Review of the Roots of Youth Violence

Volume 1, Chapter 5:

Violence in Ontario: a Province at a Crossroads


In this chapter, we outline what is known about the state of violence involving youth in Ontario, how violence is affecting youth, neighbourhoods and the province as a whole, and where we believe it is heading. For the reasons we set out in this discussion, we believe that Ontario is at a crossroads. One of the two main roads leading from that crossroads will, with strong leadership and sustained commitment, lead us towards an ever-safer society with increasing security and opportunity for all. The other will lead to an entrenched cycle of violence, which could plague this province and limit its potential for years to come.

How Violent Is Ontario?

Our review of violence involving youth in Ontario communities led us to pose two essential questions: How bad is violence in Ontario? And, have we started down a path to becoming an even more violent society, a trend that, perhaps, cannot be reversed?

Clearly, the public’s perception is that violent crime is increasing: a majority of Ontario residents believe this to be the case. For example, the results of a 2007 general population survey suggest that over 70 per cent of Toronto residents believe that crime has increased significantly over the past 10 years.

We explore in this section how the reality compares to that perception and how the violence that is occurring affects certain of our communities and our society as a whole. Then, in subsequent sections, we outline what we believe the trends to be and why they give rise to the concern we expressed in the introduction above.

1. What Do Police Statistics Tell Us About Violence in Ontario?

There are two main ways to approach the question of the level of violence from a statistical perspective. The first relies upon levels of crime reported to or uncovered by the police. The second relies on levels of crime revealed to researchers by both victims and perpetrators. We discuss each in turn, drawing the statistics and much of the analysis from a very valuable paper by our research consultant, Prof. Scot Wortley. This paper, A Province at the Crossroads: Statistics on Youth Violence in Ontario, is found in Volume 4 for those who wish to better understand the methodologies and issues. We then complete this section with a brief overview of the important perspectives on violence brought to us by scholars working in the field of critical race studies.

Despite public perceptions, if we look at crime reported to the police the facts are clear: violent crime has actually decreased in this province during the past 20 years. Violent crime, as the term is used by the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, is a composite measure that includes homicide, attempted homicide, assaults, sexual assaults and robbery; crime rates are expressed as the number of reported incidents per 100,000 residents. From 1986 to 2006, violent crime dropped five per cent from 797 recorded occurrences per 100,000 Ontarians, to 756/100,000. The province’s homicide rate, after peaking in 1975, dropped steadily and in 2006 was 40 per cent lower than in 1975. At 1.5/100,000, Ontario’s homicide rate is only slightly above its 1961 level. Clearly, there is little evidence to suggest that the average Ontario resident is more at risk of experiencing violence than they were 30 or 40 years ago.

So how do we compare with other jurisdictions? Is Ontario more dangerous than other parts of Canada, or elsewhere in the world? Again, the answer is clearly no.

Ontario’s rate of violent crime in 2006 (756/100,000) was tied with Quebec’s as the second lowest in Canada. Only Prince Edward Island, at 714/100,000, was lower. By contrast, Saskatchewan’s rate of violent crime at 2,039/100,000 and Manitoba’s at 1,598/100,000 were both more than twice Ontario’s rate.

Ontario’s 2006 homicide rate (1.5/100,000) is the sixth lowest among Canada’s provinces, still less than half the rate in Manitoba (3.3/100,000) and Saskatchewan (4.1/100,000). Rates for assault, sexual assault and robbery are also remarkably consistent with the homicide findings: in 2006, Ontario had the second lowest rate of physical assault and sexual assault, and the sixth lowest rate of robbery. In short, compared to other provinces, Ontario is a safe place to live for most of its residents.

Internationally, the facts are much the same, only more dramatic. In general, homicide rates are much higher in developing nations like South Africa (40.5/100,000),

Brazil (53.3/100,000) or Jamaica (62.1/100,000) than in developed countries like Canada (1.8/100,000), which is still higher than Ontario’s 1.5/100,000. Homicide rates are also high in Eastern Europe, particularly in those countries that were part of the Soviet Union. For example, the homicide rate in Russia (19.9/100,000) is approximately 13 times higher than Ontario’s. The United States’ rate (5.7/100,000) is four times greater than Ontario’s, and Ontario fares equally well when compared to the individual states. In fact, only two of the 50 states, North Dakota and New Hampshire, appear to have homicide rates lower than Ontario’s.

Another perception is that while the province as a whole is safe, its cities are not. The general population survey mentioned earlier revealed that 50 per cent of Toronto residents believe Toronto has more crime than other major cities in Canada. However, in a ranking of 20 large urban areas, only two Ontario cities make it into the top 10 of the most violent cities in Canada: Thunder Bay and Sudbury. Toronto, a city often stereotyped as violent, ranks 14th out of the 20 urban areas.

Asimilar picture emerges when comparing Ontario cities to their international counterparts. Detroit, for example, had the highest urban homicide rate (47.3/100,000) in the United States in 2006, 26 times the rates in Toronto and Ottawa, whose rate, while high for Ontario, was just at Canada’s national average (1.8/100,000). Our researchers could not find one U.S. city with a population over 250,000 with a lower homicide rate than Toronto’s or Ottawa’s. When compared to selected European cities, Toronto and Ottawa still seem safe. Glasgow’s homicide rate is 6.2/100,000, Amsterdam’s is 4.4/100,000, London’s is 2.6/100,000, and Copenhagen’s is 2/100,000. On the other hand, Lisbon at 0.6/100,000, Vienna at 1.1/100,000 and Rome at 1.3/100,000 all show that Ontario cities could, perhaps, do better.

2. What Do Victimization Surveys Tell Us About Violence in Ontario?

What then do the victimization surveys and self-report surveys tell us about the rate of violence in Ontario? These kinds of surveys generally uncover much more criminal activity than the official police statistics. For example, Statistics Canada’s 2004 General Social Survey produced an unofficial crime rate of approximately 28,000/100,000 residents. By contrast, the 2004 crime rate produced by official statistics was only 8,951/100,000. The huge discrepancy between these two rates of crime can be explained by the fact that most crimes are never reported to or discovered by the police and therefore are not recorded in official statistics. Indeed, according to the results of the 2004 General Social Survey, only one-third of all victimization incidents are reported to the police.

The same survey found that 28 per cent of the Canadian population 15 years of age or older had experienced at least one criminal victimization in the previous 12 months. The survey also found that eight per cent had experienced a physical assault in the past year, two per cent had experienced a sexual assault and one per cent had experienced a robbery. In sum, 10.6 per cent of the population had experienced one or more violent victimizations in the previous 12 months. This was down slightly from the rate of violent victimization recorded by the General Social Survey in 1999.

When the 2004 survey’s violent victimization rates are compared by province, the data pattern in general is consistent with the official statistics discussed above. Overall, according to these surveys, violent crime appears to be more prevalent in both Western and Eastern Canada. Ontario, which ranks eighth lowest with respect to officially recorded violent crime, rises only to sixth lowest when estimates are based on general social survey data.

In terms of cities, both Toronto’s and Hamilton’s violent victimization rates are close to the national average. They are less violent than Western Canada and Nova Scotia, but somewhat more violent than Quebec.

Given the focus of our report, we also wanted to consider how violence reported by Ontario youth compared to that reported by youth in other provinces. Fortunately, the National Longitudinal Survey of Children and Youth (NLSCY), a self-report survey conducted across Canada, provides data weighted to produce a representative sample of Canadian adolescents 12-17 years of age and allows this sort of comparison.

Cycle 4 of the NLSCY asked respondents whether they had engaged in any of nine serious violent activities over the past 12 months: an attack so severe that the victim required medical attention, assault with a weapon, carrying a knife, carrying a gun, carrying another weapon like a stick or a club, robbery, minor sexual assault (uninvited sexual touching), major sexual assault (forced someone to have sex against their will), and arson.

In response, 19.5 per cent of Ontarian youth surveyed reported that they had engaged in at least one seriously violent behaviour in the past 12 months. Ontario’s rate is somewhat lower than those of the Atlantic region (20.0 per cent), Alberta (22.5 per cent) and Manitoba (26.4 per cent), and somewhat higher than the rates in Quebec (17.5 per cent), Saskatchewan (18.5 per cent) and British Columbia (17.7 per cent) (Sprott and Doob 2008, cited in Wortley).

To dig more deeply into the kinds of youth violence being experienced, our research consultant looked at nine other studies related to violence involving youth; all are listed in his research paper in Volume 4. While it is difficult to compare the results of these studies, it is possible to illustrate that various forms of violence are quite common in the lives of young people.


Bullying, defined as a form of abuse at the hands of peers that represents a pattern of repeated aggression in which there is a power differential (Craig, Pepler and Blais, 2007, cited in Wortley), is the most common form of violence experienced by youth. According to a study that the World Health Organization (WHO) conducted in 2001-02, 40 per cent of Canadian students will have been bullied in the past few months (Craig and Harel, 2004, cited in Wortley).

Other studies have reached similar conclusions. For example, a recent Toronto District School Board Student Census (Yau and O’Reilly, 2007, cited in Wortley) not only confirms the prevalence of bullying, but as well illustrates its various forms. It also shows that bullying is more common in Toronto’s middle schools than in high schools.

Percentage of students reporting that they were “sometimes” or “often” victims of bullying behaviour
Nature of bullying Middle Schools  High Schools 
Name calling, insults 41 31
Excluded from groups 21 16
Physically bullied by an individual at school  16 10
Physically bullied by a group or gang at school 10 7

Source: Yau and O’Reilly, 2007 (cited in Wortley); Toronto District School Board Student Census

The WHO survey also shed light on who is doing the bullying. While 36 per cent said they had bullied someone in the past few months, it seems boys, at 54 per cent, are much more likely to be bullies than are girls, at 32 per cent (Craig and Harel, 2004, cited in Wortley).

It may also be that those who bully, bully a lot. A 1997 survey of Canadians concluded that six per cent of children admitted to bullying others more than once or twice a week over a six-week period.

Physical Threats and Assaults

Based on Prof. Wortley’s review of the research papers, physical threats and assaults also appear to be quite common and, not surprisingly, street youth are at greater risk than students.

Here are some numbers from the 2000 Toronto Youth Crime and Victimization Survey

Percentage of youth reporting physical threats or assaults, including those with a weapon
Incident At any time in their lives Within past 12 months
High school Street youth High school Street youth
Physically threatened 67 85 39 76
Physically threatened with a weapon 28 73 15 59
Physically assaulted 70 85 39 69
Physically assaulted with a weapon 16 59 7 44

Source: Tanner and Wortley, 2002, cited in Wortley); 2000 Toronto Youth Crime and Victimization Survey

Other studies offer some support for the fact that physical threats and assaults, with or without weapons, are frequent:


Robbery and extortion are much less common events, but a significant portion of Ontario youth will still experience them at some point.

Again relying on the 2000 Toronto Youth Crime and Victimization Survey, it appears that 13 per cent of Toronto high school students and 50 per cent of street youth had used force or the threat of force to rob someone, with eight per cent of students and 40 per cent of street youth saying they had done so within the past 12 months. Males are much more likely to engage in this behaviour; 20 per cent of male high school students reported they had done so at some point in their lives, compared to only six per cent of female students.

Weapons Use

The public has been justifiably concerned about the apparent upsurge in gun violence, although, as described earlier, homicide rates across Ontario have actually been falling for the past 30 years. However, as we will discuss later in this chapter, serious violence is becoming increasingly concentrated among poor, minority males, and far too often that violence involves gunplay. In Toronto, for example, guns have been used in half of all murders since 2000, up from 25 per cent during the 1970s.

Insofar as guns are involved in school violence, it is apparent that a very small, but still disturbing, percentage of students are implicated. A 2003 survey found that 10 per cent of respondents had carried a weapon, although the type was not specified (Paglia and Adalf, 2003, cited in Wortley). In 2005, however, the comparable study asked about gun-carrying. The results suggested that 2.2 per cent of Ontario high school students had carried a gun with them in the past two years (Centre for Addiction and Mental Health, 2006, cited in Wortley). These figures are quite similar to another Canadian study that found 28 per cent of Calgary high school students had carried a weapon to school, including three per cent who claimed to have carried a handgun (Paetsch and Bertrand, 1999, cited in Wortley).

A study in Toronto found that 40 per cent of high school students had carried a weapon with them outside of school, and 15 per cent had carried a weapon to school (Erickson and Butters, 2003, cited in Wortley). The same study found one per cent of respondents said they themselves had brought a gun to school. Three per cent of respondents said that they had threatened or tried to hurt someone with a gun, while seven per cent claimed to have been threatened or attacked by someone with a firearm.

Sexual Assault and Harassment

The pattern for sexual assault or harassment as uncovered by the Toronto Youth Crime and Victimization Survey (Tanner and Wortley, 2002, cited in Wortley) is much the same as for other violence, in particular with regard to discrepancies between high school students and street youth.

Percentage of youth reporting sexual assaults or sexual harassment
Incident At any time in their lives Within past 12 months
High school Street youth High school Street youth
Unwanted sexual touching 9 42     5 23    
Sexual assault 4 20 26 72 3 10 19 51

Source: Tanner and Wortley, 2002, cited in Wortley); Toronto Youth Crime and Victimization Survey

The results are supported by the 2007 CAMH survey (Wolfe and Chiodo 2008, cited in Wortley) of Ontario high school students. Among Grade 9 female students, 46 per cent reported that in the previous three months someone had made an unwanted sexual comment, gesture or joke towards them. Another 30 per cent claimed they had been subjected to unwanted sexual touching and 16 per cent said that someone had pulled at their clothing in a sexual manner.

3. What Do Critical Race Theories Tell Us About Violence in Ontario?

The above statistics are based on traditional definitions and understandings of violence. Part of the context for the discussion that follows in this report involves appreciating the different perspectives that scholars in the field of critical race studies bring to our understanding of violence.

In Volume 4, we have published a paper by Prof. Walcott and his colleagues that provides an analysis of critical race theories with particular reference to the current situation in Ontario. The literature review included in Volume 5 provides a further overview of published works in that field. We commend these treatments of the theories to those who wish a deeper understanding of them than can be conveyed by the brief mention we make of them here.

In brief, critical race scholars provide two important analyses through which to view violence. The first is to explain how both a deep history and the present reality of racism can produce violence, especially when combined with economic policies that create poverty for far too many racialized individuals. The second is to help us appreciate the ways in which racism and parts of the economic system are themselves experienced as violence by economically disadvantaged members of racialized communities.

In the analytical paper mentioned above, Prof. Walcott and his colleagues point out how from certain perspectives violence is not an aberration, but a pervasive part of the social structure and day-to-day reality for far too many Ontario residents:

Our central thesis is that we cannot make sense of violence and crime without addressing racial oppression and the way such oppression produces poverty (Walcott et al., Volume 4: 319).

What is significant is how the conditions of the last 30 years have produced an inward turn of violence as it is unleashed on the working poor and poor in their communities, often on themselves but not exclusively so. Violence in these communities must also be understood as over-policing, inadequate health access and care, gender violence in families and beyond, and homophobic and trans-phobic violence, alongside the social control and the political and cultural disenfranchisement of these affected communities from full citizenship in the province and the country (338).

What is particularly telling for our purposes is how much of what we heard in our consultations, and especially in our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions, corresponds to these theories.

4. What Did the Neighbourhoods We Visited Tell Us About Violence in Ontario?

Valuable as these statistics and analyses are, we must also pay attention to what we heard about the violence in the eight neighbourhoods we visited. As outlined in Chapter 2, to learn more about what violence means in human terms we visited eight neighbourhoods: four in Toronto and one each in Hamilton, Kitchener-Waterloo, Thunder Bay and Ottawa. In each, we met with community representatives who had worked with paid facilitators over the course of a few weeks to prepare for a discussion with us on issues of violence involving youth within their communities.

What we heard paints a bleak picture of violence in Ontario’s disadvantaged communities. These important messages are well-summarized in the Final Report on the Neighbourhood Insight Sessions, which we have included in Volume 3 of our report. We accordingly are setting out that summary here, with the caution that it is a synthesis of what we heard across the eight neighbourhoods, rather than a portrait of the reality in any particular one of them. In general terms, we were told that:

Violence is all around youth as a way to resolve disputes — bullying, police raids, movies and television, domestic violence, war. It’s come to the point where some youth said they’d rather shoot someone than risk being beaten up, losing face or being embarrassed. Safety and belonging comes in numbers, and joining a gang for protection is an option (Dooling and Swerhun, Volume 3: v).

The insights in the report show that there are many types of violence involving youth. As summarized by our consultants, some of what is happening is violence perpetrated by youth against other people; there is also other violence in which youth are victims and this has a huge impact on them too — domestic violence, overly aggressive policing and institutional violence (government policies and systems, schools and the criminal justice system). Communities also point to a culture in which violence is glorified on TV and through aggressive actions of our governments. Poverty was also identified as a type of violence against youth.

More specifically, in one or more of the neighbourhoods we visited, youth and other community members said the following about the violence they were experiencing:

Gun violence. Youth are getting guns at younger ages, sometimes as early as 10. Certain homes are known to store guns (e.g., collectors), and gang members know these people and steal from them. It’s easy to buy guns, and rentals are available too.

Drugs. Neighbourhoods are being divided by north and south, east and west for control over "turf" to sell drugs.... This leads to violence, shootings, home invasions, etc.

Robberies on the street. For shoes, clothing, MP3 players and money.

Swarmings, verbal abuse, intimidation, threats.

Gangs and claims of turf. In at least one neighbourhood, this was traced directly to the power vacuum created after the police did a gang sweep three years ago. Young people stepped in to fill the power gap [leading to increased violence].

Attacks with knives. Knives are often used as a tool of intimidation. They’re also easier to purchase.

More girl on girl violence. Some try to show their male counterparts that they’re just as bad or as strong as they are. More girls are carrying weapons or drugs for guys.

More fights at school and school bullies. Fights from school carry over to the streets. Being bullied has led many youth to travel far distances to avoid attending the same schools as a bully. Or, they skip school as an avoidance mechanism.

Home invasions. In one community, we heard about people who are known to have drugs, cash or other stolen property becoming victims of home invasions.

Threats to witnesses.

Sexual assault and dating violence.

Violence in sports. An example presented to us was of parents who fight with other parents at hockey games in front of other kids.… Violence in sports also happens at high school games where spectators from a school travel to another school to support their team but are jumped or rushed for coming on the other school’s property. This causes [some] spectators to come armed.

Domestic abuse. Parents beating each other up or beating up their kids.

Institutional violence. Participants talked about the violence that’s in the systems they deal with every day: government structures and policies that discriminate against them, schools that have a zero-tolerance policy and kick youth out for minor things, a police force that is prejudiced against youth and harasses and intimidates them and a criminal justice system that emphasizes punishment and can lead youth to become hardened and professional criminals.

We emphasize that the above is a composite picture and does not necessarily represent the reality across the neighbourhoods we visited. We also want to stress that the neighbourhoods we visited contain some strong and vibrant social networks, along with effective leaders and many residents who are committed to building safe and positive communities. They have many social assets on which to build, including valuable insights on priorities and approaches to maximize success.

That said, even a few of the manifestations of violence we were told about would be enough to severely challenge any neighbourhood. If we allow that violence to grow in intensity and impact, and fail to mobilize as a society to address the conditions that give rise to it, the prognosis for many neighbourhoods and indeed the province could be grim.

What Are the Trends?

1. Trends in the Statistics

Returning from the streets to the statistics for a moment, we note that while the aggregate rate of violence in Ontario may be relatively stable, there is increasing evidence to suggest that serious violence is becoming more and more concentrated among young people. The high level of youth involvement in violent crime, both as victims and perpetrators, is very disturbing.

It is admittedly difficult to determine with precision the extent of violence involving youth in Canada, primarily because official data is not released by age except for youth between 12 and 17 years of age, and because the definition of a youth beyond age 17 is far from consistent. There is, however, a huge body of international research demonstrating that young people are more likely to engage in crime and violence than older people. In general, rates of criminal offending and violent behaviour are highest among those in their mid-teens and early 20s.

These conclusions are supported by the available Canadian data set out in Prof. Wortley’s paper provided in Volume 4. For example, data show that while 15-24-year-olds made up just 14 per cent of the Canadian population in 1999, they accounted for 36 per cent of all criminal incidents. These data indicate that the highest crime rate was for individuals between 15 and 19 years of age, followed closely by individuals from 20-24 years of age and those 25-29. Overall, the crime rate for 15-24-year-olds is three times higher than the national average.

As well, data obtained from the Ministry of the Attorney General indicate that although they represent only 23 per cent of Ontario’s population, youth between 12 and 29 account for 56 per cent of those charged with a crime and 52 per cent of those charged with a violent crime in Ontario in 2007. Overall, youth between 18 and 24 have the highest violent crime rate in Ontario, followed by 25-29-year-olds and then 12-17-year-olds.

As with official police statistics, the results of the 2004 Canadian General Social Survey suggest violence is highly concentrated among youthful populations. Indeed, the violent victimization rate for respondents from 15-24 years of age is twice the rate for those 35-44 years of age and more than four times greater than those 55 or older. Surveys suggest that most young people in Ontario will suffer from some kind of violent victimization at some point in their life. Most of these will never be reported to the police and thus never end up in official crime statistics. At the same time, according to victims, two-thirds of all offenders were identified as being under 34 years of age, with 13 per cent falling within the young offender category (12-17 years of age) and 50 per cent identified as being young adults between 18 and 34 years of age.

To cite one additional and troubling finding, during the 1970s less than a quarter of Toronto’s homicide victims were under 25 years of age. By contrast, since 1998 over 40 per cent of Toronto’s homicide victims have been under 25. Similarly, official police data revealed that a record number of young offenders were charged with murder in Canada in 2006.

As noted above, we have drawn heavily in this chapter on the work of Prof. Wortley, and in particular his paper, provided in Volume 4. Having studied these data and issues for many years, and drawing on the works of others he cites in his paper, Prof. Wortley has discerned a number of significant trends from the available statistics. Of these, the following are particularly troubling:

[T]here is growing evidence that reporting rates among youth, may be declining even further. For example, a 2000 survey of Toronto high school students (Tanner and Wortley, 2000) found that 50 per cent of crime victims reported their worst victimization experience to their parents or to the police. By 2007, however, this rate of reporting had dropped to only 10 per cent (School Community Safety Advisory Panel, 2008)…. These data on reporting rates make it clear that many Ontario youth suffer from violent victimization in relative silence. These data also make it clear that official crime statistics seriously underestimate the true extent of youth violence in Ontario.

[A]nalysis also reveals that serious violence is becoming increasingly concentrated among poor, minority males.… [A]lthough race-crime data are rarely made available in Ontario, the data that have been released strongly suggest that minority males are particularly vulnerable to violent crime. For example… between 1992 and 2003, the homicide rate for Toronto’s Black community (10.1 per 100,000) was almost five times greater than the average for the city (2.4 per 100,000).

In January 2008, the Toronto Star published the names and photographs of 113 homicide victims, murdered in 2007, from the Greater Toronto Area (including Halton, Peel, Durham and York regions). An analysis of these names and photos revealed that 44 of the murder victims were African-Canadian. Thus, while African-Canadians represent only seven per cent of the GTA’s total population (according to the 2001 Census), in 2007 they represented almost 40 per cent of the city’s homicide victims.

Additional analysis reveals that a disproportionate number of violent incidents either take place in socially disadvantaged communities and/or involve both victims and offenders from these communities. It is clear, therefore, that the intersection of race with economic and social deprivation may explain the overrepresentation of racial minorities in violent crime.

The character of violence has also changed over the past two decades, particularly in the province’s largest cities. Two trends deserve special attention. First, serious violence is becoming more public in nature. For example, in 1974, only 50 per cent of Toronto’s homicides took place in public places… whereas since 1990, over 75 per cent of all murders have occurred in public (Gartner and Thompson, 2004).

There is also evidence to suggest that the use of guns has increased significantly within Ontario’s urban areas. For example, during the 1970s, only 25 per cent of Toronto’s homicides were committed with a gun. Since 2000, however, approximately 50 per cent of all murders have been committed with a firearm (Gartner and Thompson, 2004).

According to a recent report by Statistics Canada, in 2006, 25 per cent of all firearms-related crime in Canada … took place in Toronto [home to less than 10 per cent of Canada’s population]. Toronto recorded the third-highest rate of firearms-related crime … among Canadian cities….

According to Statistics Canada, the use of firearms among young offenders … has also risen in three of the last four years. Indeed, according to the latest figures, firearms-related offences among young offenders have increased by one-third since 2002 (Statistics Canada, 2008).

A number of experts have also argued that serious youth gang activity has increased in Ontario over the past decade....

[This] is very difficult to determine because of a lack of systematic, long-term study. There are simply no baseline data from which we can compare current estimates. However, the alleged increase in youth gang activity is certainly consistent with a number of other documented crime trends, including the concentration of youth violence among disadvantaged minority males, increased use of firearms among young people and the increasingly public nature of violent behaviour.

Interestingly, the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics has found that gang involvement is more prevalent in homicides involving youth (22 per cent) than homicides involving adults (nine per cent). (Volume 4: 55-57)

2. Trends in the Neighbourhoods

The trends we found in the neighbourhoods we visited fully reinforce the trends that Prof. Wortley discerned from the available statistics. We will again rely upon the synopsis prepared by our neighbourhood insight consultants to set out what we heard, and again emphasize that it is a record of what we were told, not of our findings. It is a composite that does not necessarily reflect the situation in any one neighbourhood. As we will see, however, the warning signs revealed by even just individual elements of this composite are a cause for great concern.

As set out in the Neighbourhood Insight Final Report reprinted in Volume 3, when talking to communities about violence involving youth, the line between roots and impacts is often blurred. This is because, from a community perspective, many of the impacts of violence eventually become roots of more violence, creating a negative cycle. The impacts of the violence described below are impacts felt not only by youth, but also by communities and our society as a whole. Everyone feels the impacts of violence involving youth. These impacts, again as set out in the consultants’ report, include the following:

Fear in neighbourhoods is on the rise. In some areas, people are virtual prisoners in their homes. The playgrounds are controlled by drug dealers and gang members. Innocent people are at risk because some shooters pursue their targets with no concern for innocent bystanders. People grow afraid of each other and unwilling to help each other. Shootings aren’t always reported; therefore the resources to address gun violence are often not allocated to the community. Parents can be afraid to let their children participate in the community…. When communities live with fear, they often internalize it and see others as outsiders, which leads to further isolation.

A code of silence takes hold. There is a fear of retaliation if someone calls the police to report a crime or to give a witness statement. Ineffective witness protection programs serve to reinforce the ‘snitch code.’ This fuels a code of silence. The level of fear in some neighbourhoods is indescribable, especially among some mothers — there is significant intimidation to ensure that people don’t talk to the police.

Communities and youth get stereotyped. The media portrays a negative stereotype of the community, and the people from the community start believing that stereotype. Youth can’t get jobs because of where they live.

Communities, including youth, get desensitized to the violence. Young children are exposed to violence and learn from it — whether it’s at home or seeing a violent police ‘take-down.’ Children as young as nine years old talk about violence as normal.

Violence becomes an acceptable way of dealing with conflict. When violence goes unaddressed, it perpetuates violence. Youth resort to violence to resolve disputes. They feel they need to be violent in order to survive and preserve their honour.

Gangs are created. Gangs are often linked to criminal activities, but youth also hang out in groups as a way of looking out for each other. The problem is that it can be hard for people to tell the difference, and groups of youth — regardless of their intent — can intimidate people.

Increased police presence. Many youth talked about not receiving respect from police, and about experiencing problems with police harassment. They talked about youth that get pulled over for no reason, and who don’t feel like they can move freely in their own neighbourhoods…. Bravado from the police, particularly in their communication with youth, gets in the way of any form of trust and relationship-building between police and youth. There is criminalization of youth and a growing number of arrests. There is also increased racial profiling.

Focusing on school is harder for students, and teaching is harder. Living in an environment without security drains people’s mental energy. Trying to meet the needs of students with a high teacher-to-student ratio is already a difficult task, and with the added challenges created by poverty, a lot of students fall through the cracks.

Schools are not safe places. Youth get bullied at school and bullying becomes more violent. Growing numbers of youth are expelled from school. They carry weapons to protect themselves, and drop out more frequently or transfer because schools aren’t safe.

More youth suffer from depression, which can lead to suicide and self-harm, as well as substance abuse. Violence hurts youth self-esteem and stops youth from having ambition to do anything.

Social service agencies struggle to keep up with the demand for services. There’s not enough funding, and agencies are competing instead of working together.

Once youth get involved in a violent lifestyle it’s hard to get out.

Inaction leads to hopelessness. There is alienation between youth, community leaders and institutions. (Volume 3: 75-77)

One memorable scene in particular from our Ottawa visit captures the corrosive effect of this unrelenting exposure to violence:

A small boy, about 11 years old, sits at a table that forms one end of an open square in a brightly lit community centre. He is talking about an incident in his public housing complex: a fight, with police called and an area cordoned off so he and his friends had to go around behind some of the buildings to get home. He describes seeing someone on the ground, someone in handcuffs. But it’s not the incident that grips the visitors in the room, who have come to hear about the impact of violence involving youth on this neighbourhood. It’s the boy’s tone of voice as he tells the story, as if he is recounting something from a movie, or a trip to the corner store for ice cream. For him, this is normal.

The normalization of violence was a theme repeated many times during our visits – domestic violence, violence in schools, sexual violence, violence related to turf, violence related to the slightest perceived sign of disrespect. Some of it was the big, headline-grabbing violence of a guns and gangs culture, but more of it had to do with everyday incidents such as the one recounted by the young boy in Ottawa.

And a regrettable amount of it had to do with the widespread perception of “official violence.” This perception rises quickly to the surface when residents, especially but not exclusively youth, talk about relations with the police. From across the disadvantaged communities, we heard reports of police stops of youth who were doing nothing more than walking home from a recreation centre or the mall. Many of the problems, they agreed, stem from overly aggressive police officers going up against youth, who already feel victimized, with both sides fearing a loss of face if they back down.

In one of our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions, during which there were many of these stories, one young participant suggested to the other youth present that youth need to be trained on how to manage overly aggressive police behaviour: to learn how to de-escalate the approach taken to these encounters by police. This comment, as much as the descriptions of individual negative encounters we heard, is another powerful example of how normalized violence has become.

That said, it would be unfair not to acknowledge and compliment the police officers we met in the communities who seemed to be fighting an uphill battle, not just within the neighbourhoods where they work, but with some of their colleagues and some parts of the command structure. Many youth recognize this but, while they had good things to say about community liaison or school-based officers, they didn’t see them as the “real” police – the ones who engaged in unwarranted stops or conducted midnight raids.

In a variety of ways, we have let violence become normalized in our communities to a degree that would have been unthinkable not so long ago. With that normalization and all that lies behind it, as with the canary in the mine, we risk a great deal if we fail to heed an extremely telling warning sign about these neighbourhoods and our society as a whole.

What Do These Trends Portend?

What level of safety is sufficient? Should we take comfort from the fact that Ontario is, for most, a relatively safe place to live by national and international standards? Is it enough to observe that crime has not grown compared with 30 or 40 years ago, and then move on to some other pressing issue?

We think not. Indeed, we were struck by the observation made to us in England that the real concern of ministers there is that crime is not going down. As is the case in the United Kingdom, we have made massive investments in the justice and crime control systems, along with some significant social investments. We should not see it as an adequate return on our investment to simply maintain a stable crime rate, especially where violence is concerned.

But the more serious problem in Ontario is that we cannot count on that stability continuing. The trends we have identified in this chapter, although largely masked by the overall stability of the figures, suggest that Ontario is incubating an increase in violence, and in more serious violence. Ever-younger members of our communities are carrying and using guns. When this is happening, and when violence is brutal and conducted in public with no regard for social norms or the consequences for anyone, including the perpetrators, we see powerful signs that core social bonds are being stretched beyond the breaking point.

And as those bonds break, violence is normalized, sensibilities are brutalized, and communities are terrorized. The sowing of the seeds for community retreat, the ceding of public space to criminals by seeking safety in withdrawal from public life, and the silence that arises from the fear to speak out all increase the opportunities for violence. In doing so, they increase the perceived need for defensive violence or for gang membership for self-protection. This further escalates the risk of violence and accelerates the shutting down of avenues for positive community engagement and protection through collective solidarity and positive social structures and values.

There is simply no doubt that an atmosphere of fear and the threat of violence can crush a neighbourhood’s spirit and the spirits of many of its residents. It deprives them of hope or optimism or any sense of belonging to the broader society. This, in turn, leads to many forms of increased isolation– from neighbours, from community services and from the larger community. Young people, in particular, feel hemmed in by gang violence and are unwilling to cross boundaries in search of education, recreation or jobs. Parents talk about being afraid to sit on their front steps for fear of becoming innocent bystanders in gang-related gunplay.

As we explored in Chapter 4, this is occurring in neighbourhoods that are often already isolated from the rest of the community because of poor or expensive public transportation systems and the lack of many amenities such as convenience stores, banks and community gathering places. One of our meeting places, for example, was a makeshift storefront youth centre in an all-but-abandoned strip mall hidden behind a derelict gas station. In another, the fee we paid to use a youth drop-in centre for our meeting provided the only funds available to turn on the heat on a very cold winter night. In another neighbourhood, not only were there no shops, but also the nearby pizza place refused to deliver because the drivers feared being robbed.

What is particularly disturbing about these isolating impacts is that they are happening to many communities that are largely composed of members of racialized groups. We have already traced in Chapter 4 how racism and other barriers have concentrated poverty in these groups, and how the housing market has then driven them into concentrations of those who suffer from high poverty. Alarmingly, we do not have to look far to see the likely consequences of increasingly isolated concentrations of racialized disadvantage.

Concentrations of disadvantage not only feed violence, but as well the violence occurring or arising in them further disadvantages everyone living there, and thus generates more violence. Our most immediate concerns must lie with those directly involved in violence and all those whose lives are disrupted and whose communities are made dysfunctional because of it. But we must also be concerned about the impact on our social fabric as a whole.

That impact comes from the fact that, whether or not Ontarians should believe that they are safer than in the past, many feel that the province is more violent than it was. This matters because the fear of crime, especially of the kind we have described, can not only hurt the economy and reduce levels of civic engagement, but it can also serve to stereotype and isolate particular communities.

When poverty is racialized and then ghettoized and associated with violence, the potential for the stigmatization of a specific group is high. That stigmatization can, in turn, further reduce opportunities for those groups and create pressure to reduce civil liberties and increase the criminalization of those who are seen as “others” by those in positions of influence and authority. The violence is seen as “over there,” committed by and largely affecting “others.” This leads to the view that resources should be spent to the extent necessary to contain and suppress it, rather than to the extent necessary to address the conditions that are giving rise to it.

The potential stigmatization, blaming and distancing add to our concerns about the trends and impacts we have identified. Something of real value in our society is at risk if we fail to look at this situation through the public health lens that we have traditionally used in this province to address deep social problems.

If these trends and impacts are seen as akin to a public health issue, then it makes no more sense for those not immediately affected to blame those who suffer from them, and otherwise ignore them, than it would to ignore an infectious disease outbreak in one community or neighbourhood. We know infections can spread and, even if they don’t, they can weaken other parts of the body and its systems, with regrettable mid- to long-term consequences. Therefore, we deal with the problem collectively and cure it, because ignoring it will simply make matters worse for ever-increasing parts of our body politic. When we reject this time-honoured approach, we are expressing a very powerful message that our social fabric is in danger.


Measured objectively using data that track violent crime and homicides, it is clear to us that Ontario is not only relatively safe compared to most other jurisdictions, but also safer than it used to be, and growing safer still, for the majority of its citizens. However, for some in our province, Ontario is a very dangerous place and becoming more dangerous. Most immediately, these are our young males and, increasingly, females, who are Black or Aboriginal, who come from disadvantaged, complex-needs communities and have little reason to hope that conditions will change. But, importantly, they potentially include all those who have no choice but to live in disadvantaged communities and those who are increasingly affected by the violence that can be incubated there.

A number of current trends are deeply troubling. These include the increasing concentration of violent crime among younger people; the increasing frequency with which guns and knives are being used in disputes that might previously have been settled with fists; the increasing intensity and ferocity of the violence; the increasingly public nature of extreme violence; the growth in the prevalence of both guns and gangs; neighbourhoods trapped in a downward cycle of disadvantage and being challenged to provide the solidarity and positive role-modelling needed to help stem the violence; and a broader community inclined to write off these youth and these communities because they see them as the source of this problem rather than its victims.

At the same time, we need to note that Ontario is in the relatively early phases of this degree and kind of violence. Some of those we met referred to Ontario experiencing the first generation of violence driven by economic disadvantage and racism, compared to the United States and the United Kingdom, which they considered to be more deeply mired in second or third generations of this kind of violence. And, importantly, even the most disadvantaged communities in our province have good leaders, positive networks and many committed individuals working every day to strengthen and solidify them and to make them safer.

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


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews