Review of the Roots of Youth Violence:
Community Perspectives Report

Volume 3: Section 1: Community Perspectives

Chapter 1: What’s the Problem?

“If a person truly believes he/she has nothing to live for or, in fact, has nothing to lose, there is not much chance of convincing them that they should not indulge in violent or ‘illegal’ activities.”

– respondent to online survey

As we travelled around Ontario, we were often asked what we mean by “youth violence” or “violence involving youth.” We have taken a fairly broad view, but we have focused most of our attention on the serious violence that led the Premier to request our review: weapons offences, serious assaults and murder. We’ve been similarly flexible about what constitutes “youth,” for the practical reason that there is no standard definition that programs and authorities use.

What you told us is that, behind the headline-making crimes, there is persistent violence that is threatening to become a “new normal” in some of our communities, especially those that are considered the most disadvantaged. This is not to say that violence involving youth does not exist in relatively well-off areas, but these usually have the resources, both financial and political, to respond to the problems. These resources simply do not exist in more disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and so the conditions fester. We heard this many times during our Neighbourhood Insight visits, and your comments are captured in the Insight Final Report, which includes a complete description of how these sessions were arranged.

Here’s some of what you told us:

“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 put at risk because some shooters pursue their targets with no regard for innocent bystanders. . . . Parents are afraid to let their children participate in the community.”

“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 ‘takedown.’ Children as young as nine talk about violence as normal.”

“Violence becomes an acceptable way of dealing with conflict. . . . Youth resort to violence to resolve disputes. They feel they need to be violent in order to survive and to preserve their honour.”

“Once youth get involved in a violent lifestyle, it’s hard to get out.” (Insight Final Report, pp. 75–77)

The review also worked with the Ontario Federation of Indian Friendship Centres, which helped us consult with urban Aboriginal youth in northern and southern Ontario. Bullying was often mentioned during the Northern sessions as a major cause of violence. The following is one respondent’s comment, typical of many:

“There is a lot of bullying/harassment in school. Some fights no one tries to stop. People tend to make fun of people who are different. For example, my friend who has a good fashion sense and is a guy automatically gets labelled as queer or gay. It really bothers me and I have gone to teachers about the student who uses those words against my friend the most; they tell me to ignore them. I don’t see how this helps. The person who does the bullying gets away with it. Another thing with mostly girls — they gossip.”
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.

So, just how bad is violence in Ontario? To answer that question, we asked our research consultant, Prof. Scot Wortley of the University of Toronto, to review various studies. You can read the details of his findings in our report to the Premier, but in essence, here are the trends he identified:

These trends lead us to the conclusion that Ontario is at a crossroads, and we must decide whether or not we are prepared to take decisive action to reverse them.

One of the reasons we have arrived at this crossroads is that we have been too willing to consider violence involving youth as a purely criminal matter that can be dealt with through the criminal justice system. What you told us is that this all too often makes criminals out of young people who could, with a different approach, have been encouraged to become functioning members of society. Instead, we brand them as “at-risk,” throw a confusing array of disjointed programs at them and, when these fail, lock them up. In this vein, we think the federal government’s recent attempts to “strengthen” the youth criminal justice system are heading in the wrong direction.

Interestingly, many of the police officials we met with, including representatives of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police, agree that we cannot “arrest our way” out of this situation. Many high-ranking officers call for a different approach, one that puts more emphasis on prevention and less on enforcement, but they have been unable to change the prevailing police culture.

Maybe there is a different way of looking at these issues, one that takes the focus off the youth criminal justice system.

Again, quoting from our report to the Premier, we said:

“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.” (Volume 1, p. 102)

Chapter 2: The Roots of the Problem

“Violence is a cycle; there needs to be an intercepting player earlier in childhood and to follow families to cut the cycle.”

– respondent to online survey

As we visited communities for the Neighbourhood Insight Sessions, listened to urban Aboriginal youth, considered the report provided by the Grassroots Youth Collaborative and reviewed your responses to the online survey, you confirmed something for us: there is no one root of violence involving youth. Rather, there are conditions that put certain communities and individuals at risk of becoming victims or resorting to violence; in our report to the Premier, we call these “immediate risk factors.” There are many roots to such risk factors, and each community may have its own idea of which should be number 1.

What the roots have in common is that each contributes to a deep sense of hopelessness and alienation from the larger society. They do not in themselves cause violence, and we know that many who live in these conditions do not resort to violence. Nevertheless, lessening the effect of these roots and others we’ve identified in our report to the Premier will, in our opinion, ensure Ontario is on the right path.

This report focuses on the roots most frequently mentioned by you, the voice of the community. They are:



In neighbourhood meetings and reports, you identified poverty as a root because it contributes to alienation. This risk factor is magnified when it occurs in concentrations, as it does in some housing projects.

It is a fact that many of Ontario’s most vulnerable citizens live in conditions that should never be tolerated in a society such as ours. Furthermore, the concentrations of substandard housing that we have created through our policies and practices lack the necessary economic and social supports, creating an even greater sense of hopelessness. And since, as we heard from many community representatives, poverty is becoming racialized in Ontario, it’s hardly surprising that most of those living in substandard housing are visible minorities.3

We wish we could report that all of the substandard housing is owned by the private sector. Then it would be easy to recommend that municipalities crack down on these individuals and enforce building codes.

“When someone doesn’t have a lot of money, often the only place they can afford to live is in a dilapidated, decaying, roach-rat-infested building that’s often in need of multiple repairs.” (Insight Final Report, p. 79)

Unfortunately, the Province and municipalities own much of the substandard stock in the form of “social,” “affordable” or “public” housing units, and these too are generally speaking in desperate need of repair. The Ontario government made a start on addressing this need in its 2008 Budget by setting aside $100 million to help with repairs to about 4,000 affordable housing units. Municipalities will be able to get up to $500 million in low-cost loans, also to repair affordable housing.

Many of you told us that you are becoming frustrated with the lack of positive action to repair the housing stock. The GYC Report said:

“There is a social housing crisis in Toronto. Not only is there a 10-year waiting list to get into social housing in the city, but also the stock of existing housing is in severe disrepair.

“We are also tired of governments (federal, provincial and municipal) passing the buck to each other with regard to how to deal with this issue. We recognize that it is the responsibility of ALL THREE levels of government to make this implementation happen immediately, and that bureaucratic wrangling is no longer acceptable.” (pp. 148–149)

Social Services and Mental Health

We also heard that families living in such conditions have a greater need for health and social services, but that these areas are often the most poorly served. Whether you consider settlement services for immigrants, support for single mothers, or recreation and arts programs, there are simply not enough to serve the complex needs of disadvantaged neighbourhoods.

As is so often the case, a lack of funding is at the heart of the problem — too few resources to meet too many needs.

Social service agencies struggle to keep up with the demand for services. There is not enough funding, and agencies are competing instead of working together.” (Insight Final Report, p. 77)

And while all of the services mentioned above are important, it may be that none are more critical than those devoted to mental health.

The Insight Final Report captured what you told us during our visits this way:

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.” (p. 61)

How bad is the child mental health problem? Senator Michael Kirby, chair of the Mental Health Commission of Canada and an advocate for ending the stigma still attached to mental illness, spoke to the Empire Club in May 2008. He cited the following statistics from a speech he gave in 2002, and said that, unfortunately, nothing much has changed since then.

  • Fifteen to 25 per cent of young people have at least one serious mental health problem, and those with one problem run a high risk of developing a second or third.
  • Only one in six is adequately diagnosed, and then usually long after onset.
  • Suicide remains the leading cause of adolescent death, placing Canada third on the list for OECD countries.
  • Eighty per cent of adults with mental health problems, including depression and eating disorders, suffered the onset of the disease before they were 18.

But the major barrier to improving mental health services, he said, remains the fear of being stigmatized by admitting to such problems either personally or in one’s family. People are reluctant to ask for help: 38 per cent of parents said they wouldn’t talk about their children’s problems.

The report continued:

“Mental health is not just about learning disabilities.

For many youth, it is about stress, lack of self-esteem, peer pressure, anger and frustration coming from poverty, discrimination and a general lack of support from family, peers, role models and the many systems that have an impact on youth. Furthermore, post-traumatic stress from seeing violence around them (at home, on the street, in school) is also an issue for many youth, and especially for some immigrant youth who have witnessed extreme violence in the countries they came from.” (Insight Final Report, p. 85)

Improving this situation will require several important changes. Senator Kirby, in the Empire Club address mentioned above, said Canada suffers from “an embarrassment of shortages” for mental health and cannot put the right resources in the right place at the right time. “It’s hardly a ‘system’ at all,” he added. He called on government to make schools the delivery system for mental health, providing more funding and installing trained mental health practitioners. He also called for a national mental health strategy and a cohesive delivery system that would put the child’s needs at the centre and have service providers work around the interests of the child.

We also believe that all levels of government and funding agencies must adopt a more targeted approach to providing social and other services, putting their resources where they are most needed and will do the most good, rather than spreading them thinly across the entire population.

Social Pressure

At least some of the serious violence involving youth is a side effect of the drug trade, gang warfare and other illegal activities. Young people may be attracted to these activities because they see no hope of improving their lives through legitimate means. The Insight Final Report said:

“Hopelessness comes out of poverty. When youth grow up with no money they don’t believe the situation can ever change. And so they look at all options on what to do about it, including unlawful behaviour.” (p. 81)

However, this does not lead us to the conclusion that the appropriate response is more police and stiffer sentences — as noted, even the police don’t believe we can solve violence with more enforcement alone. Rather, it leads us to ask how we can change the conditions that make criminal activity attractive.

“Society tells us that having material things is one measure of success, and then denies youth access to those things. Youth get angry. It has a negative impact on their self-image when they know others can have things that they can’t.

“Youth get angry when they see their parent(s) working so hard but never getting ahead.” (Insight Final Report, p. 79)

The answer, then, lies not simply in more enforcement, but in understanding the hopelessness that leads to anger that propels young people towards violence. We will deal with the issues of jobs — or rather, the lack of jobs — later in this chapter, but one quote from the GYC Report is appropriate here:

“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 will not be forced into situations that put them at a higher risk of violence.” (p. 129)


Another primary source of alienation is racism, and we cannot hope to address violence involving youth unless we confront the racism that is still all too common in Ontario. Racism is morally wrong. However, at the community level, it is also the evil fertilizer that nourishes the other roots we have identified: poverty, especially concentrations of poverty; inadequate housing; unfair practices in schools; and the lack of employment opportunities.

The answer, then, lies not simply in more enforcement, but in understanding the hopelessness that leads to anger that propels young people towards violence.

One of the areas you were most concerned about was relations between police and youth. As mentioned earlier, we met with many senior police officers during our consultations, as well as with representatives of the Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police. They also told us about their efforts to emphasize community policing, the importance of community relations and programs to have officers work cooperatively with schools. We have no doubt that the command structure of Ontario’s police services is sincerely dedicated to addressing issues of violence, especially in complex-needs neighbourhoods such as those we visited.

It is, however, equally clear that this message is not getting through. In our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions, youth recounted how patrol officers unfairly targeted them. Whether it was Black youth in Toronto or Aboriginal youth in Thunder Bay, the story was the same: if you are young, and especially if you are a member of a visible minority, you can expect to be stopped for doing nothing more than walking home from a recreation centre or a mall.

Consider this, from the GYC Report:

“I was double-riding, I was pulled over by two police officers. They stopped us, they explained that double-riding is illegal so then they began to search us. So I started to get angry, I was like ‘I don’t see what double-riding and searching have to do with each other, cause it doesn’t go together. Can you just write me a ticket and let me go?’ So they didn’t really listen to me, they started yelling ‘we’re the guys, we know the rules, we know the law, you don’t know anything so shut up.’ They had us face down forward in the middle of the street.” (p. 126)

Youth we met were quite capable of telling the difference between “good cops” and “bad cops.” The “good” ones are those sent to the schools or into the communities in what most of the area residents see as little more than public relations gestures. The “bad” cops are the ones who hassle them on the street at night or conduct early morning raids in their neighbourhoods.

A useful suggestion came from our Jamestown Neighbourhood Insight Session, when a young participant told us youth need to learn how to react when stopped by police. Knowing her rights, she said, and insisting on them politely but firmly, had resulted in a positive interaction.

Here are two more extracts from the GYC Report.

“ . . . you know some police they’re alright you know, but other police, they like harassing you and stuff. Basically, in Regent Park they do that a lot, you know.”

“ . . . usually it’s the big guys that come in and they try and harass you and stuff – they try and bully you, you know, make you look stupid. That’s the thing I don’t like about them you know.” (p. 126)

Here’s how the Insight Final Report summarized our conversations in the community:

“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. Increasing camera surveillance and heavy police presence can create a feeling of ‘community under siege.’ Police can be seen as the enemy. Bravado from the police, particularly in their communication with youth, gets in the way of any form of trust and relationship building...There is criminalization of youth and a growing number of arrests. There is also increased racial profiling.” (p. 76)

Some say the answer is better police training in diversity, cultural sensitivity or community relations. At the moment, only a few hours are spent on such topics in the basic constable training program at the Ontario Police College, which all officers are required to attend. The college itself maintains that it’s a change in the police culture, not training, that’s required. Police services boards and the services’ command structures must also take responsibility for changing the behaviour of their officers.

Racism is not, of course, confined to the police service, but we have highlighted it here because it plays such a large role in the lives of those one might expect to be most in need of police protection. We cannot, however, ignore the fact that racism impacts on education, housing, employment and the provision of social services. We heard over and over again that racism is a form of violence, poverty is a form of violence, and both poverty and violence are being racialized — disproportionately affecting Ontario’s Black and Aboriginal communities and, to a lesser extent, other visible minorities.

The Education System and the Safe Schools Act

There is much to admire in Ontario’s public education system and, for most of the province’s youth, it provides wonderful opportunities to learn and grow. For some youth, however, it is another factor that further alienates them from society and, in doing so, sows the seeds for violence.

There were three specific things about the system that you identified as creating alienation: the Safe Schools Act, the need for a curriculum and work force that reflect communities, and the practice of streaming certain students away from academic achievement:

What was underlined for us was the result of suspending or expelling so many students from schools:

Because of the timing of our community visits, many of the viewpoints we heard were based on experiences prior to the recent amendments to the Education Act that were designed to correct these problems. The need for formal reviews of every expulsion, the requirement for alternative programming for students suspended for more than five days and restrictions on the use of disciplinary transfers will, we hope, change the way schools deal with troubled youth. We believe there is more to be done, however. For example, students should not have to wait five days for alternative programming. As an administrator at the Aboriginal high school in Thunder Bay told us: “We cannot afford to lose a student for even one day.”

The second problem with the education system is that, within the disadvantaged communities, staff and administrators usually do not reflect those communities. One participant at the Strategizing Minds forum that led to the GYC Report captured the sense of alienation this way:

“If you are disconnected from something how can you then be engaged in it, when you are learning about something that is other than you? . . . These students don’t see themselves, but yet they know that they are there.” (p. 119)

The third systemic problem highlighted in our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions and the reports concerns the practice of “streaming” – directing students into particular courses based on something other than their abilities and interests. In Ottawa, one student participant referred to those who engage in this practice as “dream killers” because of the way they dealt with students from visible minorities. The GYC Report had this to say:

“Streaming has increasingly become an issue in limiting the opportunities for higher education among racialized and marginalized youth. [The For Youth Initiative’s] report4 cites a study released by the Coalition of Visible Minority Women, which reveals that “often times Black students and parents have found that teachers and guidance counsellors have expected less from Black students, and have encouraged them to take non-academic courses or focus on sports suggesting that ‘the student did not have the ability to go very far.’” (p. 120)

Economic Opportunity and Jobs

Living in poorly maintained social housing complexes on inadequate income, and with little or no hope of improving your condition, is in itself isolating. Your horizons shrink to the limits of the project. At one Neighbourhood Insight Session, a youth worker told us that some of the children he worked with weren’t even aware that Toronto was located on a lake. More commonly, we heard that youth are afraid to leave their neighbourhoods. Both these speak to us of serious alienation from the larger community.

These neighbourhoods are often already isolated from the rest of the community because public transportation service is poor or expensive and many community features, such as convenience stores, banks and other gathering places, have left. One of the places we met in Toronto, for example, was a makeshift, storefront youth centre in an all-but-abandoned strip mall hidden behind a derelict gas station. In another neighbourhood, there were no shops, and the local pizza shop refused to deliver because the drivers feared being robbed.

The flight of businesses from areas not only deprives residents of goods and services that most of us take for granted, but also reduces employment opportunities. The lack of meaningful employment was one of the issues youth and their supporters raised most frequently during our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions, and the theme resonates in the GYC Report.

With fewer and fewer employment opportunities within their communities, youth are forced to look elsewhere for work. Here too they encounter barriers that are based not on their talents, but on their skin colour and addresses.

This is from the Insight Final Report:

“Youth want to help, but can’t find work. Youth get angry when they want to help out their families but then have trouble getting a job. Youth have trouble finding employment because of the address on their resumés — ‘Some jobs are hard to get if you’re from the ghetto.’” (p. 80)
A youth worker told us that some of the children he worked with weren’t even aware that Toronto was located on a lake

And this:

“Employers won’t hire youth if they see a certain postal code or if they have been in trouble. For some youth, it is necessary to use a friend or relative’s address when applying for a job because many employers won’t hire youth from what they think are ‘bad’ neighbourhoods. For youth with a criminal record, even for minor offences, finding employment is even more difficult, as many employers just won’t give them a chance.” (p. 82)

The youth voice we heard through the Grassroots Youth Collaborative report also speaks of the barriers to youth employment. A Somali youth at the GYC event described her experience looking for work. She and a friend, she said, with similar qualifications and looking for similar work, registered with the same agency. Her friend, who did not wear a hijab, received many calls about jobs, while she did not. Only after she called the agency and insisted did they tell her about a job opportunity.

According to recently released research, poorer areas of our cities are becoming grocery wastelands. Jason Gilliland, a geography professor at the University of Western Ontario in London, Ont., and his co-author, Kristian Larsen, compared the location of supermarkets in London in 1961 and 2005, then calculated ease of access to those locations. Their conclusion: as supermarkets have moved to the suburbs, residents of poorer neighbourhoods have lost easy access to fresh, affordable food and are forced to pay inflated convenience store prices or eat junk food. – National Post, p. 2, April 18, 2008

Chapter 3: Your Priorities

“The creation of a caring and supportive community that provides support, positive expectations and models —if we don’t, the dealers and the gangs are the community and the models.

—respondent to online survey

In the previous chapter, we looked at four roots that you told us could lead to hopelessness and alienation in youth. This chapter takes a similar approach and addresses issues that you have identified as important if we are to get at those roots. In other words, this chapter reflects what is important to you, and especially to the youth who participated in the neighbourhood consultations, the GYC youth-led forum and the urban Aboriginal meetings.

Here are your priorities, listed in no particular order:

Access to Space and Programs


In a province the size of Ontario, it seems strange to be talking about a lack of space, but that’s exactly what you told us is needed — more space that is accessible to young people for youth programs, and in particular, more space for programs that are youth-led.

Here’s some of what you told us, in the words of your reports.

From the Insight Final Report:

“Lack of youth space, and existing programs/centres that are not ‘youth friendly.’ Unoccupied space is not being utilized — this space should be supervised and operated by appropriate staff who can relate and identify with youth.” (p. 86)

“Participants often talked specifically about the value of youth drop-in centres, as they provide a safe haven for kids to hang out with their peers, youth workers and positive role models after school.” (p. 93)

From the GYC’s Rooted in Action:

“To talk about space in relation to violence faced by youth is to acknowledge that young people need to be engaged in their day-to-day lives through social and recreational activities that are delivered by like-minded and culturally relevant organizations and people. It is to similarly acknowledge that there is no shortage of space in the absolute sense. Rather, there is an unwillingness to recognize that all youth, from all backgrounds and all walks of life are equal members of our society and thus deserve equal access to all the resources that are available.” (p. 135)
All youth, from all backgrounds and all walks of life are equal members of our society

Andrea Zammit, coordinator of GYC and a former program director at For Youth Initiative, said this at the Strategizing Minds forum, as reported to us in the report Rooted in Action:

“Having worked in many of Toronto’s underserviced/low-income neighbourhoods for the past six years with young people, access to public space has been one of the biggest challenges. 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, 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, particularly Black youth.” (p. 137)

One suggestion for providing additional space involves opening up schools to community use. Urged on by groups such as the SPACE5 Coalition, the Ontario government has moved in this direction, most recently announcing that it will invest $33 million in the Community Use of Schools for 2008–09, with that amount to increase annually until it reaches $66 million in 2011–12. The funds are intended to make “ more affordable for youth, seniors and adults to use local schools for their meetings, practices and other activities.”6

There are some problems with using schools to expand available space, especially for youth-led activities. We were told some youth, expelled or suspended from school, would be unable to participate in such activities, and others are so turned off by school that they would not voluntarily go into the building, even for recreation. Another problem arises when established groups simply scoop up any additional space before new groups have a chance to apply for permits. And in rural areas, we were told, the lack of transportation makes it virtually impossible for many youth, tied to school bus schedules, to access such programs.

Nevertheless, the government’s willingness to recognize the need for additional space and to provide funding to help make it available are welcome first steps.


If space can be made available, in schools or elsewhere, the next question is, “What do we do with it?” We heard plenty of opinions on this subject as well.

One thing youth and front-line youth workers agreed on was that simply creating another basketball court is not the answer. Youth in particular told us there needs to be more variety in the programs offered — more arts, more recreation other than competitive sports, and more opportunities for learning and mentoring. Here’s the short version of what we heard at our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions, from the Insight Final Report:

Nothing to do. So youth end up on the street, getting in trouble. There is a lack of activities or services for youths in some neighbourhoods; communities that are isolated and stigmatized do not share in the benefits of programs offered to other communities.”

Something to do, but not relevant to youth.
‘’Nuff programs exist just for programming sake.’ The programs that do exist are too mainstream and redundant and are not meeting educational, cultural, and life-skills needs of youth. They are not measurable and/or accountable to the community. Programs are outdated — they have been there for a while and are not updated or relevant to youth. Programming for older youth does not exist or is boring and unappealing. Recreation and youth centres need cool, hip programming, not your typical basketball, to engage them and get them off the streets.

There is a lack of quality programs for ‘at-risk’ youth, a lack of effective programs and activities for youth to address violence, and a lack of prevention and early intervention.”

Something to do, but program staff are not trained to engage youth. Too many agencies are staffed with unaccountable managers, culturally insensitive and uncaring staff, and they run time-limited/short duration programs. Managers and staff are not reflective of the community they serve, and untrained youth workers lack knowledge and skills for real youth engagement.”

Something to do, but no sustained funding. Programs and social services lack sustained funding from government to assist youth. Sustained funding for youth programs is needed to keep people engaged; when we lose youth through lack of programming, we really lose them, and often to the criminal justice system. Programs that work to engage youth aren’t funded to make sustainable impact, and sometimes it can take years to tell if something works.” (p. 86)

The same report summed up the advice you gave us this way:

Strengthen the programs communities have said they need. Participants told us that their neighbourhoods need programs that are positive and relevant. These programs need to include recreation-based activities, but must also go beyond recreation to meet the educational, cultural, vocational and life-skills needs of neighbourhood youth. This means providing a continuum of services that offer programs to all individuals, at all ages and stages of development (including parents). That includes income-generating or experience-gaining programs — like apprenticeships and co-op employment.

“There also needs to be an emphasis on mentoring. Youth need that one person in their life that gives them attention, believes in them, supports them. It is important to connect youth with both peer mentors and one-on-one relationships with adult/older role models. This is especially important for youth that are hardest to reach. Gang exit programs are also needed, as are programs for youth who are newcomers to Canada and who need violence trauma counselling and supports.

“Participants often talked specifically about the value of youth drop-in centres, as they provide a safe haven for kids to hang out with their peers, youth workers and positive role models after school.” (pp. 92–93)

GYC, in its report, listed three actions that would address the space issues: build and invest in community space, stop the privatization of social spaces such as the Yonge-Dundas Square in Toronto, and develop a plan to fund physical infrastructure for youth-led work. Details of these proposals are included in the GYC Report, reproduced in full in Section 3.

The Education System

There are three issues related to Ontario’s education system that you told us must be addressed: the future of the Safe Schools Act, reforming the curriculum and creating an equitable learning environment.

From the Insight Final Report:

Zero-tolerance policies result in drop outs/‘push outs’ from school. When students get suspended or expelled, they’re abandoned. Punishing youth by suspending them is not helping. Youth often use that time to find and hang out with others who aren’t in school. Idleness causes more damage and possibly violent behaviour. The attitude of some youth is that a three-day suspension is like a vacation. They spend this time hanging out with older unemployed or out-of-school individuals, who may not be positive role models. It is also the time when most youth are recruited into gangs, prostitution or other illegal activity.” (p. 88)

The GYC Report sees the Safe Schools Act as discriminatory against racialized and marginalized youth and calls for its repeal. It supports the idea that reforming the education system is a requirement of dealing with the roots of violence involving youth:

“The idea that education is a path to empowerment is not a new one. Throughout history, around the globe, people have always demanded access to education as a means of asserting their civil rights. Denying such access has often been used as a tool of subjugation and oppression. Regardless of the initial purpose or scope, almost all of the previous studies by the various members and allies of GYC have identified some issues relating to education as a critical part of addressing some of the root causes of violence and oppression in our communities.” (p. 117)

GYC’s report also commends to our attention a study one of its member groups, the For Youth Initiative (FYI), conducted in 2003 with funding from the federal National Crime Prevention Strategy Program. (To obtain a full copy, contact

“FYI’s report is premised on two important assertions: 1)that inequalities are a reality in the existing education system, particularly for Black and indigenous youth, suggesting a need for more relevant and engaging forms of education; and 2) that alternative education has the potential to act as a liberating and positive force in the lives of marginalized young people. . .Their findings relating to discrimination and racism within the education system were not particularly surprising, and the report itself states: ‘Over and over again, students are saying that they feel discriminated against in schools, by teachers and other students. This study was no different, as almost all of the participants described experiences with and perceptions of racism in schools.’” (p. 118)

During our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions, you gave us many reasons for youth getting into trouble in school, but the one you mentioned most often was that racialized and marginalized youth simply find nothing to engage them. Their teachers are not from their neighbourhoods, the curriculum does not reflect their history or culture, and they are not encouraged to hope that doing well at the secondary level will lead to post-secondary opportunities.

The authors of the Insight Final Report put it this way:

Racialized and marginalized youth simply find nothing to engage them.
“Schools don’t reflect the youth they serve and don’t give all youth the same opportunities. For many youth, what is taught in school is not culturally or socially relevant to them, and is not taught by people who look like them or who can relate to their everyday lives, leaving them feeling excluded from probably the most important institution present in their lives. Youth also described discrimination by teachers who do not respect visible minority or immigrant students, who assume they cannot do as well as white kids, and who subsequently stream them into less academic programming. This blow to self-esteem is tough to overcome and youth can lose interest, motivation and trust in their teachers.” (p. 81)

One of the facilitators at a northern Ontario consultation with urban Aboriginal youth summed up their discussion about education:

“The youth felt that alternative learning styles should be taken into consideration when approaching the issue of education. They felt that school work would be more interesting if it had more culturally relevant curriculum and practices.”

And here is how one of the participants at GYC’s Strategizing Minds forum explained it:

“The United Way report ‘Poverty by Postal Code’ named 13 neighbourhoods in Toronto as priorities of special focus — when we look at the areas named — when we step into these geographical spaces — we realize that poverty can be tracked not only by postal code but also by a particular racial constituency. So alienation coupled with financial inaccessibility make universities a distant possibility for many. There is little belief that university is a space they are entitled to, a space where they belong — why should they? Why should we? Rising costs — the message is clear; this place is not for us. Colonial education from kindergarten to grade 12 — the message is clear; this place is not for us.” (p. 118)

The reports from both the Neighbourhood Insight Sessions and GYC forum offer suggestions that we have carefully considered in framing our recommendations to the Premier. We support the idea of schools becoming community hubs; we believe the continuing impact of the Safe Schools Act must be studied, and that study will require the collection of race-based statistics; we encourage the education system to consider reforming both its hiring practices and its curriculum; and we urge teachers to consider and nurture the potential of every young person, regardless of his or her race, culture or home address.

Jobs and Investment

“Provide meaningful employment.”

– respondent to online survey

While no one solution will cover all of the problems found in complex-needs communities, you made it clear to us that the communities would see creating economic opportunities as a major step forward. Meaningful employment addresses poverty, provides some degree of dignity and self-worth and helps to eliminate the hopelessness that characterizes our most disadvantaged youth.

The irony is that there is a multitude of employment programs, many directed at youth, and many seem to be highly successful. Individuals working in these programs recognize that complex-needs youth require more than just the telephone number or address of a potential employer. Often, they require pre-employment counselling to overcome a variety of barriers, ranging from issues as complex as mental health to as seemingly simple as directions for public transit.

In what is at least a move in the right direction, the government has provided funding directed at providing summer jobs for youth in disadvantaged neighbourhoods under the Summer Jobs for Youth program. The Ministry of Children and Youth Services website describes the program this way:

“Summer Jobs for Youth is designed to help young people aged 15 to 18 who live in high-needs neighbourhoods gain workplace skills through summer employment. You will receive job training, paid employment placements from July to August, and support after your job finishes. You will get $8.75 per hour and are paid for a 35-hour work week while getting training and experience in a job.

“This will not only look good on your resumé and put some extra cash in your pocket, but also may help you figure out what you want to study at college or university and/or what you want your future career to be.”

We heard from many organizations that are seeking to help such youth. Among those attempting to establish “best practices” is the University of Toronto’s Boreal Institute, working with the YMCA of Greater Toronto. The project started with focus groups in two of Toronto’s high-needs neighbourhoods, during which youth put violence high on their list of concerns. The lack of employment opportunities, the youth said, led to despair and a sense that their neighbourhoods were “just like prisons.”

Boreal and the Y set out to provide a program that wasn’t designed just to create a short-term job, but rather to help the individual build a career. So far, the lessons learned have included the value of working in small groups, the importance of creating a partnership between the job seeker and his or her counsellor, and the benefit of taking a holistic approach to each youth’s needs.

For more information, visit

In the previous chapter, under “Economic Opportunity and Jobs,” we provided a passage from the Insight Final Report that offered a youth perspective on barriers to employment. To overcome these barriers, participants in those sessions suggested that government needs to increase the minimum wage and apprenticeship and/or co-op employment opportunities.

GYC’s report was equally direct and calls for an increase in the minimum wage to $15 per hour plus an annual cost of living adjustment, a 40-per-cent increase in provincial social assistance and the Ontario Disability Support Program, and renewed investment in social housing.

Its corner stone recommendation for youth employment is the creation of a youth self-employment fund. The report says:

“Self-employment is often a means for youth in our communities to extricate themselves from dead-end McJobs in the service industry. However, Ontario’s current programs to support youth self-employment are often difficult to access, complicated to navigate and don’t always provide youth with the skills/training necessary to ensure that their small business/community enterprise can thrive under the predatory pricing practices of and intense competition from large corporations that receive significant tax breaks and subsidies (corporate welfare) from governments.

“We demand the creation of an open and accessible social enterprise fund that is highly funded (not just another $15 million, three-year investment), staffed by employees knowledgeable and experienced in working with youth entrepreneurial initiatives, open and creative, and helps to build skills. We also demand that the government not tie these types of programs to corporate/bank loans in some sort of private/public partnership that ends up putting youth social entrepreneurs in debt, to the profit of the big banks!” (p. 146)
It’s time the private sector and labour organizations take a hard look at their responsibilities and become actively involved in providing jobs and training opportunities in these communities.

This suggestion of a special fund for employment in disadvantaged communities is similar to one we received from the Coalition of African Canadian Organizations. As part of a comprehensive action plan, the CACO calls for “Establishment, by statute, of an African Canadian Social and Economic Development Agency to facilitate government support of community social and economic programs.”

Both these recommendations address the need to pump more investment into disadvantaged neighbourhoods and reverse the trend that has seen business investment flee such areas, as illustrated by the study of grocery stores referred to in the previous chapter. We also believe it’s time the private sector and labour organizations take a hard look at their responsibilities and become actively involved in providing jobs and training opportunities in these communities.

Police-Community Relations

Racism tinges each of the issues we’ve already discussed in this chapter, and we believe the government needs new policies and structures to address its influence on poverty, housing, education and employment. We must also confront it as an issue in police-community relations. Building better relations between police and youth in disadvantaged communities would pay huge dividends in reducing violence and the resulting fear that grips neighbourhoods. But it won’t be easy.

Ontario Police College representatives told us that there is only so much that can be accomplished by more training, because the attitudes of new recruits are shaped (or reshaped) by the culture they encounter “on the job.” The college representatives believe that, to change attitudes, it is necessary to change, among other things, the measures that are used to evaluate a police officer’s, or a police service’s, performance.

In our community meetings, however, you told us that better training in matters relating to race and the hiring of more officers from visible minority communities, would be a start. The Insight Final Report outlined six possible actions:

“There needs to be improved skills training for front-line officers, including diversity training, cultural sensitivity training, anti-discrimination training and customer service skills training. More minority police officers need to be hired so that police reflect the people in the community.

It’s also important to fund more community police officers whose job it is to go into schools and develop relationships with youth, and there needs to be some consistency in the police officers working in specific neighbourhoods so that relationships can be built. Quicker responses are required to youth calls, and there’s also an opportunity to better educate youth about what 222-TIPS (Crimestoppers) is really about (there are a lot of misconceptions about what the program is about and youth think police come over to their home and hand over a cheque in front of the whole neighbourhood).” (p. 95)

The Insight Final Report also offered us advice concerning the youth criminal justice system beyond the police:

“The justice system needs to focus more on prevention than on punishment. Investments in alternatives to incarceration need to be made; as one neighbourhood specifically put it, ‘Building a youth super jail is not the answer.’ More diversion and restorative justice programs are needed, and every attempt should be made to keep youth out of the courts and placed into restorative justice programs instead. There needs to be more counselling for victims and offenders, and supports for youth when they get out of jail.” (p. 95)

The GYC Report also deals with police-community relations and other aspects of the youth criminal justice system. Its demands include repealing the Safe Streets Act; converting the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre into a community centre for youth from Brampton and the northern part of Toronto7; establishing independent, community-based panels to review allegations of police misconduct; and ensuring that residents without full immigration status can access provincial services without fear of arrest.

Support for Families

Anyone who has been a parent knows how difficult this role can be under the best of circumstances, and life in Ontario’s disadvantaged communities is not the best of circumstances. Through the Neighbourhood Insight Sessions, as reflected in the Insight Final Report, you told us something about what parents in these areas face:

Parent(s) are working two or three jobs to make ends meet. Many people talked about the challenges parents face in making enough money to meet their families’ basic needs, and the tough choices they face. Some parents are unemployed, and others end up working multiple jobs to survive. Even when they are working at many jobs, they have trouble paying rent, paying for food, paying for bus tickets, and paying for the clothes and other things that youth need.”

There are not enough supports for parents. Parents lack financial supports, as well as other important supports ([English as a Second Language] classes, parenting skills training, educational/skills development classes at community centres, etc.).”

Parents aren’t around. Youth raised the issue of lack of parental supervision as one of the contributors to violence involving youth. Many youth don’t get to spend much time with their parent(s) because the parent is always working. Kids as young seven have no adult supervision — there is no one at home when they get home from school or when they need to talk to someone about what’s going on in their lives. When parents don’t give youth attention, they look for it somewhere else.” (Insight Final Report, pp. 79–80)

The lack of parental supervision has two sides, you told us. One, reflected above, is caused by parents working too many hours to be available to their children. The other, however, has more to do with the lack of parenting skills.

‘There are too many kids having kids.’ Many young people who find themselves responsible for raising kids are too young or too inexperienced to know how to parent effectively. They need training and supports to help them, but there really isn’t much available to them. There is also an increasing number of single-parent teen mothers, who also lack financial and other supports. On top of the challenges faced by single mothers, there is also a noted lack of positive male role models/mentors in many communities.”

Many people have trouble dealing with their own problems. For many parents, their own challenges related to poverty, lack of education, relationships, substance abuse and other issues are not being adequately addressed, and so they have no capacity to address the needs of their kids. For newcomers, language and cultural issues and post-traumatic stress disorder can also be challenges that must be dealt with first before they can help young people.”

Violence at home sets the standard of behaviour for youth. If youth are seeing domestic violence or other violent behaviours in the home, and parents are the only mentor/role models they have, they will learn that violence is acceptable, a way of life, a way to resolve conflict, and they will use violence to solve their conflicts outside the home, too.”(Insight Final Report, pp. 83–84)

Many of the experts we met with spoke of the need for more support for families and, in particular, single mothers. Early intervention with a comprehensive range of programs designed specifically for each family’s needs, as advocated by Dr. Gina Browne of McMaster University and as demonstrated by an ongoing project in Peel Region, seems to be successful at moving people off social assistance and diverting youth from trouble.

The other option many recommended was finding other ways of providing stable adult relationships. Dr. Debra Pepler of York University and Dr. Wendy Craig of Queen’s University say this is one important component in reducing bullying behaviours, which their research shows almost always leads to more serious forms of violence.

The Insight Final Report said:

“There also needs to be an emphasis on mentoring. Youth need that one person in their life that gives them attention, believes in them, supports them. It is important to connect youth with both peer mentors and one-on-one relationships with adult/older role models. This is especially important for youth that are hardest to reach. Gang exit programs are also needed, as are programs for youth who are newcomers to Canada and who need violence trauma counselling and supports.” (p. 93)

In short, both the experts and the community agree that more needs to be done to support families and provide youth with stable adult relationships that provide good role models.

Youth Engagement

As important to you as what needs to be done is how it is accomplished. It is clear from what you told us that youth are tired of having decisions about their futures made without involving them in any meaningful way.

Many organizations across the province are already experimenting with ways of engaging youth. The Youth Challenge Fund, established by the province and administered by United Way Toronto, places an emphasis on youth-led projects, and the City of Toronto has established a Youth Cabinet that has been consulted on major policy issues. Youth-led organizations themselves, such as the members of the GYC, also demonstrate the ability of youth to engage in issues and projects that matter to them, and to do so in an effective way.

The Insight Final Report said:

“Participants ... often focused on the importance of involving youth locally, and involving both youth and communities in provincial policy. Ways to do this could include establishing a Youth Secretariat or Youth Cabinet within the Ministry of Children and Youth Services, with a strong focus on providing planning and evaluation models/tools and methodologies to communities; supporting youth-organized, youth-led forums to engage youth from various neighbourhoods in focused, problem-solving and action-oriented sessions; and encouraging youth input into their own programming.” (p. 92)

Chapter 4: Community Stories

“Young people need to be supported by healthy communities, where there are chances for intergenerational dialogue, where neighbours know each other and where they feel people care about what they do.”

— respondent to online survey

As we travelled around Ontario, we met many individuals who were working hard to make a difference in their communities — far too many to include all their stories in this report. The following five stories, however, are presented as representative of the work going on at the grassroots level. We are not saying these are the best solutions, but we are hoping that they may start you thinking about things you could do in your community. If nothing else, they will let you know that you’re not alone as you grapple with trying to find solutions that will meet your communities’ special needs.

Thunder Bay: A Youth-to-Youth Approach

The Regional Multicultural Youth Council has provided a voice for youth in Thunder Bay and small isolated communities across northwestern Ontario for more than 20 years.

The council was formed by a group of young people who participated in activities organized by the Multicultural Association of Northwestern Ontario to celebrate the international year of youth in 1985. The council, led by founding president Melanie Goodchild, an Aboriginal high school student from the Pic River Ojibway First Nation, adopted a vision of youth from all backgrounds working together for a common future.

Ever since, the council has maintained its commitment to a “youth-to-youth” approach to enhancing the well-being of children and youth and improving social conditions in the communities where they live.

The youth executive runs the council and speaks for the group on public platforms. The youth leaders represent children and youth on civic committees and organize forums for youth voices to be heard on issues of interest or concern. They plan activities and involve their peers in organizing events in the schools and in the community. The council liaises with professionals for advice and collaborates with various groups and agencies.

“In this organization, young people are always standing in front,” says Moffat Makuto, executive director of the Regional Multicultural Association, the parent organization of the youth council. “The youth have talents and potential to be caring, resourceful and responsible. They need our support to become knowledgeable and capable leaders.”

The youth have talents and potential to be caring, resourceful and responsible.

The council engages young people and challenges them to be part of the solution to problems affecting them. It has hosted youth conferences, organized focus groups, promoted peer mediation to resolve conflict, and conducted surveys and interviews on creating safer communities. It has compiled information and produced resource materials to improve police-youth relations, make schools safer, improve safety in local neighbourhoods and increase security at bus terminals. In 1998, it began a “girl power” initiative that has expanded across the region, to address gender issues and encourage young women to realize their dreams.

The council does its homework and comes up with recommendations. For example, it has urged governments at all levels to address poverty, put in place addiction prevention programs, provide funding for after-school activities, support life skills training and job experience programs for youth, and fund drop-in centres as safe places for young people to hang out and grow together.

The Multicultural Youth Centre, which has operated in Thunder Bay since 1992, is the headquarters for the council and a youth drop-in. It provides a welcoming place for young people to be involved in positive activities, get help with homework, meet good role models, learn about resources for youth in the community, and get information to make wise choices and informed decisions. The centre coordinates youth leadership sessions, runs stay-in-school activities, and hosts many social and recreational functions and youth entrepreneurship training.

There are more than 100 young people actively involved in the council’s peer leadership initiatives. Their work in schools and communities touches thousands of others.

Many of the council’s activities are related to promoting understanding across cultures and races, such as youth-led presentations to promote anti-racism, participation in events recognizing the contributions and struggles of Aboriginal peoples, and information and resources to celebrate African/Black history month. Several of its young leaders have been recognized for this work.

The need to fundraise takes a constant toll. The council itself uses bingos, car washes, dances, craft and food sales, and donations to cover operating costs, but these distract from its program objectives. “I feel that my talents and positive influence would be better used helping my peers, rather than selling candy bars to raise rent money,” says Martin Zhang, high school student and current council president.

Meanwhile, the multicultural association tries to cobble together project funding from a variety of sources. But one-time grants do not provide sustained support for programs, and so the association turned to a less orthodox method. It opened a restaurant adjacent to the youth centre to help raise funds to pay for staff and keep the lights on at the drop-in.

The association also receives some funding from fees paid by First Nations for orientation, tutoring, recreation and other services for students who come to Thunder Bay to continue their schooling. But that revenue covers only those individual students.

“We must invest in the next generation,” says Makuto. “We need to support all children, reach out to youth who are vulnerable and at risk, and help those whose families, neighbourhoods and communities are marginalized. If we don’t provide positive alternatives, the gangs are waiting for them out on the streets with their own welcome wagon.”

Hamilton: A Good Place to Be

Getting an education is one of the keys to health and well-being for children and youth. Being successful in school opens doors to the future.

A partnership between the YMCA of Hamilton-Burlington, its donors and schools serving low-income or inner-city neighbourhoods is helping children develop skills, build confidence and engage in learning through an after-school program called the “Virtual YMCA.”

The schools provide the space, and the YMCA delivers the program. The program provides academic support, including homework help and literacy skills, recreational activities and development of social skills for children in grades 1-5.

The first Virtual YMCA opened in a north Hamilton school in 2001. In the 2007-08 school year, there were six public and separate schools with programs in the City of Hamilton, and another program is opening in 2008-09 in Burlington.

The YMCA has run after-school programs in Hamilton for almost 25 years. This program is different not only because of its location in the school, but also because of its close links with the school community. In each school, the principal and teachers recommend children for the program. There are about 40 participants in each school who attend the program three days a week.

The impetus for the program in Hamilton was a school principal who approached the YMCA, looking for ways to support students who were struggling. After researching different models of support, the YMCA decided to adapt the Virtual Y program that was operating in New York City.

The program aims to build children’s physical, social and intellectual well-being. The academic tutoring helps children go over what they have learned during the day and complete their homework. Some children from recent immigrant families need help understanding a new language. The social skills development provided by the program involves promoting the core values of caring, honesty, respect and responsibility.

The program aims to build children’s physical, social and intellectual well-being

“We want the children to have fun, too,” says Christina Martin, general manager of outreach for the Hamilton-Burlington YMCA, adding that the children make new friends, participate in drama, arts and crafts, sports and games, and get some healthy exercise. And there is always a nutritious snack.

The program makes a point of involving parents. “If you have a child who is struggling with school work or with behaviour issues, coming to the school tends to take on a negative aspect,” says Martin. “We try to build in positive engagement with parents — they come to see their child in a play or watch a chef prepare a special snack. We build positive connections between home and school.”

Locating the program in the school that the children attend every day helps them to feel that school is “a good place to be.” She says that staff members notice the difference in children’s attitudes over the course of a school year. “The children are more engaged. They want to be there.”

Dr. Christopher Spence, director of education, Hamilton-Wentworth District School Board, says: “Schools cannot and should not be left alone to develop the whole child. We have to continually reach out to our community and demonstrate our commitment to the African proverb that it takes a whole village to raise a child. The Virtual Y is a great example of the kind of collaboration we need.”

Kitchener-Waterloo: Walking Alongside Homeless Youth

There has got to be something special about a place where homeless youth who are members of rival gangs sit down and talk with one another. They take off their gang colours and leave anything that could be used as a weapon at the door. The rules are clear: you will be treated with respect, but you must show respect in return.

“They may complain about the rules, like any youth would, but they keep coming back,” says Sandy Bell, Executive Director of ROOF (Reaching Our Outdoor Friends), which provides for the safety, support and overall well-being of homeless and at-risk youth, aged 12-25, in Waterloo Region.

What do young gang members see when they look at one another, up close and personal, in the safe environment provided by ROOF? “They realize that everyone’s needs are the same. They can see the others as fellow human beings,” says Bell.

What began in 1989 with one caring individual providing lunch for some hungry youth has blossomed into a multi-service community organization that works to enable youth to get off the streets, to prevent others from becoming homeless and to educate the public. ROOF serves more than 2,000 youth a year. Its home base is in downtown Kitchener.

Almost everything ROOF does has an impact on the causes of violence involving youth. Youth who are homeless, cold and hungry may fight somebody for a coat or steal for something to eat. Without a high school education and few opportunities to gain job skills, they often feel hopeless about the future.

They need to take some ownership for their lives, and we need to walk alongside them to help – not drag them or push them, but walk with them.

“First you have to provide for their basic needs: food, hygiene, clothing, health care. Once you’ve satisfied those basic needs, then you can help the youth envision a different life and be motivated to take on things that will help them to break the cycle of homelessness — like life skills or job skills development,” says Bell. ROOF provides hot meals, shower and laundry facilities, storage lockers, clothing and nursing care, along with counselling, housing support, referrals and advocacy, all in the context of what Bell calls “positive regard.”

The reasons for homelessness are as diverse as the young people themselves. Some are fleeing violence or neglect at home, some have substance abuse or mental health issues, some have left their homes because their parents had issues they were unable to cope with.

“We meet the youth where they are at and we don’t judge them,” she says. “They come with various degrees of hurt and anger. They need to take some ownership for their lives, and we need to walk alongside them to help — not drag them or push them, but walk with them. We see their potential, not their past, and we help them to see it too. Many of these young people have lost the ability to dream dreams and set goals.

In their eyes, adults have repeatedly let them down. We work diligently at ROOF to reach out to these youth and let them see that there are adults who will stand by them and support them

“When they trust us, there is a chance to talk about better ways to solve problems other than resorting to violence, and build understanding of accountability and consequences. But you need to build a rapport. In their eyes, adults have repeatedly let them down. We work diligently at ROOF to reach out to these youth and let them see that there are adults who will stand by them and support them.” ROOF is getting into some “social enterprise” programs, which it hopes will help some youth get a foothold in the employment market. In collaboration with various community partners, and with both private and public sector funding, youth are learning about the food industry and getting certified in food handling. The ROOF Lunchbox program prepares and delivers lunches to downtown businesses and homes. ROOF is also developing a second social enterprise to harness the artistic talents of some of the youth.

These kinds of programs help to teach responsibility as well as skills to youth participants, because they have to show up on time and do their jobs to get paid. ROOF is also hoping to get its skills programs recognized as co-op placements for high school credit.

ROOF provides street outreach, meeting the needs of youth who may not be ready to approach formal agencies in the community, and offers drop-in programs seven days a week in the daytime and evenings. ROOF was homeless itself for two years after its building was destroyed in a fire in December 2005 and maintained services in various temporary quarters. Now, in its new building, the organization is looking to address service gaps and find new ways to help youth build on their strengths.

Ottawa: A Place of Second Chances

The young people call it “a place of second chances.” The place is the Britannia Woods Community House in west-end Ottawa, which serves an economically disadvantaged, diverse neighbourhood of families. Nearly two-thirds of the 800-plus residents are under the age of 20.

The community house may look like an ordinary townhouse, but it’s not. It is a valued community resource and gathering place and a symbol of a neighbourhood wanting and willing to help itself.

Britannia Woods is one of 15 community houses provided rent-free by the Ottawa Community Housing Corporation, which also pays for utilities and building maintenance. The community houses were created in response to tenants who recognized that their low-income neighbourhoods were socially and physically isolated from the larger community. They asked for space to provide programs that would be closer to home.

Residents govern the community houses through a board or association on which they have the majority of members. Community members also set the direction for programming. At Britannia Woods, the major focus of programming is on the community’s children and youth because that’s what the residents want. Every two years, tenants are surveyed door-to-door on how their community house is meeting community needs.

“The leadership for the community house is coming from the community, and the approach is holistic. It’s not a single program, it’s an overall approach to creating solutions and building social cohesion,” says Britannia Woods Executive Director Beth Gibeault. “We feel the lived reality of the community and that helps to build connections and trust.”

Being here in the community gives us the opportunity to provide guidance in a positive and supportive way

In collaboration with the nearby school, for example, the community house is able to access gym space five hours a week. On the way to school, 90 children, on average, pick up a nutritious bag lunch three mornings a week. There is a wide range of after-school programming to support families, including homework support and recreation. There is a small early learning program for preschoolers. A part-time child and youth worker provides a range of supports, including helping youth with employment opportunities and mediating disputes among youth in the community.

“Sometimes, when a young person gets in trouble, they feel they can’t talk to their parents, they can’t talk to the school, and their friends might not give them the right guidance. Being here in the community gives us the opportunity to provide guidance in a positive and supportive way,” says Gibeault.

Violence and criminal activity are a concern in the community. “The last thing I want to see, the last thing the community wants to see, is our youth going to jail. We try to talk to them, talk to their parents, have them evaluate their choices and create goals,” says Gibeault. “We also work with the police, and they want diversion (from courts and detention) to work. They know if there’s no support for the youth, it’s not going to work.”

What does a second chance look like? One incident involved a break-in at the community house. A group of younger teens ate some food and made a mess. Gibeault found out who the instigator was and went to his home and sat down with him and his father. She said charges would not be laid, but she wanted to know that he took responsibility. He avoided her for a few months, but eventually he apologized. He became a fixture around the community house, helping out wherever he could. “He is really turning his life around,” she adds.

The community house gives part-time work to three youth from the community who act as positive role models as they help with recreation and other programs. “Ordinarily, you never see the good role models. They are at school or at work. All you see are the bad role models hanging around. We try to change that,” says Gibeault.

Community houses have been working in and with their communities in Ottawa for a long time. The first one was created in 1968. Britannia Woods opened in 1978. Since 1997, the City of Ottawa has provided annual funding to provide coordination of community houses. In 2004, the city increased its investment in coordination and youth outreach. The community houses partner with other agencies to bring in needed services and apply for funding from other sources, like the United Way, for additional programs.

In 2006, Britannia Wood used one small pot of money to deliver African drumming lessons. Lots of children participated, but a few had real talent and stuck with it. The Royal Ritchie Drummers (named after a street in the community) now give concerts around Ottawa. The youngest drummer is nine and the oldest is 14. One of their biggest supporters is the Ottawa police service.

Toronto: Engaging Youth Through the Arts

“It is such a good engagement tool.”

“It” is the arts, particularly music that speaks to the issues of disaffected or marginalized youth, their frustrations and anger, but also their aspirations for a better life and a fairer world. Robert Wraith, youth programs coordinator for the San Romanoway Revitalization Association, says music helps to open doors. It attracts young people to a place where they can be mentored and supported because it’s cool to be at “the studio.”

The three apartment towers of San Romanoway, which have about 4,500 registered residents, are located in the Jane-Finch area of Toronto. Once known only for its violence and poverty, Jane-Finch is building a new identity as a community that is determined to tackle the socio-economic problems that underlie its troubles, particularly among its youth. The revitalization of San Romanoway is one example of that spirit.

The Youth in Charge project at San Romanoway has space in one of the buildings where it has a recording studio, an area with computers for Internet access, a kitchen, and an area where young people can just hang out together.

In a community where the refrigerator may often be empty and where home may be a place of conflict, having a meal regularly with friends in a safe and relaxing atmosphere can make a difference in a young person’s life.

Two youth from San Romanoway work as staff on the Youth in Charge project. Wraith says these young people show others that you can make a positive difference in your community. Wraith, who studied accounting and finance, volunteered for three years in the area before joining the staff of the association.

We learn what’s going on in their lives, and then we try to figure out how to help

Not everyone is going to be a recording star, but many youth enjoy using the studio at the youth centre to express themselves. The microphone can draw out someone who doesn’t say much in conversation. If a young person is focused on a career in the business, the project will connect him or her with an urban arts program like the Remix Project.

Connecting youth to services and opportunities is an important part of what the Youth in Charge project does. “We act as a catalyst,” says Wraith. “We can connect them to services that are available for job training, skills training or high school equivalency. We can help with resumé writing. We have a display of current job opportunities and community events. We get to know them and build relationships. We learn what’s going on in their lives, and then we try to figure out how to help.”

There are about 20 young people at the centre every day. “That is close to our limit. With 25, we are too packed,” says Wraith. “This is a safe, friendly place where nobody says ‘Why are you here?’ We could have six other youth centres in this neighbourhood and they’d all be full.”

Youth programming has had its ups and downs at San Romanoway, but they just keep trying. “The needs are huge and there’s only so much you can do with a program like this,” says Wraith. “But one of the lessons we’ve learned in this city is you must take action. You can figure out what works best as you go along.”

The youth program at San Romanoway depends on grants from a number of sources. The San Romanoway Revitalization Association also runs a children’s breakfast program, an after-school club for 6–12 year olds, summer camp, sports activities, and programs for seniors and parents. All this began back in 1999 through collaboration between the private owners of the complex (who provide space for programming), residents, the police, community organizations and local businesses. They came together to form the association and make San Romanoway a model for creating safer neighbourhoods.

Another program that builds on the arts is Beatz to da Streetz, started in 2005 at the Touchstone Youth Centre, which serves homeless and at-risk youth in Toronto’s east end. This youth-led arts program leverages the connection between young people and music to promote creative expression and self-discovery. It links youth to mentors who are professionals in the music business, builds life skills and helps youth work towards educational and employment goals. Beatz to da Streetz works with partners, such as Centennial College and the Scarborough Arts Council.

Chapter 5: Our Recommendations

In this chapter, we outline how we addressed your priorities in our report to the Premier. We have not reproduced the recommendations, which you may find in the report, but instead have summarized how they relate to what you told us about Ontario’s communities.

There are three broad categories of recommendations: structural changes, advice for action on specific issues and some general advice that does not fit elsewhere.

Structural Changes

The recommendations to create additional government structures may seem to have little to do with communities, but we believe they are key to starting and continuing the changes you told us are necessary.

The goal of the structural changes we recommend is to enable the government, funders, service providers and communities to focus their efforts on agreed outcomes. For years, millions of dollars have been spent on programs that may have been effective on their own, but there has been little or no coordination of their efforts. We believe this must change.

At the provincial level, the way to ensure it does change is to create a responsible body, a Cabinet committee or equivalent, to coordinate the government’s efforts. We also recommend that this committee be supported by an administrative, policy and planning unit in Cabinet office8, and that it make use of experts from outside government as it goes about its work.

Another important recommendation concerns the need to develop a comprehensive youth strategy. This recommendation is designed to focus the attention of the several ministries with responsibilities for youth, along with other levels of government and agencies, on common outcomes. We believe it is crucial that the government consult with communities, services providers and especially youth while developing this strategy. And once the strategy is in place, it’s equally important that ministries develop new ways of working together to get maximum results from their efforts.

Organizing the government to do its work more effectively is only half the solution. Communities must be able to participate, and so we recommend more support at the community level, including Neighbourhood Strategic Partnerships (NSPs) that would bring together the community, service and program providers, and the three levels of government; support for creating networks of residents that can participate in community development and work through the NSPs; and local coordinating bodies to manage and improve coordination among neighbourhood service providers.

We also recommend that the government adopt a “place-based” approach to addressing the roots of violence involving youth. Using a place-based approach means concentrating your resources where they are most needed, not spreading always-scarce resources thinly across the entire province. To determine those “places,” we think the government should use a formula developed by York University’s Prof. Desmond Ellis. The formula results in an Index of Relative Disadvantage and will allow the province, working with the municipalities, to determine which communities or neighbourhoods most need additional services and supports.

We should emphasize that this is not just about spending more money on these problems. It’s about taking an approach that prepares communities to play a greater role in their future, puts the right resources in the right places and leads to meaningful changes that address the roots of violence involving youth.

When adopted, these structural changes will provide a much-needed focus to youth-related programs and services and ensure that those programs and services are delivered more effectively. Taken together, they address the confusing, disjointed and often counterproductive service and program delivery model that so many of you told us about.

Advice on Specific Issues

We have also provided the government with a broad range of recommendations, including those that respond to your specific priorities as described in Chapter 3. These were:

Here’s how we propose the government should address each of these:

Access to Space and Programs

Our key recommendation about providing space calls for the creation of hubs for community activities, including meetings, recreation and the arts, and for local service providers. Wherever possible, these hubs should be in or near schools.

We also recommend the Province do much more to provide full access to schools for community activities by having facilities managers lease and operate school properties during non-school hours. The manager would work with the community to identify priorities for the use of the space.

Because we are advocating a place-based approach, we believe community hubs should be established first in those communities that top the Index of Multiple Disadvantage do not have such facilities and other key services. And although it will take several months to develop the index fully, we believe most municipalities will already have a good sense of their most disadvantaged neighbourhoods, and some, like Toronto, may have formally identified them. Therefore, as a priority for this fall, we recommend the Province start planning to establish community hubs in those neighbourhoods and, at the same time, lease space in those neighbourhoods for youth activities. To quote from our report to the Premier:“Another winter and spring should not go by in the most disadvantaged neighbourhoods with there being no safe place for youth to gather and play.”

Our report to the Premier makes it clear that we value youth-led activities, and that the space in community hubs and elsewhere must include provision for such activities. We also believe that a wide variety of programs must be offered if we are to allow all youth to develop their interests and potential. The importance of this is clearly reflected in the reports from our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions and the Grassroots Youth Collaborative consultation report.

To further emphasize this, we recommend that the government recognize the value of sports and arts in supporting the learning, development and creativity of youth. Indeed, fully accessible sports and arts programs should become standard features in the priority neighbourhoods. We suggest that the Province work with municipalities, school boards and community agencies to remove roadblocks, including income levels, transportation and, of course, the lack of usable space. The willingness of the education system to open its facilities to broader community use is an important contribution to the success of this strategy.

The Education System

There is no doubt in our minds that Ontario’s education system must play a central role in addressing the immediate risk factors of violence involving youth.

We noted in Chapter 3 that recent amendments to the Education Act have tried to address some of the more damaging results of the safe schools and zero-tolerance eras. While we do not feel these reforms have gone far enough, we recognize that they are a start. We also note in our report to the Premier that the Ministry of Education is working to implement anti-bullying and diversity programs.

Nevertheless, we feel it is important to recommend that the Province act to remove barriers and disincentives to education that exist for many children and youth. As one of its anti-racism initiatives, we suggest the Province take the necessary steps to ensure that teachers and school administrators better reflect the neighbourhoods they serve. It should also develop and provide a curriculum that is racially and culturally inclusive, better connects schools to families and communities, and find ways to encourage students to stay in school, engage in learning and seek further education. While these are worthy objectives across the education system, we feel they are especially important in the priority neighbourhoods.

It is important to know if our schools are making progress towards these objectives, but at present there is no adequate way of measuring that progress. In our report to the Premier, we call for much more attention to be paid to high-quality evaluation of programs based on their outcomes, not their activities. That is, rather than measuring how many students are served by a particular program, we want to measure what difference it makes in their lives. This will mean a change in the way we collect information both for longer-term evaluations and for ongoing policy adjustments.

We therefore recommend that the Province begin to develop ways of collecting race-based information in key areas, including education. This should be done at the school and neighbourhood level, so that individual problems are not hidden in high-level reports and averages. For somewhat the same reason, we also recommend measuring results against minimum standards rather than averages. For example, if one measure is graduation rates from secondary education, an improving average may mean simply that the good schools are getting better, while schools performing poorly are unchanged or worse. Instead, every school should have a minimum objective below which it must not fall. These are sometimes known as “floor targets.”

Jobs and Investment

As we reported in Chapter 3, you made clear to us that you would see creating more economic opportunities as a major step forward. Meaningful employment, you told us, addresses poverty, provides some degree of dignity and self-worth, and helps to eliminate the hopelessness that characterizes our most disadvantaged youth.

In our recommendations, we are calling for a two-pronged approach. The first prong would see the Province adopt a broad strategy to prepare youth for work and help youth from disadvantaged communities get and keep jobs. The second prong calls on the private sector to look at the barriers preventing youth from gaining meaningful employment, then working with the Province to overcome those barriers.

We have not made specific recommendations to the government as to how these goals can be accomplished, but we suggest that regulatory, tax or other incentives could be offered to businesses that create jobs in disadvantaged neighbourhoods, or that provide lasting jobs with opportunities to get ahead for youth from these neighbourhoods.

Police-Community Relations

We view improving relations between Ontario’s police services and disadvantaged communities, especially the youth of those communities, as absolutely critical to addressing the roots of violence involving youth. And while your focus is very much on police-community relations, we are convinced that many of the same challenges exist in the other parts of the youth criminal justice system.

Because of the urgency of the situation, we recommend three specific actions that the government should take this fall. As mentioned under “The Education System” above, it should move quickly to develop ways to collect race-based data. It should provide the funds for community-based youth-police liaison committees, and it should begin front-line officer training programs to improve the way police relate to youth.

We also recommend that all ministries and other public sector agencies be required to develop and publish specific anti-racism plans with measurable objectives and timelines. Police services would be included in this requirement.

Recognizing that there are problems within the youth criminal justice system that go beyond police conduct, we recommend that the Province establish a Youth Justice Advisory Board for the three ministries — Attorney General, Community Safety and Correctional Services and Children and Youth Services — that are responsible for the youth criminal justice system. This new board would work to improve coordination among the ministries and provide a more balanced approach to funding across prevention, enforcement, diversion, prosecution and rehabilitation.

Finally, we believe the Province should also take steps to reduce the over-criminalization of Ontario youth when compared to other large jurisdictions. In part, this would mean developing more and better alternatives, including diversion programs and youth justice committees, at all stages of the justice process.

Support for Families

The importance of improving support for families in disadvantaged neighbourhoods was a recurring theme not only of our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions, but also from many of the service providers and community agencies that are now struggling to provide that support.

One issue that we view as especially urgent concerns children’s mental health services, which at the moment are woefully under-funded, under-staffed and disjointed. We need to overcome the stigma that keeps far too many parents from seeking help for themselves and their children, and we have to be sure that when they do seek help, it is available and accessible in the community.

We have been told that the cost of implementing community-based, universal youth mental health services is estimated at $200 million. Given the potential savings in future health costs from early diagnosis and treatment, and the savings to the youth correctional system, we feel this is a reasonable, necessary investment.

Support to families also means support to neighbourhoods. Therefore, we recommend paying more attention to providing high-quality services, recreational and arts facilities, parks, and schools, and making the neighbourhoods safe. Improving the quality of life and the options available close to home will, we believe, have a positive impact on family life.

We are also sensitive to the plight of single parent families, and the difficulties one parent has when trying to hold onto more than one job and at the same time provide effective guidance for children. We believe our recommendations to improve the status of youth workers and to provide better training and support for mentors will help. The government should work with communities and agencies to assist every child to have access to at least one adult who provides nurturing and support.

Within our communities, there are groups that not only suffer the deprivations of poverty and racism, but also must cope with being strangers in a new environment. Support for all families must be local, integrated and culturally specific, but it is especially important that the Province have programs that connect new settlers to community structures and supports.

Youth Engagement

During our consultations and especially our visits to neighbourhoods, we were impressed by the contributions that youth themselves were making to their communities. Youth are not simply the consumers of services; they are often the most effective providers through any number of youth-led groups. They have every right to expect to be engaged when decisions are made that affect their futures.

All too often, however, youth are shut out of positions that would give them their rightful voice. Understandably, after repeated rejections, they come to believe that they are not welcome around the decision-making tables, and they stop asking. Ironically, at that point, the adult world accuses them of being “disengaged.”

We feel it is vitally important that youth be re-engaged at all levels of the community, and we recommend including youth representatives as full partners in the various structures that we have recommended. We recognize that most will not have had an opportunity to participate in such forums; that is where the youth worker or mentor will be an invaluable advisor, helping them to become responsible members and leaders in their communities.

As a start, we recommend youth be involved in decisions concerning such things as the location, facilities and programs offered at the proposed community hubs, and at least one youth-led organization should be funded in each disadvantaged neighbourhood to address issues of violence involving youth. We also recommend that all sectors working with youth, for example in mentoring programs, adopt meaningful and sustained measures to include youth in their governance structures.

The work of the review benefited greatly from having youth lead our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions. We doubt that we would have received the depth and breadth of advice without their hard work and dedication. We also recognize that the Grassroots Youth Collaborative, youth-led and youth-inspired, provided us with some valuable insights that we would not have otherwise obtained. The government and all other organizations should welcome such contributions as they move ahead with their youth strategies.

Other Advice

The recommendations and advice outlined above deal with ways of repairing damage that has been done over many years. When implemented, we believe it will provide the kinds of social supports that can help reduce violence involving youth by creating stronger, more vital and more resilient communities. But what of the present?

We believe the Province must complement prevention with interventions designed to treat and reintegrate those youth who have already committed acts of violence, or who indicate they are likely to do so. As our literature review demonstrated, there is a multitude of programs that have been proven, through high-quality evaluations, to work in similar contexts. These should form the basis of Ontario’s intervention strategy.

We also recommend that the Ontario government continue to press the federal government to enact a ban on handguns and, on its own, explore every possible means at its disposal to minimize the risks presented by these weapons.

Finally, while we recognize that the federal government has primary responsibility in matters relating to First Nations, we recommend that the Province open a dialogue with First Nations leaders to determine if our recommendations might apply to their communities. We also recommend that the Province take steps to provide more meaningful programs and support for children from First Nations communities who must leave their homes to attend high school in urban centres.

Chapter 6: What’s Next

As we said in our introduction, this volume of our report honours the commitment we made to communities that gave so generously of their time to participate in our consultations. We hope this document demonstrates that we listened to what you told us, and that you can see your influence at work in our analysis and recommendations.

Many people were disappointed that we couldn’t visit more communities. We understand that, but feel we made the best use of the time available to us. More importantly, our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions have provided a model for consultation that other communities could follow on their own. The concept of relatively informal discussions followed by a meeting of representatives from a broad range of organizations, most certainly including youth, led to many useful connections that were not there before. We know of at least one community where our meeting resulted in agreement among participants to continue getting together on a monthly basis. We hope other communities will follow that lead.

We also hope that this report will be useful to you as you continue the good work that is going on in so many parts of the province. Perhaps one of the community stories in Chapter 4 will start you thinking or inspire you to try something similar in your community, or perhaps just getting together to talk about these issues will prove to be a catalyst for community development.

For our part, we will continue to be advocates for the recommendations we are making to the Premier. Both of us have been involved in such issues for most of our careers, and we have no intention of changing now. We believe Ontario is at a crossroads, and that only a change in policy and program direction and in the way the government organizes itself to achieve and sustain programs, as described in our recommendations, can take us down the right road and prevent more generations of suffering and hardship.

We thank you all for your trust in us and for your invaluable contributions to this report.

Appendix: The Roots of Youth Violence – Online Survey


To give all Ontarians the opportunity of contributing to our review, we conducted an online survey regarding the roots of violence involving youth. The survey asked respondents to indicate how strongly they agreed or disagreed with 32 statements concerning violence involving youth. It also provided opportunities for respondents to offer their own comments. The survey is reproduced in an appendix to Volume 1 of the report.

We received a total of 5,395 responses from across the province. The results are very similar to what we heard at our Neighbourhood Insight Sessions and are close to the results obtained in professionally conducted academic surveys. Many of the comments pointed us to additional areas for consideration and offered concrete suggestions for tackling these challenges. We were very pleased that so many people responded to the survey. It demonstrates the keen interest that many Ontarians have in the issue of violence involving youth.

Because the study is not based on a random sample of residents, we cannot conclude that the results are representative of the province’s entire population. Nearly two-thirds of our respondents were from the Greater Toronto Area and four per cent were from Northern Ontario. Some 80 per cent indicated that they hold qualifications from a university or college, including 24 per cent with graduate or professional training. Finally, 55 per cent of respondents were at least 37 years old.

Respondents’ Positions

1. Youth violence is a complex issue with multiple, interrelated roots.

Respondents were asked to indicate their degree of agreement with 11 possible roots of violence involving youth. Although the majority of responses somewhat or strongly agreed that systemic challenges such as poverty and racism are roots of violence, more personal issues such as the lack of a positive role model at home or the lack of employment opportunities were considered almost as important. As this chart indicates, there was a strikingly consistent level of agreement regarding most of the suggested roots.

Per cent of Respondents Who Aggree That Specific Listed Factors Contribute to Youth Violence
Per cent of Respondents Who Aggree That Specific Listed Factors Contribute to Youth Violence

The open-ended response section further demonstrated that the causes of violence involving youth are complex. The comments mentioned most often are shown in the following table.

Key Themes
Individual Family School and Community Society at Large
  • Mental health issues
  • Feelings of depression, alienation, insecurity
  • Belief amongst youth that they are trapped in their circumstances
  • Desensitization to violence
  • Prevalence of single-parent households (particularly single mothers)
  • Inability of parents to properly supervise their children due to work-related time constraints
  • Lack of discipline or instilled values in young people
  • General shortage of affordable, accessible youth programming
  • Lack of sustained funding for community programs
  • Poor urban design and transportation, resulting in isolated communities
  • Lack of positive community role models
  • Breakdowns within the school system, particularly the inflexibility of the Safe Schools Act in dealing with at-risk youth
  • Entrenched, spatially concentrated poverty
  • Lack of economic opportunities for youth
  • Institutionalized racism within all levels of education, justice and community services
  • Failure of governments to consider youth perspectives in formulating policy
  • Glorification of violence in the media

Beyond referring to these roots time and again, many of the respondents explicitly warned the review against oversimplifying the issue. Said one:

“I just want to stress that it is a combination, a converging of the above-noted factors which make up the root causes of youth violence. It would be a great mistake to take the stance that there is just one or two discrete causes. They are intermingled, interrelated, and inseparable.”
2. Social factors are at the root of violence involving youth.

Most of those responding to the online survey believe that social factors — including poverty and racism — are at the roots of youth violence. For example, the top five causes that respondents somewhat or strongly agreed were the roots of violence involving youth were poverty (88 per cent), no positive role model at home (86 per cent), pressure to join gangs (85 per cent), inadequate housing (84 per cent) and racism (83 per cent).

The trend to emphasize social factors over enforcement and punishment was consistent throughout the survey. When presented with a series of questions concerning specific actions that might be taken to reduce violence involving youth, 71 per cent somewhat or strongly agreed that youth violence could be reduced through more frequent police visits to schools and 62 per cent somewhat or strongly agreed that police officers should refer young people to social programs instead of arresting them.

When compared to social factors, significantly fewer respondents (67 per cent) somewhat or strongly agreed that youth violence is caused by too lenient laws and even fewer (57 per cent) somewhat or strongly agreed that governments should pass tougher laws regarding young offenders. Similarly, while 66 per cent somewhat or strongly agreed that too lenient sentencing of convicted offenders is a root of violence involving youth, just 52 per cent somewhat or strongly agreed that such violence would be reduced by courts handing down longer sentences.

Interestingly, only 33 per cent believed that governments should raise taxes to pay for stricter law enforcement, including more police officers, more courts and more prisons.

In the words of one respondent:

“More police, more prisons, more punitive measures are not the answer to reducing youth crime or gang activity. . . . [R]eactive strategies feed the problem, while positive interventions such as mentoring, working with young people in a wide range of activities, sports, recreation, arts, internships, camping, programs that teach life skills, all provide opportunities for youth to acquire a greater sense of hope and a feeling of self-worth and empowerment.”
3. Programs for youth need to be greatly expanded.

Respondents to our survey clearly indicated that community and youth programs need substantial improvement. Just 38 per cent of respondents somewhat or strongly agreed that current programs are helping at-risk youth and making their communities safer, while only half knew of any non-governmental programs (e.g. United Way, faith-based programs) offered to youth in the community.

Similarly, while 54 per cent somewhat or strongly agreed that youths have sufficient educational opportunities, less than 40 per cent somewhat or strongly agreed that youth have enough employment or recreational opportunities. Finally, only one-third of respondents somewhat or strongly agreed that youth are benefiting from programs designed to prevent violence.

These concerns were also evident in the comments of respondents. Many claimed that there were simply no programs available for their children, while others cited the high cost of youth programs for low-income families. The need to make community programs “cool” for at-risk youth was frequently emphasized, as was the importance of communicating the existence of available programs within marginalized communities.

4. There are many important steps to be taken that could help eliminate violence involving youth. . . .

Respondents endorsed a wide variety of possible solutions to reduce violence involving youth. A full 86 per cent somewhat or strongly agreed that governments should create employment and educational opportunities, and many of the open-ended responses suggested that a strong and inclusive education system is a precondition for reaching that goal. For many respondents, ensuring full access within marginalized communities to educational and employment opportunities was the single most pressing requirement.

There was a similarly broad consensus that Ontario’s families require greater levels of support. Common suggestions on this front included increasing the availability of day-care and after-school programs, expanding health and mental health interventions within marginalized communities, and ensuring that community programs are accessible and affordable to all. Many also proposed expanding the availability of parenting courses within Ontario’s secondary schools and strengthening anti-violence initiatives aimed at children aged 6–12. In addition, it was frequently asserted that having a positive role model or mentor could prevent many youth from engaging in violence. Accordingly, a number of respondents urged further development and support of mentoring programs. In the words of one respondent:

“Young people need to be supported by healthy communities, where there are chances for inter-generational dialogue, where neighbours know each other and where they feel people care about what they do.”
5. ...but above all else, Ontario requires systemic change through greater collaboration among stakeholders, greater consistency by funders, and greater participation and input from youth themselves.

Although the examples above indicate the wide range of proposed measures, our respondents concurred on one point: stakeholders must show courage and long-term vision by taking action to tackle the systemic roots of violence involving youth head-on. Instead of “band-aid” solutions to the challenges faced, our respondents demanded effective and coordinated interventions to openly confront core issues such as poverty, racism and social exclusion.

Without diminishing the importance of localized action, the comments told us that Ontario must develop a comprehensive youth framework, one that brings together many different actors and programs to achieve the best possible outcomes. To illustrate why such a strategic vision is necessary, our respondents often highlighted the shortcomings of Ontario’s current approach. Many responses contained personal experiences with duplicated efforts or gaps in service, and expressed frustration at the apparent lack of collaboration between families, communities and governments. Further, it is felt that the precariousness of government funding has left many community organizations unable to fulfil their potential. One respondent said:

“There must be more integration and cooperation between and among government funding programs and program delivery groups. Society cannot afford to fund groups competing with one another to deliver splintered objectives and needs. Groups with a strong track record of working well with youth should be given long-term funding contracts so they can focus on program delivery.”

Still others discussed the lack of youth participation in formulating youth-related policies.

Only 36 per cent somewhat or strongly agreed that youth have a meaningful role in designing their communities programs, leading one respondent to suggest that Ontario:

“...introduce a quarterly youth forum within communities, where youth are able to come in and discuss issues that they are deeply concerned about, issues that are making them vulnerable.”

Taken together, this vision for fundamental change is best summed up by the following comment:

“All of us — the policy-makers, the teachers, the police officers and the youth themselves — we need to start looking at the bigger picture. We simply cannot afford to waste another day talking the talk without walking the walk. By working together at all levels to tackle the ROOTS of youth violence (and not the symptoms), we can make this province safe and inclusive for the generations to come. The real question now is not how we are going to do this, but rather, how in good conscience could we not?”

3 Prof. David Hulchanski of the University of Toronto, in a brief to the review, pointed out that Toronto’s neighbourhoods are increasingly segregated on the basis of socio-economic status, skin colour and housing tenure. In a 2007 Research Bulletin, he pointed out that in areas of the city where average household income has fallen by 20 per cent or more in each census for the last 30 years, 43 per cent of residents are Black, Chinese or South Asian, while these groups make up only 10 per cent of neighbourhoods where income is increasing by 20 per cent or more. You can access this report (Hulchanski, 41) at

4 This refers to a report published by FYI in 2003, entitled Exploring Empowering Education for Marginalized Youth in Toronto. To obtain a copy of the report, contact FYI at

5 “Saving Public Access to Community Space Everywhere” The Coalition’s mission states: “We believe that community use of schools is a cornerstone to healthy communities and neighbourhoods. We want to ensure maximized community use of schools space across Ontario through affordable, equitable and consistent access.”

6 Ministry of Education news release, Feb. 5, 2008

7 While we support the GYC’s right to express its opinion on this matter, we believe the call to close the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre is misguided. While we believe the criminal justice system has only a marginal general deterrent effect on the commission of crime in society, and that prevention and social programs are much more important, we accept the reality that for some youth, as for some adults, incarceration is necessary. Furthermore, many of the GYC’s objections to the facility are based on misconceptions. The Brampton youth centre, with living units in small pods, a less formal setting, appropriately trained staff and a wide range of programs, will offer youth a much better opportunity for rehabilitation than other youth correctional facilities, and families of youth housed there will be provided with transportation to and from the facility. We conveyed our views to the GYC in a letter dated April 3, 2008.

8 The Cabinet Office is the Premier’s ministry. It provides administrative support to the Office of the Premier and provides the Premier and his Cabinet with advice and analysis to help the government achieve its priorities.


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews