the tasks involved in simply securing space often take valuable physical and human resources out of the organization’s programming (Volume 3: 136).

Outside the public sphere, the exclusionary results are often the same. We were told that many landlords do not want to rent to youth-led or youth-serving organizations, thus feeding the very problem that causes them to be nervous about having concentrations of youth in and around their premises. When youth organizations do manage to find space, they can all too easily be forced out of it because of rent increases, redevelopment or the property changing ownership.

Overall, the shortage of space puts youth on the streets, exposing them to negative peers and negative interactions with residents and the police. At the same time, it deprives them of the positive development that comes from engagement in sports or arts or involvement with positive peers, youth workers and community leaders in activities that would build their skills, confidence, optimism and belief in their futures.

Designing for Crime

The social conditions in some neighbourhoods, including the lack of space for residents to meet to socialize and build collective strengths, can lead to disorganization and a retreat from the use of public space, and thus make those neighbourhoods unsafe. As well, in some of these neighbourhoods the lack of safety has regrettably, if inadvertently, been designed right into the community.

We are all familiar with the design trends of the early and middle parts of the last century, which created enclaves of apartments and other housing surrounded by open space and separated as much as possible from through traffic, shops and services. While well intended, this fosters a sense of isolation, makes access difficult for the police and other services and reduces the amount of active street life in these neighbourhoods. When combined with cul-de-sacs, narrow walkways and other design features that reduce sightlines, and often also with poor lighting, these features easily create natural havens for drug dealing and other crime.

As fewer people use the public areas for socialization, the space is ceded to those who want to use it for crime. This of course fuels the sense that the area is unsafe, and discourages more people from using it, thus driving the downward cycle for the area.

This makes it easy for gangs to control, or appear to control, access to public spaces. 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. As well, within some neighbourhoods, the resulting gangs and gang rivalry have made neighbourhoods unsafe for youth and have actually divided neighbourhoods into areas under the control of different gangs. Many youth simply do not feel safe walking through their own neighbourhoods for fear of being caught in gang territory.

The results of these developments are doubly dangerous. First, the isolation and fear cut off access to positive programs and engagement, which would help youth advance in positive ways. And second, youth who do not want to stay in their small and often crowded apartments are encouraged to engage with gangs to secure access to a life otherwise denied to them. In both ways, the risks of creating the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth are significantly increased.

We note in this connection that, while not a consequence of design, similar impacts arise in some cities and towns where a declining economy has meant that some areas or streets have become unused and isolated. They become areas where it is not seen as safe to walk around since there are no shops or activities to bring people into the streets to create positive social interactions and create many of the same issues.

Youth Engagement in Planning

Young people have much of value to say about how to plan and design space for youth. They are the future stewards of our neighbourhoods, towns and cities, and they will determine the conditions that will be passed on to the next generations. To listen to them and include them in the planning and design of the built and natural environment would benefit us all.

And yet, municipal and provincial planning and design processes are not traditionally inclusive of youth, and especially not of youth who are racialized minorities. While there have been some attempts to involve youth in open-space planning to create more inclusive parks, these are far from common and do not extend to broader design issues. There is a significant gap between youth perspectives on town and regional planning and design in the province, and how that design and planning is carried on. The result is not only spaces that exclude youth and make them feel out of place, but as well a message of disinterest in youth and a lost opportunity for positive engagement.


Neighbourhoods should be places of safety, nurturing, fun and engagement for youth. When instead they isolate, discourage, deny opportunity and increase the risk of and involvement in violence, they become sources of serious concern. A concerted effort to remedy this reality in Ontario must be at the heart of any plan that seeks to make sustainable progress in addressing the roots of violence involving youth.

4. The Education System as a Root of the Immediate Risk Factors


Education, of course, provides vital opportunities for social development and personal growth. It increases employment opportunities and the chances of financial stability and thereby positions individuals to obtain better housing, health and well-being. Education is universally seen as one of the best ways out of poverty and as a sound investment in the future of individuals, families and communities, and thus in the social fabric of our entire society. How then have we come to include some elements of the education system in Ontario among the roots of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth? Sadly, and sometimes tragically, there are several reasons.

In this section, we discuss five problematic elements of Ontario’s education system: safe schools policies, the curriculum, the approach sometimes taken to guidance and counselling, the composition and training of the teaching force and the way the education system can contribute to the excessive criminalization of youth. As a preface to that discussion, we note with dismay the fact that it is now more than 16 years since Stephen Lewis wrote to the then Premier in the following terms:

Undoubtedly, some progress has been made. But often, as I listened to students of all ages and all backgrounds speak out at the many gatherings we had, it was as though we were back to square one. The lack of real progress is shocking....

Everywhere, the refrain of the Toronto students, however starkly amended by different schools and different locations, was essentially the refrain of all students. Where are the courses in Black history? Where are the visible minority teachers? Why are there so few role models? Why do our white guidance counsellors know so little of different cultural backgrounds? Why are racist incidents and epithets tolerated? Why are there double standards of discipline? Why are minority students streamed? Why do they discourage us from University? Where are we going to find jobs? What’s the use of having an education if there’s no employment? How long does it take to change the curriculum so that we’re part of it? (Lewis, 1992: 20–21)

While we are very deeply concerned by the seeming intractability of these issues, we also want to applaud the very significant efforts of the majority of educators to do their best for all children in the education system. We applaud not only their commitment, but their many successes. The system indeed works well for a large number of students. The issues we raise in this chapter are all at a systemic level: they affect far too many youth, but they are failures of vision and oversight, rather than the failures of individuals.

Safe Schools Policies

Near the top of the list of issues brought to our attention by youth and adults alike throughout the course of our review was the application of the safe schools provisions of the Education Act. Under these provisions, many youth have been suspended or expelled from school without a full consideration of their circumstances and without adequate supports to maintain their learning or occupy their time in positive ways. In the opinion of the Ontario Human Rights Commission, supported by almost everyone we spoke to, the safe schools provisions have had a disproportionate impact on racialized students and students with disabilities.

They also have had a disproportionate impact on youth whose parents are not adept or at ease in dealing with teachers and school administrators. These include the children of many recent immigrants who, as we discuss later in this chapter, have not had adequate settlement services. They also include youth who are living in neighbourhoods where low income is the norm, where there is inadequate housing and a lack of appropriate social services and supports. And they include youth whose parents face long commutes to work and often have to hold down more than one job, leaving them with limited time to engage with the school to forestall suspensions, or to engage with their children to ameliorate the worst effects if they are suspended.

We recognize that the recent amendments to the Education Act in relation to the safe schools provisions are a positive step. But, as we set out in Chapter 9, we believe they fall short of what is required to deal with the serious systemic issues that were brought to our attention. And we are also very concerned that Ontario will have to deal with the long-term consequences of the previous policies, in force from September 2001 to early 2008, and the gaps in the new policy, noted in Chapter 9, for a long time to come.

The safe schools provisions promoted a policy of “zero tolerance” for “bad” behaviour in schools. The provisions gave individual school boards the authority to establish policies in relation to safety, access to school premises and procedural matters governing suspensions or expulsions. They included mandatory suspensions ranging from one day by a teacher and up to 20 days by a teacher or principal of a pupil who committed the following infractions: uttering a threat to inflict serious bodily harm on another person; possessing alcohol or illegal drugs; being under the influence of alcohol; swearing at a teacher or at another person in a position of authority; committing an act of vandalism that causes extensive damage to school property; or engaging in another activity that, under a policy of the board, is one for which a suspension is mandatory.

The provisions also provided for mandatory expulsions from 21 days to a year by principals related to the following infractions: possessing a weapon; using a weapon to cause or threaten harm; committing physical or sexual assault; trafficking in weapons or in illegal drugs; committing robbery; giving alcohol to a minor; or engaging in another activity that, under a policy of the board, is one for which a suspension is mandatory.

No one can dispute that a student’s involvement in any of the above activities is cause for serious concern. However, in relation to the 2001 provisions, the issue is with the rigid approach taken to deal with behaviours, discipline and safety problems without consideration of mitigating factors, such as:

In our view, “safe schools” should also mean an environment that is inclusive of students from different ethno-racial backgrounds and different abilities and skills.

What is unfortunate about Ontario’s use of the safe schools provisions is that, well before they were adopted, empirical studies in the United States from as early as 1974, the United Kingdom and Nova Scotia all pointed to the disproportionate impact of suspensions and expulsions on racialized students and students with disabilities. For many years, Black parents in Ontario have experienced the underachievement, streaming and high dropout rates of their children within the educational system. The move towards “zero tolerance” for behaviours that were deemed “anti-social,” without understanding the ethno-racial, socio-economic and cultural context of the students and their families, could only result in the expulsions and suspensions of children who were already marginalized and seen as underachievers.

In preparing a report for the Ontario Human Rights Commission on the effects of suspensions and expulsions, Ken Bhattacharjee, an independent human rights consultant, reviewed the academic studies about the experience in the United States, the United Kingdom and Nova Scotia and interviewed educators, lawyers, advocates, social workers, trustees and students. He cited an American study that pointed to long-term detrimental effects on children. The report also cites evidence to make the following points about the application of zero-tolerance policies in discipline matters:

There are long-term detrimental consequences for the child, including loss of educational opportunities and an increased risk of dropping out, engaging in conduct that affects the safety of their families and communities and incarceration (The Advancement Project and the Civil Rights Project, 2000, cited in Bhattacharjee, 2003: 21).

Mr. Bhattacharjee also reported that “[m]any interviewees believe that the application of zero tolerance leads to increased criminalization of students,” (57) and that “some interviewees believe that suspension and expulsion can have a fairly serious negative impact on the student” (53).

For students who were already facing socio-economic barriers, learning disabilities, racism, isolation and other factors, and living in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, the punitive and exclusionary nature of the safe schools provisions became another factor that harmed their development as individuals and promoted alienation, disengagement and a lack of hope for the future.

The effects of the policy were made even worse by the fact that, until this spring the Education Act did not create an obligation to provide a student who was suspended for less than 20 days with learning programs or lesson plans. The recent report by Toronto’s School Community Safety Advisory Panel (Falconer report) confirmed that the majority of suspensions lasted five days or less and noted that “a significant amount of school time can nonetheless be missed when a student is suspended several times in one school year” (School Community Safety Advisory Panel, 2008, Volume 3: 499).

Community workers who interact with students who are Aboriginal, Black, Tamil or Latino point out that students who were suspended without any lesson plans, or expelled with no particular motivation to attend strict discipline programs, were more susceptible to making contact with other youth who were having difficulties. Often these youth were involved in both violent and non-violent anti-social behaviours. They also noted that suspensions and expulsions led to dropping out of school entirely.

Many of the youth who dropped out stayed at home with no or limited parental supervision or on the streets with no life skills, job skills or marketable education. The Bhattacharjee Report noted observations of front-line community workers, including that these youth became targets for drug dealers and prime recruits for gangs. Youth who frequented the streets and malls because they were not in school during the day came under the scrutiny of the police. These contacts escalated police supervision of these youth and sometimes this increased policing led to their being criminalized earlier (Bhattacharjee, 2003: 58–59).

In the United Kingdom, the effects of school exclusion and its links to later criminal behaviour were noted in a report entitled Exclusion of Black Pupils: Priority Review, Getting It, Getting It Right:

Exclusion from school is widely recognized as a driver for wider social exclusion. It is highly correlated with unemployment and involvement in crime. In the words of Martin Narey, Director General of HM Prison Service (2001):

‘The 13,000 young people excluded from school each year might as well be given a date by which to join the prison service some time later down the line’ (Department for Education and Skills, 2006: 16).

This concern was borne out six years later in a report by Britain’s House of Commons Home Affairs Committee. The committee noted that recent surveys had demonstrated “the direct link between school exclusions and involvement in the criminal justice system” (Home Affairs Committee, 2007: 33).

In sum, the safe schools provisions of the Education Act that were intended to promote safety and prevent bullying resulted in the marginalization of significant numbers of an entire generation of the most vulnerable youth within the province. This has had a devastating effect on students and their families as they had to deal with not only the academic consequences, but also the issues of self-esteem and stigmatization within the schools and their communities.


One of the major concerns about the education system in Ontario is the issue of the curriculum. The provincial curriculum defines the learning environment in our schools, including the learning materials and teaching practices. Academics who have studied the impact of curriculum on communities recognize that the curriculum can create barriers to student learning.

A report titled Towards a New Beginning pointed out that the Ontario school curriculum is “largely reflective of European presence, settlement and development of Canada and as such provides little or no incentive for Black Canadians to develop pride in their African heritage” (Four-Level Government/African Canadian Community Working Group, 1992: 78). As already noted, Stephen Lewis reported in 1992 that students informed him little had changed in the schools over a 10-year period regarding the lack of courses in Black history, lack of books written by Black authors and the streaming of Black students in Toronto’s schools (Lewis, 1992: 20).

The Eurocentricity of the curriculum in our schools continues to be a refrain that is echoed by parents and students from non-European ethno-racial heritages across the province, including the Aboriginal communities. Fourteen years after Stephen Lewis’s report, a major youth conference in Toronto highlighted the ongoing and very serious concerns of youth on this same issue. The organizers of that conference, the Grassroots Youth Collaborative, again found the issue to be a major concern of youth in the work they did for this review in 2008 (Volume 3: 29). The recent Falconer report also highlighted this issue, and recommended that curriculum reform be implemented (School Community Safety Advisory Panel, 2008, recommendation 41).

We were told of the use of stereotypes and also of the failure to include the negative history of Canada’s interaction with Aboriginal peoples, the institution of slavery, exclusionary race-based immigration policies and so on. For many in Ontario, these facts continue to shape their current experience of life in this province and it is hard to see how we can be an inclusive society without a widespread appreciation of them.

Some progress has been made on those two fronts, although more remains to be done. However, despite long-standing calls for it, there is a continuing failure of the mainstream curriculum to acknowledge the many historically significant contributions of racialized people. For youth who are developing their identities, this signals that:

For students who are already struggling with their education, dealing with the issues of racism and seeing the daily struggle of adults in their lives to achieve success, hearing this silence or negativity related to their backgrounds can be just as devastating for their educational achievement as the suspensions and expulsions. Britain’s Department of Education and Skills, in its Diversity and Citizenship, Curriculum Review, included the following quote from a book by Charles Taylor:

[...] a person or group of people can suffer real damage, real distortion, if the people or society around them mirror back to them a confining or demeaning or contemptible picture of themselves. Non-recognition or misrecognition can inflict harm, can be a form of oppression, imprisoning someone in a false distorted mode of being (Taylor, 2004, cited in Department for Education and Skills, 2004: 29).

Amanda Robinson, a journalism student, in her article entitled In Black or White?, noted that educators like Prof. George Dei of the Ontario Institute for Studies in Education have found that students are dropping out of school because the curriculum does not speak to their experiences. She interviewed Lloyd McKell, now the executive officer, Student and Community Equity, for the Toronto District School Board, who also linked school drop-out rates to the culturally exclusive curriculum. Ms Robinson quoted Mr. McKell as saying, “When we looked behind the reasons why students were dropping out, we found out that what mattered to students was how they saw themselves reflected in the school environment” (Robinson, 2007).

It is clear that students who do not see themselves reflected in the curriculum will experience a lesser degree of attachment to the education system. The malaise that results affects the self-esteem of our youth and contributes to their social marginalization and their disengagement from their education. This, in turn, can lead to dropping out of school, involvement in street life with anti-social activities, and a severe reduction in their economic and social prospects. The connections to the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth are all too plain to see.

Guidance and Counselling Services

Youth turn to guidance counsellors for information about course and career options. Yet, to many students and their parents, many of these important professionals have not demonstrated an in-depth understanding of the complexity of the factors that affect the ethno-racial youth who seek their advice. For many, guidance advice often appears to be given from a perspective of low expectations based on the ethno-racial background of the youth. In 1992, just months after Stephen Lewis’s report, another report, Towards a New Beginning, cited a position paper describing how racialized students and parents were concerned, as one student put it, that “Black students with ability and ambition [were] discouraged and turned off by guidance.” The researcher reported that in seeking guidance counselling, African-Canadian students were confronted with the “worst outcome scenario of their career potential” (Daenzer, 1992, cited in Four-Level Governnment/African Canadian Community Working Group, 1992: 78).

This conveying of negative and limited expectations to students from certain ethno-racial backgrounds has resulted in the streaming of particular groups into basic courses. This streaming can seriously affect the students’ employability and entry into post-secondary institutions, leaving them with limited options for their future and a continued relegation to the underclass of society. In a similar vein, Black students who have demonstrated athletic abilities are often encouraged to pursue these activities, sometimes to the detriment of their academic studies. The encouragement of these abilities is often seen as stereotypical and discriminatory. Many parents voice concerns that their children will be less likely to focus on academics as they will see sport as an easy way to gain short-term recognition and success.

Unfortunately, low expectations and streaming continue to be common. In our recent consultations, one student referred to guidance counsellors as “dream busters.” While this perhaps overstates the case, and overlooks those counsellors who do work well with racialized students, it is a powerful articulation of the depth of the concern in some communities. When those concerns are well-founded, we agree that the resulting feelings of being misunderstood and excluded can only add to the tensions within the schools, and to the alienation of students and their families.

Teachers and Administrators

Teachers are instrumental in ensuring that our youth are learning. However, beyond the expertise related to the subjects being taught, teachers also play a fundamental role in transmitting values and perspectives to our youth. Their own experiences can influence how they interact with the students and the parents of those students. For some students, their experiences with teachers are similar to the negative experiences with guidance counsellors discussed above.

Students, families, communities and advocates have long been struggling with the low expectations some teachers have for racialized students and, in particular, Black students. Stephen Lewis discussed these low expectations as factors leading to the alienation of Black students (Lewis, 1992). Ten years later, Janice Acton and Diana Abraham, facilitators of a forum in Toronto to discuss the impact of violence and racism on the health and well-being of the Black community, reported that Black parents had again highlighted the devaluation of the achievements of Black students, especially boys. The authors quote a parent who said that boys seem “to be just marking time until they go to a super jail” and that “our young boys are not achieving because of low expectations…. our girls learn that they don’t have to learn because they’ll have a child soon” (Acton with Abraham, 2003). In 2005, the Black community was again pointing to low expectations and streaming as catalysts for Black youth being on the street and susceptible to anti-social and criminal activity (Robinson, 2007). In 2008, The Road to Health points to the same limited expectations as a significant reason for student disengagement (School Community Safety Advisory Panel, 2008: 448).

Coupled with these low expectations is the lack of representation of racialized teachers and administrators within the school system. Parents and communities have continuously raised the issue of the absence of teachers who could understand the particular nuances and struggles experienced by racialized children, and of the lack of role models for their children. It is not that white teachers could not be sympathetic to and trained to be supportive of racialized students; it is that racialized students can speak more freely to someone of their own background and express certain ideas without feeling embarrassment or having to explain their cultural perspective.

As well, for racialized students, the absence of successful people who look like them, with whom they can identify, and who understand the cultural and other circumstances relevant to their capacity to learn, adds to the oppression they are already experiencing in their lives. When these students have parents who are underemployed or who have difficulties finding employment, despite their qualifications and skills, and who experience several bouts of unemployment, seeing teachers and administrators from their own race and colour can help them have the will to succeed and can give them hope in their ability to do so.

By contrast, the messages that can be communicated to students by the absence of racialized teachers are that they also will not succeed and cannot be in positions of authority, because racialized people do not succeed. These students, not surprisingly, often question why they should invest time and energy learning when they have no hope of success. Many end up feeling that they may as well leave school and make a living however they can.

It is not only the racialized students whose attitudes are shaped negatively by the lack of a representative teaching force. In her 1992 report on human rights reform, Mary Cornish, a labour and human rights lawyer, made the following observation:

Students learn by what they see happening more than what they are told is supposed to happen. When people of colour... are not seen in a fair and representative way at every level in the education system, students pick up on prejudice and stereotypes against those groups, which they then carry with them as they start on the rest of their lives (Cornish, Miles, Ormidvar, 1992: 179)

We noted above the reality that expulsions and suspensions put many youth on the streets for extended periods and lead to more interactions with the police, increasing the potential for criminalization. At the same time, the zero-tolerance policies have led many schools to call in the police for activities that would have been addressed by schools in earlier times. This has also led to the increased criminalization of many marginalized youth. Later in this chapter, we discuss the obvious negative impacts of criminalization on youth and note the issue here only because the contribution of the education system can be significant and must be addressed in reforms to that system.


It is with real regret that we draw the conclusion that aspects of the education system can be a root of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. We recognize the Premier’s strong commitment to education and the major investments his government has made to advance it. We also recognize the Province’s initiatives earlier this year to address some of the most egregious aspects of the safe schools provisions.

But the messages that we heard and convey here have a lengthy history, with very little having been done to address them. As the reports we cite in Chapter 6 help demonstrate, the representativeness of the teaching force and the curriculum were already old issues when Stephen Lewis addressed them in 1992. Three parties have held power in Ontario since the Lewis Report so eloquently rearticulated these issues, and none has successfully addressed them. Indeed, the addition and maintenance of the safe schools provisions went in the opposite direction, making things worse for many of the youth Stephen Lewis was concerned about by furthering the disadvantages already being felt by them.

5. Family Issues as Roots of the Immediate Risk Factors

We know intuitively that strong families are a strong foundation for youth. Within a strong family, youth can learn how to establish and maintain healthy relationships and understand what constitutes appropriate and inappropriate behaviour. A strong family provides youth with necessities, such as food, shelter, health care and education. The nurturing environment of a strong family also gives youth the security and emotional support they need.

Not every young person has such a family. Families can be divided, abusive, or struggling emotionally or financially. Some youth have no family. Without the support of a strong family, alienation, low self-esteem, a lack of hope or empathy, and other immediate risk factors for involvement with violence can set in and take hold of a young person, especially if the youth is also experiencing other roots of the immediate risk factors, such as poverty, racism or mental illness.

The understanding of what a “family” is warrants some discussion. For many, family still means a nuclear family, a household consisting of a man and a woman, married to each other, and their children. This has been the traditional family model on which many of our social policies, programs and overall structures have been based. The reality for many is and has been quite different and it continues to change.

According to Statistics Canada, the number of married couples with children living at home is decreasing, representing only 41.5 per cent of all families in Canada in 2001 compared with 55 per cent in 1981. Common-law couples with children accounted for 6.3 per cent of families in 2001, increasing from 1.9 per cent in 1981. Single-parent families with children at home are also increasing, accounting for 15.7 per cent of families in 2001, up from 11.3 per cent in 1981. Step-families represented nearly 12 per cent of all families with children in 2001, compared with 10 per cent in 1995 (Statistics Canada, 2002).

Statistics alone cannot capture the complexity of the changes in the Canadian family. For example, according to Canadian historian Chad Gaffield, “[i]n 1901, there was roughly the same portion of single-parent families as there was in 1996” (CBC News, June 14, 2002). The prevailing reasons for single parenthood, however, have changed dramatically. In the early part of the 20th century, the main reason for single parenthood was the death of a spouse. Now, most single parents are divorced or separated or have never married. At the same time, Canadian demographics have changed, and immigrants continue to bring with them greater reliance on and connection with the extended family, a matriarchal tradition, a hyper-patriarchal family structure, or more community-oriented child-rearing.

As the portrait of the Canadian family continues to change, social programs, policies and structures, largely based on the nuclear family model, are failing to serve a growing number of families. In this section, we identify some of the family circumstances that can be the roots of immediate risk factors for violence involving youth.

Single-Parent Families

Many parents are single owing to family breakdown, which, when accompanied by other stresses such as poverty, substance abuse or mental illness, can leave youth unsupported and vulnerable, increasing the risk of their involvement in violence.

Many single parents cope with the daunting task of raising children alone very well, but many need additional support to do so, especially if they are dealing with the additional stresses listed above. When those supports are provided, children can be raised with hope and bright expectations. When those supports are not provided, children can become alienated and lose hope for their future. In the end, it is not the structure of the family but rather the stresses bearing on the family relationships that can create immediate risk factors for violence involving youth.

Absent Fathers

The vast majority of single parents in Canada are women, and there has been much speculation about the propensity of youth from lone-parent homes led by women to be involved in violence. Although the research and literature points to a strong correlation between violence involving youth and teenage parents, the findings are equivocal on the correlation between violence involving youth and the absence of a father generally.

Despite the lack of solid evidence, an increased presence of fathers, and particularly Black fathers, is often cited as a force that would keep young Black men away from the arena of violence. Yet the experts and individuals we consulted in the course of this review, regardless of their faith, race or sex, expressed the belief that nurturing, encouragement in school, recognition, attention to mental health, respect, opportunity, good housing and sufficient positive reinforcement of race, faith and culture are the crucial factors in a youth’s life. Where a father is present, what is important to the outcome is the degree of responsibility the father assumes for child-rearing and his participation in imparting positive values.

A number of studies have addressed the question of Black men and their parenting roles and responsibilities. Some have pointed to the residual effects of slavery, which deliberately shattered family relationships, forcing many Black men and women to risk their lives to hold onto any connection to their families. Others have looked at post-slavery discrimination and its effect on Black families and the role of men within those families. An example of this is immigration policies that permitted women to come to Canada as “domestics,” but not to bring the fathers of their children. Studies have also examined the strong leadership role of women in Black families.

During this review, we heard a great deal about the current barriers Black men face, including barriers related to the education system, the criminal justice system, and the job market and professional career paths, all of which can inhibit their capacity to be responsible parents and to convey positive values to their children, whether or not they are present in the home. As we write this report, Barack Obama is the Democratic party’s candidate for president of the United States. Senator Obama, whose own father was not present in the home, has called for Black men to take more responsibility for their children. Commentators have noted that he is thereby tackling an issue that a white person could not broach for fear of being labelled a racist. Significantly, however, Senator Obama’s platform concentrates on healthy families, whatever their structure: supports for first-time mothers, nurse-family partnerships focusing on prenatal care, counselling, nurturing children, school readiness through head-start programs, getting people into the workforce, improving the child-support system and reducing recidivism by ensuring that offenders get appropriate help to enter the job market on release.

We agree with that approach. While it is logical to work to have fathers be responsible parents, we cannot conclude that their absence from the home is, on its own, a source of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. Investment in under-served communities, families, education, housing and alleviating urban poverty addresses the factors that have often been overlooked in the discourse about Black fathers and parental responsibility.

Teenage Parents

The issue of teenage parenting was raised several times during our consultations and research. Although most children born to teenagers do not become involved with violence, the issue is a troubling one for many observers.

Studies point to poverty and social exclusion as factors likely to result in teenage pregnancy. Specifically, teenagers are most likely to be become pregnant if they experience one or more of the following conditions: they are in care or have left care, they are underperforming in school and are truants, they have been excluded from school, they suffer from poor mental health, they have low aspirations because of socioeconomic status and race, they are children of teenage mothers, they are homeless or they see having children as their only option in life.

Although pregnancy and parenthood can be well managed by some teens, pregnant teenagers are subject to a higher degree of medical risk than are women who become pregnant at a later age. They are more likely to receive inadequate nutrition while pregnant, which can affect the health of both mother and child. The incidence of pregnancy complications and maternal mortality is higher in teenagers. The infant mortality rate related to teenage mothers is also higher. Teenage mothers are more likely to experience episodes of depression, and teenage parents face additional challenges, before and after the birth of the child. They may be unable to complete their education, have low-paying and limited employment options, rely on social benefits for longer periods, and live in poor housing conditions during and after the pregnancy. If these factors are present, their children will likely be raised in poverty, perpetuating the cycle of curtailed opportunity that is an immediate risk factor for violence involving youth.

Immigrant and Refugee Families

As we discuss in more detail in Section 9 of this chapter, youth from immigrant or refugee families are often the most vulnerable to the conditions that can give rise to the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth, including racism and poverty. Recent immigrant and refugee parents who have to deal with urgent settlement problems may not be able to turn their attention to difficulties their children are having in school, or they may be unable to help because they cannot communicate with the teachers or are reticent to engage with authority figures. Schools often lack the capacity to help them to adjust or the creative outreach that would make them feel welcome.

Immigrant youth who adjust well to their new life and home often have strong family and community support that helps them cope, but others find it difficult to adjust to Canadian culture while also maintaining links to their families’ cultures and social networks. This can create tension in the family and diminish the support that those youth actually receive, or are willing to receive, from their families. An immigrant youth can thus feel equally alienated at school and at home.

Violence and Substance Abuse in the Family

Living in a family in which verbal, physical or substance abuse is commonplace is frightening and devastating. Youth in this situation lack the support and sense of security that should be present in the home. They can experience mental and physical health problems, suffer violence at the hands of family members, or be subject to all three.

A severely troubled home life can have a damaging effect on a youth’s interest in school, ability to learn and interactions with peers and teachers. Doing poorly at school as a consequence compounds the problem. The youth can feel increasingly alienated, and alienation is one of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. In turn, alienation can lead a youth to emulate the abusive and often violent patterns learned at home.

Low-Income Families

Families struggling with poverty face many challenges in maintaining a strong family unit. Parents may have limited time to spend with their children because they work at several jobs. Children may not be able to participate in fee-based recreational activities or after-school programs that would help them grow and thrive. Sometimes, family disputes about money can lead to physical or verbal violence. These are only a few examples of ways in which living in poverty or in a low-income family, by itself, can weaken the family unit. We have already discussed how poverty can create the conditions that give rise to the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. When racism, education difficulties, immigration settlement issues or mental illness or family stresses from poverty itself are added, these risk factors can even more easily be created.

Absent Families

Some young people grow up without any family at all. Some live in foster care or group homes throughout their youth and others are homeless and live on the street. Youth in foster care who are transferred from home to home never know what it is like to belong to a family. The lack of a sense of belonging or a feeling of security can cause them to feel alienated and to have no sense of hope or opportunity. Youth who live on the street are often the victims of violence, and the harsh reality of street living can lead to these and other immediate risk factors for violence.

For those youth who live in care, there is sometimes a break in social services after they turn 16. Under the Child and Family Services Act of Ontario, a young person can leave protection or care when they are 16 years old, even though under Ontario’s Education Act, a youth must stay in school until they are 18 years old. It is often difficult for service providers to reach those youth who leave care.

Youth in protection and care face significant challenges while transitioning from state care to independence and adulthood even when they stay in care until they turn 18. According to a report by the Laidlaw Foundation, Youth Leaving Care – How Do They Fare?, many youth in care have experienced considerable physical and emotional trauma, yet are required to function independently, with little support, once they reach age 18. Compared to their peers, youth coming out of care are more likely to:

The analysis in the rest of this chapter makes the links between these sad realities and the roots of violence involving youth obvious.

“Crossover” Children and Youth

Children and youth in the child protection system often “cross over” to other systems, such as the criminal justice system. Based on our consultations, particularly with people working with children and youth, the fate of “crossover kids” is a concern that has not received sufficient attention. In the report Crossover Kids: Care to Custody, the Office of Child and Family Service Advocacy’s Chief Advocate, Judy Finlay, pointed out that “a disproportionate number of youth in the young offender system have been in the care of child welfare authorities in Ontario.” She saw a “trajectory from the children’s service sector to the young offender system” (Finlay, 2003: 1).

Finlay cited a study showing that children and youth who have been removed from their homes and placed in a group home have significantly more behavioural problems than those who are placed in foster care (Hukkanen et al., 1996, cited in Finlay, 2003: 3). Foster care is often the preferred option, but it is harder to place youth, particularly those who are older or who may have a record.

Placement in a group home is always a very difficult transition. It is particularly difficult for children or youth from dysfunctional families, for young people from ethnic and cultural minorities and for those with multiple problems. Some group homes have zero-tolerance policies requiring that the police be called in all cases of violence, many of which would be dealt with otherwise had they occurred in a family setting. Children or youth who are charged and enter the criminal justice system as a result can leave the child protection and welfare system with records as young offenders. Paradoxically, a young person’s “last chance for rehabilitation” is often the criminal justice system, which is ill-equipped to deal with the youth’s mental health problems (Finlay, 2003: 1).

Finlay also cites a study that found that youth in the young offender system have had multiple placements in the children’s residential care system and have also been moved frequently within young offender services (Snow & Finlay, 1998, cited in Finlay, 2003: 4). Being moved around makes it difficult for them to get help, stay in school, hold a job, develop a sense of belonging or build trusting relationships with people who care about them. It also increases the chances that they will be drawn into the criminal justice system. According to Finlay, “[T]he literature confirms … that numerous out of home placements typically precede a youth’s incarceration” (Finlay, 2003: 4).

Crossover children and youth may have mental and physical health problems, learning disabilities and unmet needs related to their culture. They may be experiencing racism, discrimination and poverty. Family, youth and justice services and institutions in Ontario are fragmented and, largely due to privacy issues, they are not coordinated to address the complex needs of these children and youth holistically (Snow and Finlay, 1998). Those who have little or no family support and cannot navigate their way through the justice or care systems themselves often fall through the cracks. Their problems multiply, setting them on a harmful course.

6. Health Issues as Roots of the Immediate Risk Factors

Health affects our daily lives in countless ways. Good health makes it easier to be a positive and productive person. Poor health can produce the opposite results, particularly if it is chronic. Health also plays a role in the development of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. Certain health issues are closely linked to some of the other roots that we have already discussed, rather than being roots themselves. Examples include nutritional deficits, physical inactivity, obesity or eating disorders, which have links to other roots such as poverty and urban design. Other health issues, such as mental health and substance abuse, can be viewed as direct roots of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth, particularly alienation and no sense of belonging.

Mental Health

Mental health is an often-overlooked, but very significant, issue for youth. Of course, the majority of young people who experience mental health issues are not involved in violence. But as we heard from the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, the mental health of some young people, if not addressed, can lead to the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. A literature review commissioned by the Ontario Ministry of Children and Youth Services for submission to this review confirms this general view: “In the age group committing the most violent incidents, individuals with mental disorders account for a considerable amount of violence in the community” (Arsenault et al., 2000, cited in Leschied, 2007: 24). Retrospective studies have shown that more youth with mental health disorders are arrested for violent offences than are youth who do not meet the diagnostic criteria for mental disorder (Leschied, 2007: 25).

The kinds of mental health issues that children and youth experience cover a broad spectrum. At the milder end of this spectrum are mental distresses that can result from, for example, school performance anxiety and bullying. Other children suffer more serious mental disorders, such as attention deficit hyper-activity disorder or psychiatric illnesses such as schizophrenia or bipolar disorder. Some children may suffer post-traumatic stress as a result of witnessing violence in their homes, communities or schools.

The symptoms of these various mental distresses, disorders or illnesses vary among individual young people, depending on such factors as personality, family life, socioeconomic situations and access to treatment. Sometimes, the mental health symptoms experienced by youth can include characteristics consistent with the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth, including feelings of alienation, impulsivity, hopelessness and low self-esteem.

The high rates of mental health problems among young people concern us greatly. It has been estimated that, across cultures, one in five of Ontario’s children and youth experience a mental health or behavioural disorder requiring intervention (Offord et al., 1989, cited in Leschied, 2007: 23). According to the Reaching for the Top report by the federal Advisor on Healthy Children and Youth, 80 per cent of all psychiatric disorders emerge in adolescence, and psychiatric disorder is the single most common illness that begins in this age group. However, only one in five young people who need mental health services receives them (Leitch, 2007: 5).

The mental health system is overburdened (Standing Senate Committee, 2006: 142). The result is that many young people experiencing mental health problems do not receive mental heath services or support. This lack of treatment has several impacts relevant to the immediate risk factors. First, it allows the mental health condition to worsen and its effects on the youth (and their alienation and low self-esteem) to grow. Second, it adds pressure and stress to the families of these youth. And third, it can lead to the youth disrupting the lives of classmates, friends and peers.

As in so many other areas, early intervention has been identified as critical. Of particular concern to us is that preschool and younger school-aged children who suffer from mental illness be given a higher priority than at present. Preschool years pose two challenges: (i) identification of mental health problems and delivery of services, and (ii) effective transition to school or higher grades (Standing Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, 2006: 137). Crosscurrents (a publication of the Centre for Addiction and Mental Health) devoted an issue to the importance of early treatment for at-risk youth in improving outcomes (Crosscurrents, Winter 2007/08). This view is echoed in Reaching for the Top:

It is estimated that 70% of childhood cases of mental health problems can be solved through early diagnosis and interventions.

Early interventions can help these children and youth to lead normal, productive, healthy lives and save the costs that would otherwise be incurred by providing them with social services throughout their adult lives (Leitch, 2007: 130).

Other challenges exist in attempting to properly address the mental health problems faced by young people. Mental health services are often provided in hospitals or large institutions, which some youth are not comfortable accessing and which others may not be able to access for reasons such as a lack of money or because their parents cannot take time from work to attend. There is often a stigma associated with mental health issues, which may make both parents and youth reluctant to seek mental health services or accept treatment even where it is offered. This stigma may be particularly acute for families or youth already facing discrimination because of race, income level, or cultural or ethnic origins. Mental health services may be cut off for older youth when they turn a certain age, often 16 or 18, even though “there is no end date for mental illness” (Standing Senate Committee on Social Affairs, Science and Technology, 2006: 144).

Substance Abuse

Illegal substance and alcohol use, particularly where the use is heavy and consistent and linked with mental health issues, can readily lead to the immediate risk factors. Also linked with substance abuse are other factors that can contribute to childhood and youth problems, such as poverty, social disadvantage, poor academic achievement and weak family units. Substance abuse is so imbedded in social and academic life that “[i]f schools and communities are concerned about improving achievement, they must address both attitudes and behaviours related to substance use and violence” (Mandell et al., cited in Leschied, 2007: 29).

7. Lack of Economic Opportunity for Youth as a Root of the Immediate Risk Factors

In earlier sections of this chapter we explored the ways in which poverty, especially concentrations of poverty, and issues of racism, community infrastructure and barriers to education can curtail economic opportunities for youth. That analysis is consistent with the views of youth themselves, as expressed in the Grassroots Youth Collaborative (GYC) Report:

It is impossible to discuss economics and opportunity without highlighting the effect the lack of education has on getting a job, the near impossibility to gain sustainable employment with a criminal record, and how a lack of community space to run youth programming impedes organizations from providing critical life and social skills to marginalized youth (Volume 3: 129).

These factors all affect both the actual and the perceived ability of some youth to advance economically, and thus can lead to the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. To again cite the GYC Report:

Although there is certainly violence that occurs outside of economic hardship, there is a general sense that, if provided with viable and accessible pathways to meaningful economic self-sufficiency, many young people would not be forced into situations that put them at a higher risk of violence. There is a myriad of issues that surround economics, including meaningful employment, self-determination, career options, glass ceilings, discrimination in the workforce, and overall access (Volume 3: 129).

The lack of opportunities for many families and communities has left many youth with a limited view of the role of adulthood. Many youth share a sense of shame and frustration because they cannot take care of themselves or their families. For many of them, the inability to get ahead is not the result of lack of effort, but the lack of the opportunity to create their own destinies. Often, job searches are an endless journey into the unknown; often, they are rife with discrimination based on race or postal code. Some youth are discouraged from even starting these searches by their experiences or those of their friends or family, or because they have been conditioned by their surroundings to believe that they have little of worth to offer. Still others must choose between bus fare to get to an interview or being able to afford dinner.

It is difficult to fully understand the lack of employment opportunity without examining our society’s norms and values. We live in a society that places an enormous emphasis on the importance of money and material possessions. This leads some youth to feel that they are not valued because they do not have money or many of the most desirable possessions. This creates a dilemma for many youth: the need to feel valued without the means to acquire that which is valuable to them and society as a whole.

This, in turn, accentuates the sense of isolation, alienation and lack of empathy or belonging that they may already have because of the many clear messages of “otherness” and exclusion, which we have already discussed.

Some youth then feel forced to find alternatives. Systematic exclusion from stable employment forces youth and their families into insecure and dead-end jobs that do not pay enough to purchase the goods and services that provide an adequate standard of living. Some youth feel that they are doubly victimized: first, by the enormous barriers they face in order to participate in the Canadian marketplace and, second, because they are told it is their fault for not achieving.

For some, this may lead directly to economic crime, whether for clothing, electronics or other material goods, or, as we were frequently told, to provide food for their families at the end of the month. For others, it leads to a lack of hope for a better quality of life for themselves and their families, as the success they desire is seen to be out of reach for reasons beyond their control.

For these and other reasons, a lack of meaningful economic opportunity can lead to the immediate risk factors for violence, including alienation, low self-esteem, impulsivity and lack of hope. Indeed, it is easy to understand how it can be challenging for a person who is forced into a position of diminishing self-worth to value their own lives and the lives of others.

8. Denial of the Youth Voice as a Root of the Immediate Risk Factors

As we were told, “If you don’t have ways for the youth to plug into the community, they will pull out.”

The sense that many youth already have of being alienated from society is reinforced when they do not have opportunities to be heard in areas that directly and immediately affect their lives. The impacts and expressions of the resulting alienation vary by geography, class and ethnicity, but in many cases the impact is strong. The results can be a negative concept of self, a greater distrust of authority and, often, a sense of powerlessness in controlling their destiny and of exclusion from the broader community. This sense of powerlessness can be even more acute in youth who are female, immigrant or of colour and others whose self-esteem has been lowered by poverty, low expectations and exclusion.

Many youth are refusing to trust institutions that are unwilling to trust them. Many youth are opting out, and others feel pushed out of civil society due, in part, to limited opportunities for them to be involved in decisions about important aspects of their lives.

Indeed, there are few opportunities for youth to have a voice on boards, agencies and commissions. Few community organizations that serve youth have youth on their boards, and even fewer provide the supports that would help youth participate effectively as board members. With limited exceptions, such as the Toronto Youth Cabinet, which advises Toronto City Council, governments have few established mechanisms for including the youth voice in a sustained and meaningful way. Some organizations, such as the Laidlaw Foundation, do better, but they remain the exception.

As well, there is no provincial policy that promotes youth-led organizations as key partners in working with youth, developing them and providing services to them. This is despite the reality that many youth are best inspired and served by fellow youth, who understand them, and by the reality that youth-led organizations by definition bring the youth voice to the planning and service-delivery tables. The absence of youth-led organizations from many of our communities sends a powerful message of limited opportunity and excludes the youth perspective from many decisions.

The patent unfairness of being excluded from matters directly affecting them causes many youth to lose faith in the willingness or ability of organizations or governments to accomplish meaningful change. They can become cynical about the motives and sincerity of adults. As a result, Ontario’s disturbing lack of a youth voice, particularly the voices of socially under-represented groups such as women, indigenous people and youth of colour, can lead to alienation, lack of self-esteem and lack of a sense of power or hope — the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth.

9. Immigration Settlement Issues as a Root of the Immediate Risk Factors

Canada and Ontario, in particular, are blessed by their many and diverse immigrant communities. People from around the world have chosen to make Canada their new home and have embraced their adopted homeland with affection, passion and energy. People immigrate here for a number of reasons, primarily because they want to succeed and because they want their children to succeed.

However, various circumstances relating to the settlement of immigrants can have significant negative impacts on immigrant parents and youth and how successful their new lives are. Unfortunately, some of these circumstances can give rise to the immediate risk factors weHowever, various circumstances relating to the settlement of immigrants can have significant negative impacts immigrant parents and youth and how successful their new lives are. Unfortunately, some of these circumstances can give rise to the immediate risk factors we identified in Chapter 3 and can put youth into the path of violence, either directly or by compounding the other roots of violence, such as poverty and racism.

Immigrant Parents

Many immigrant parents face significant hurdles in settling themselves and their families into the Canadian social and economic fabric. Obtaining meaningful employment is often the biggest hurdle. Recent immigrants are often more highly educated than other Canadians, yet they experience double the unemployment rates. Factors for this higher level of unemployment include employers requiring Canadian work experience and the reluctance of many employers to accept international accreditation as equivalent to Canadian accreditation. The recent appointment of a Fairness Commissioner to assist with entry to Ontario’s regulated professions is a positive step, but a similar approach to the trades is urgently needed to counter the many frustrating and alienating impacts of exclusion from those fields.

Countless highly trained and experienced immigrants are working outside their area of expertise and interest, or not at all, trapped in the catch-22 of being unable to obtain that first Canadian job that would lead to the Canadian experience so often cited as a prerequisite for employment. This reality can eat away at the self-esteem and confidence of many immigrants and cause them to feel marginalized and undervalued in their new society. These feelings easily rub off on other members of their families, including the youth, who may also come to feel marginalized, undervalued and isolated in their new society as a result of their parents’ inability to find meaningful, or any, employment. As well, exhortations to succeed in school may sound trite when they come from parents whose own educational accomplishments seem to count for so little.

This employment reality can also have other significant negative impacts on the settlement experience of immigrant families. Immigrants are more likely to live in poverty. The poverty rate for recent immigrants is twice that of other Canadian families. The Canadian Council on Social Development says that the poverty rate of recent immigrants is 27 per cent compared to 13 per cent for other Canadian families. Poor immigrants face all the attendant consequences of poverty, including the heightened possibility for violence involving youth that we discussed in Section 1 of this chapter dealing with poverty as a root of the immediate risks factors for such violence.

Government settlement programs that are intended to help newcomers integrate into Canadian society are not always able to assist immigrant families sufficiently. Strong immigrant families may be weakened if their transition to Canadian society is difficult. Even where good settlement services are available, some immigrant parents face language or other barriers to connecting with schools or social services, such as recreation and health programs, which could support them in their efforts to settle their children. These barriers may also make it difficult for an immigrant parent to intervene on behalf of a child where there are learning or behavioural issues at school or in the community. The result may be that immigrant parents are not viewed within their own families as having sufficient authority or knowledge to successfully head the family, and another root of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth — a weakened family unit — may emerge.

Immigrant Youth

In addition to the social and economic impacts that immigrant youth experience along with their parents, they face their own challenges independent of their parents. Their families’ values and ways may conflict with the norms they encounter in their new schools and among their new peer groups, placing additional pressure on them. The new parenting and teaching methods they encounter in Canada can be unfamiliar for both them and their parents. Language and other barriers faced by immigrant parents can sometimes mean that immigrant youth are left to fend for themselves within their schools, as well as the larger outside communities.

Additionally, immigrant youth may be expected to shoulder major household responsibilities, such as taking care of younger siblings or working long hours at part-time jobs to help ease some of the family’s financial pressures. They may also have to serve as guides and translators for their parents and other older family members in dealings outside the home, assuming a role sometimes beyond their age.

There are few immigrant settlement services for youth. The lack of an established network of immigrant youth settlement services can compound the loneliness and isolation that many immigrant youth may already feel as a result of their parents’ struggles to adapt to their new home. Many of the existing settlement services are intended for adults, with supports for immigrant youth simply being “add-ons” to the adult services. Many immigrant youth find that the settlement programs and services that do exist are overly bureaucratic and not easily accessible to them.

The breadth of service is also an issue. Many immigrant youth need more assistance to understand and succeed in the Ontario school system, particularly since their parents are often unfamiliar with it and unsure about how to access school services and staff to get help for their children. There are many recreation and cultural programs in Ontario directed at youth, but often immigrant youth lack the settlement services that could connect them to these programs. Similarly, innovative immigrant youth settlement services that could help them get to know their city and its main institutions and facilities are lacking.

Overall, the social and economic isolation and frustration some immigrants feel as they attempt to settle into life in Ontario often reverberate in their children’s lives. These and the circumstances encountered directly by immigrant youth can all foster a deep sense of alienation, as well as a sense of being unfairly treated, of low self-esteem, of not belonging and of not being heard — all immediate risk factors for violence involving youth.

10. The Justice System as a Root of the Immediate Risk Factors

Our justice system works hard to respond to violence involving youth. Regrettably, that system allows some individuals to do so in a way that can create or reinforce some of the conditions we have identified as the immediate risk factors for such violence.

In saying this, we do not want to diminish the efforts of the talented and dedicated individuals working within the justice system, often in difficult and sometimes-dangerous circumstances, for a safer society. Obviously, contributing to the roots of violence involving youth is the last thing they would want.

The potential for this outcome arises in two main ways: the needlessly aggressive and belittling ways in which some youth are treated by those working in the justice system and the consequences for any youth of being drawn into that system. We believe that the first of these must and can be stopped immediately. The second — criminalization — is more complex, since in many cases the consequences it produces are a necessary cost of dealing with a dangerous individual or very serious offence. In other instances, however, it needlessly exacts a very high price from society by fostering rather than deterring future serious crime

The Impact of How Youth Are Treated

Overly aggressive, belittling, discriminatory and other inappropriate conduct towards youth is an issue that permeated our discussions. It has been the subject of numerous previous reports. It is one of the most pressing issues put forward by youth, and it is a cause of concern to all who are trying to contain and prevent violence, including most senior police officers in this province and elsewhere, as well as government officials with whom we met. And yet it persists.

Although most frequently raised in relation to front-line police officers, the issue is by no means restricted to them. It extends into the courtrooms and correctional facilities. It is apparent to us, as it has been to so many before us, that individuals at many levels within our justice system believe that aggressive suppression and control by physical dominance, and sometimes by demeaning treatment, will limit crime or “teach youth a lesson.” The sad reality is that if police stops or interventions are done discriminatorily or aggressively or in a degrading manner, or if youth are belittled in court or harassed while in custody, a deep sense of grievance and frustration can result. Where it does, a youth’s self-esteem and sense of belonging or hope are undercut. Alienation and a sense of unfairness and oppression can easily follow.

Police conduct in particular matters a great deal because of the large number of youth it affects, including many who will have no other involvement with the justice system. When we have youth who already feel their chances in life are limited by their colour or by where they live, or both, and when these same youth have little to do and few mentors and role models, police targeting and overly aggressive behaviour can drive their spirit into the ground. Some react on the spot and get into deeper trouble; others seethe until they boil over for reasons even they cannot always articulate; and yet others retreat into shells, which permanently mar their prospects.

There is a serious disconnect here with the action needed to address the roots of violence involving youth. Not only do overly aggressive police practices nurture the roots of the immediate risk factors, but also they can quickly undercut major investments in other areas that may well have kept a youth on the path to a productive future. Whatever progress we make in education, in building self-esteem and respect through mentoring or civic engagement, or in creating hope, opportunity and confidence through sports or the arts can be undone by aggressive and humiliating interactions that indicate to youth that they are inferior.

This not only leads to heightened risks for criminal behaviour, but also builds sympathy in the community for those targeted by the police. It makes the community reluctant to trust the police and engage with them to address gang and crime issues.

One officer’s small win in a mano-a-mano encounter with a youth can all too easily produce one large step backwards for policing in a whole community.

Not surprisingly, the resulting alienation from the police also produces a lack of desire to cooperate with the police when a crime occurs. Sometimes this is because, as we were told, the community feels that coming forward to volunteer information leads to the person being treated as suspicious by the police. Other times, the lack of any positive relationship with the police gives rise to a fear that they will not respect a confidence and will quickly betray it to gain some other advantage. Yet other times, it is because of a strong sense that the police cannot or will not protect them if gang members suspect them of offering information. Tragically, this can start at an early age, as youth routinely repeat the mantra that “snitches get stitches,” at least in part because they have been given no reason by the police to consider an alternative mantra that encourages cooperation with the police: “silence brings violence.”

While senior police officers lament the policing problems caused by these poor relationships in some communities, the long-term consequences fall more on the community than on the police. The absence of cooperation with the police facilitates crime and creates havens for it in the very communities whose prospects are most damaged by its presence.

The seriousness of this situation needs to be noted. Senior police officers in this province and elsewhere have told us of how negative incidents on the front lines can undo months of positive work by other police officers to put or keep youth on the path to a positive future or to build trust with a community. This negative potential is magnified when a stop or intervention is seen as being the result of racial profiling. How can youth of colour see a positive and productive future in a society in which they and their friends, and sometimes their parents as well, are routinely, and often aggressively, stopped and questioned just because of the colour of their skin? This is not a minor inconvenience — it is a life lesson that race matters, and that it can and will count against some members of our community.

This lesson, and its consequences, are driven home when youth are not only singled out for police attention because of their colour, but, as well, are subjected to racist comments in that interaction and when they end up being incarcerated. Racism Behind Bars: The Treatment of Black and Other Racial Minority Prisoners in Ontario Prisons (Cole and Gittens, 1995) set out in some detail the discriminatory treatment faced by African-Canadian inmates, including youth, and recent concerns about racism among corrections staff themselves give us cause to wonder whether this situation is a whole lot better today.

Even within our courtrooms, youth are not free from mistreatment. Graduate students in criminology acting as court observers in Toronto on unrelated matters have conveyed to us their deep dismay at seeing judicial officers, court staff and security officers upbraid youth in a demeaning way for their appearance, dress or conduct. After observing these matters on a daily basis for more than a year, they concluded that this was done in a racially discriminatory way, and that youth — and their parents — from minority groups took the brunt of this behaviour.

We fully understand that it may be the youth who is being provocative. But it is the adult who is being paid to discharge a public function for a public goal. That goal is to minimize the chances of the youth reoffending and maximize the chances that their experience in the justice system will have some positive impact on their life. To achieve that goal, youth must be treated with respect and dignity; they cannot be expected to respect a system that does not respect them.

To avoid being misunderstood, we note that, as we emphasize in Chapter 9, we are not saying that youth should not be stopped and charged, or not required to follow basic conduct norms in the courts or not incarcerated. We accept that consequences sometimes may have to be harsh, but firmly believe that the route to them never should be. Actors in the justice system must play the adult role; even when provoked, they must model the civility and respect they want the youth to show in future. They must be strategic and must think about whether their approach to a youth today will support or suppress the conditions that produce the roots of violent crime involving youth tomorrow.

Needless Criminalization

When we come to the issue of criminalization, we want to be very clear that we are not saying that the criminal justice process should be abrogated for youth. Just the contrary: we believe that it can and does play an important role in protecting society. The issue for us is how to make the most strategic use of this costly (in many senses of the word) resource so that its positive impacts are not outweighed by its negative ones. As we make clear in Chapter 9, our call is for a far more strategic approach to criminalization.

The criminalization of youth is a concern in our context because of the way it can lead to alienation, a lack of self-esteem and hope, and other immediate risk factors. At the most basic level, the decision to seek a criminal sanction for an act committed by a youth can lead to that youth seeing himself or herself, and being seen by others, as different, risky or as someone who does not belong in mainstream society. It immediately creates a sense of being different from those considered to be law-abiding and a sense of identification with those already involved in crime. Those labelling and stigmatizing consequences have long been documented by researchers.

Even without a conviction, there are consequences. Youth who are charged with a criminal offence necessarily miss school while attending court. This can cause the loss of several days of school even before the matter goes to trial or is resolved, given how slow the youth justice system is. And, while in the courthouse, often for an entire day just waiting for a routine appearance, their natural peers are other youth charged with crime, rather than the youth who are in school.

These risks are made worse when, as is often the case, youth court proceedings take place in the same buildings as adult criminal matters. There are good reasons to be concerned about the impact of youth mixing freely in and around the court buildings with adults accused of crimes who may be all too willing to use the opportunity for gang recruitment.

As well, the fact of facing a charge can lead to suspension or expulsion from school, or to bail conditions that have serious impacts on schooling or even access to recreational and other programs, which would keep the youth in contact with positive peers and role models. All of these consequences again encourage contact with other youth in conflict with the law.

If the youth is convicted, a criminal record has an enormous impact on their ability to get a job, whether to support himself or herself or to support higher education. This is particularly true when the record is attached to someone whose race or place of residence already puts them at a disadvantage. And, of course, youth know this, as do their peers, families and teachers. The narrowed horizon that results from involvement in the criminal justice system, whether felt by youth or by those advising them, or both, becomes a self-fulfilling prophecy and promotes the very feelings of alienation and lack of empathy or hope that we are most concerned about.

For these reasons, the diminished sense of self-worth and reduced hope not being the least among them, it is apparent to us that the decision to criminalize youth should be a strategic one, taken in full consideration of all of the downstream consequences. Where the balance is in favour of the charge, those consequences must be accepted, and every effort must be made while the youth is in the system to minimize them by the way the youth is treated and by the programs they receive.

But criminalization should not be the default option, chosen because it is the easiest route to take in a given case or because alternatives are not readily available. The consequences are too serious for that: serious for the youth, their family and community, and serious for society, including the potential future victims of an alienated and isolated youth with a low stake in our society.


We conclude this section by simply repeating that we respect and value the role of the criminal justice system in the protection of society and appreciate the challenges and often risks faced by those working within it. At the same time, we are deeply concerned that the way some youth are treated by and within the justice system, and the decision to bring them into it, can lead to the roots of the immediate risk factors for violence in our society. The lack of a coordinated system in Ontario that takes that potential consequence into account and weighs it in the balance when responses to youth conduct are considered, is troubling.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews