Review of the Roots of Youth Violence:
Community Perspectives Report

Volume 3: Section 3: Rooted in Action:

A Youth-Led Report on Our Demands and Plans to Address

the Root Causes of Violence in Our Communities

Grassroots Youth Collaborative

Written by:
Alpha Abebe &Craig Fortier
with the support of youth and staff of the Grassroots Youth Collaborative

The Grassroots Youth Collaborative

The Grassroots Youth Collaborative (GYC) was formed in May 2004 to advocate for policies that empower young people to have a voice and contribute to their communities. We are a collective of culturally and racially diverse youth-led organizations working in underserved, lower-income, racialized, and marginalized communities where violence, especially youth violence, is regularly in the media spotlight. The programs our members deliver reach out and engage young people who are typically missed by more mainstream youth programming.

As of the date of publication, GYC consists of 11 member organizations: 4Unity Media Arts Association (4Unity), Beatz to Da Streetz, Canadian-Tamil Youth Development Centre(CANTYD),For Youth Initiative(FYI), Phase 1 Step Team, Rathburn Area Youth (RAY), Regent Park Focus, The REMIX Project, Schools Without Borders (SWB), the Somali Youth Association of Toronto (SOYAT) and the Young Diplomats Ethiopian Youth Development Group.

GYC is committed to building the capacity of young people in the City of Toronto, and also to developing solutions to problems and barriers in our communities. Our collaborative emerged in 2004 when youth-led organizations were struggling to maintain services and programs after close to a decade of severe cuts to funding for social service agencies. The cuts affected many of the large mainstream organizations, and they became more reliant on project funding rather than core funding. But grassroots youth-led organizations were hit harder, and many were teetering on the brink of extinction.

GYC came together to break the isolation and social/ cultural/political barriers preventing young people from taking control of their own communities and lives. The GYC focuses on three broad fields of work: (1) resource-sharing and capacity-building for youth-led organizations in the City of Toronto; (2) fundraising for youth-led organizations in the City of Toronto; and (3) advocacy, research and action in addressing social issues facing youth in our communities.

From the Roots Up!

In March 2006, the GYC held a two-day forum: “From the Roots Up! A Youth-Led Forum on Building Safe &Healthy Communities.” The forum brought out 250 youth from the racialized and marginalized communities in which we work and live to discuss tangible and concrete policy demands to improve the quality of life in our communities. It led to a report and documentary that outlined the root issues facing youth in the GTA and the responses and policy recommendations they put forward to all levels of government.

The following are some key recommendations that came out of this process:

GYC presented the recommendations to a delegation of 50 representatives of various levels of government on April 3, 2006. Since then, GYC has continued to work towards the implementation of all the recommendations in the report on the forum.

The Review of the Roots of Youth Violence Secretariat

In October 2007, GYC and staff members of the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence Secretariat began to discuss how the two parties could collaborate in compiling research and putting forward the perspectives of the GYC membership and participants in a meaningful way that addressed root issues of violence in our communities.

Weary of the lack of action following the From the Roots Up! process in 2006, many GYC members were apprehensive about once again engaging in any research process that was consultative but not action-oriented in the best interests of the community. In our discussions, GYC members cited numerous examples of government inaction on commissioned reports (i.e., the 1996 Royal Commission on Aboriginal Peoples; the 2006 Meffe Inquest Report). They wanted to ensure that any work dedicated to supporting the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence and its report would have positive, action-oriented implications and impacts in our communities.

After serious discussion and assurances by the staff at the Secretariat that Co-Chairs Roy McMurtry and Alvin Curling were committed to addressing the social issues that impact our communities, GYC agreed to propose a project to the Secretariat. Our project would enable us to conduct research, mobilize community members and put forward to the Government of Ontario a clear plan of action to address the serious social issues facing our communities.

GYC presented its proposal in November 2007, and the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence Secretariat accepted it after limited discussion. It was to have three main components:

1) Document the Experience

  1. Scan what youth-led organizations have published or released on underlying causes contributing to youth violence.
  2. Collaborate with concurrent research projects.

2) Conduct Community Educationals on Barriers and Solutions

  1. Work with communities and neighbourhoods to contribute a thick analysis of the issues at the root of violence in our communities and the tangible solutions young people are putting forward to address them.
  2. Get feedback on the accuracy and relevance of our data collection and local/international research.
  3. Explore who is saying what about what the roots of violence are, and begin to map proposed solutions.

3) Develop Recommendations

  1. Develop recommendations that flow from the research, in the following areas:
    1. Youth-led strategies for building safe and healthy communities
    2. Supporting youth-led initiatives and community-based work
    3. Creating structural changes that will improve the conditions that impact violence in our communities
  2. Present recommendations from the perspectives of diverse youth in the City of Toronto. To ensure that they are action oriented, provide immediate, middle-term, and long-term strategies, and simple evaluative measures, in the recommendations.

The Research Process

After submitting the proposal, GYC representatives met with Roy McMurtry and Alvin Curling, Co-Chairs of the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence, to discuss the research and to push for a process that is inclusive, transparent and serious about action.

Mr. McMurtry emphasized that the process of conducting the research would be the legacy of this work. In other words, the means by which we begin to address the issues at the root of violence in our communities is as important as the goals we seek to achieve. The GYC has consistently placed an emphasis on process in our work in communities, and we are encouraged by Mr. McMurtry’s acknowledgement of its importance.

The following section sets out some key process issues that GYC identified as important to conducting research with racialized and marginalized youth, and to our experiences as part of the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence. It is meant to contribute important reflections with respect to our experiences as staff and participants in youth-led organizations within this study. In the interest of truly making the process itself the legacy of this research, we must highlight the importance of creating an open and public discourse and a culture of respect in the collaboration between directly affected communities and government research studies in developing and implementing social policy legislation.

Timelines and Context

The work of the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence must be understood within the context of the social and political climate in which it emerged. Reacting to the shooting death of Jordan Manners in the spring of 2007, the Ontario government and the federal government proceeded to implement reactionary policies that sought to address a perceived “increase in violent crimes” among youth in the City of Toronto through a “tough on crime” agenda:

Most recently, the federal Conservative government has passed Bill C-2, which they call the “violent crimes act.” The Act will impose more stringent bail conditions, minimum jail sentences for young offenders, and harsher sentences for gun-related crimes, drunk driving, etc. This omnibus bill passed with little or no public debate and no year-long research studies that could prove the effectiveness of such measures (measures that have become antiquated and discredited in many US states).

To counterbalance this “tough on crime” agenda, Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty sought to conduct research on policies that would target the root issues of youth violence. Funding of $15 million (for three years) for the “Youth Challenge Fund” was announced, and the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence Secretariat was created.

The “root causes” (i.e., poverty, displacement, racism, racial profiling, Eurocentric education curricula, lack of affordable housing, lack of meaningful employment or opportunities), identified for decades by social justice advocates, community members and grassroots organizations, have been largely ignored or exacerbated by government policies (particularly since the Mike Harris era). They have not been addressed with the urgency with which the government sought to invest hundreds of millions of dollars in the prison industrial complex.

Thus, a comprehensive plan of action for addressing these root issues should include the multitude of research, reports and studies that grassroots organizations have released over the last decade. With time constraints and limited resources, these small community-based organizations have made hundreds of important and timely contributions to addressing issues that impact the wellbeing of their communities, with little or no interest from most government agencies. Moreover, there has been even less interest in coordinated and comprehensive implementation strategies, organized among all three levels of government, to address some of the most critical social issues underlying the roots of violence in our communities.

The timeline to complete the work of the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence was one year. However, the time given to GYC (following the signing of the contract) was less than 12 weeks. Although our collaborative felt that it was important to contribute to this research initiative, time constraints significantly impacted the breadth and inclusiveness of both the process and the research. GYC would have liked to have been given more time to undertake this research and to provide input on matters of policy, not just during a reactionary political period, but throughout long-term social policy planning initiatives.

Transparency and Trust

GYC is a strong advocate for transparency and openness within community consultation and research processes. We feel that, too often, governments have tended to obfuscate, bureaucratize and drive research to ensure that the results reflect the political ideology of the government in power. This lack of transparency can manifest itself in many tangible ways:

The Review of the Roots of Youth Violence Secretariat attempted to address some of these issues of transparency and trust in our initial meetings. They contacted GYC early in the process and stayed in fairly consistent communication with our staff and membership throughout the process. The secretariat also funded GYC’s research contribution. The work the staff did to get an in-depth understanding of the issues facing the communities they were seeking to research should not be overlooked, despite the significant time constraints and the lack of funding to conduct a comprehensive study that would truly and more broadly encompass issues impacting youth in Ontario.

Although this work by secretariat staff helped to build a working relationship with GYC, there were obvious issues of transparency and trust breached by the McMurtry-Curling research, which had a direct impact on our ability as a collaborative to conduct meaningful research and to trust that our work and the words of our program participants would be taken seriously by the government and by the Co-Chairs who would present this research.

First and foremost was our view that of one of the Co-Chairs of this study, former Chief Justice of Ontario Roy McMurtry, lacked impartiality because he gave the Government of Ontario permission, in July 2007, to name after him the youth superjail under construction in Brampton. The building of the Roy McMurtry Youth Centre, a 192-bed secure custody facility for youth prisoners, contradicts the recommendations of the Meffe Inquest, which resulted in the closing of the Toronto Youth Assessment Centre (TYAC) after the suicide death of David Meffe in 2002. What concerns GYC most about this link between the youth superjail and Mr. McMurtry is that the construction of the jail directly contradicts a clear recommendation in the Meffe Inquest. This gives us cause to worry about whether recommendations arising from this research process would be disregarded in the same way.

Second, while staff at the secretariat were genuinely concerned and interested in seeking the ideas and experiences of racialized and marginalized youth in the study, they had not built long-term trusting relationships within the communities in which they sought to conduct research. The process to make tangible long-term change in our communities must include a long-term commitment from government staff to support and work with communities, on a consistent basis, to identify the issues they face.

Clear Mandate, Collaboration and Action

Historically, youth-led organizations have seen little action on the implementation of recommendations and policy initiatives brought forward by community members. Although there has been no shortage of consultations and forums and research, there has been little action by governments (federal, provincial or municipal) that shows a clear mandate and a strong commitment to work with communities to implement policy that would have a positive and long-term impact.

This lack of action is in sharp contrast with the reactionary and swift actions that often follow a public shooting or a crime involving youth of colour. Specifically, increased budgets for police forces, “guns and gangs” task forces, and the construction of the Roy McMurtry youth superjail were all implemented without broad community consultation or supporting research, and (in the case of the superjail) contrary to existing research and recommendations coming from a public inquest. The volatile and contradictory nature of youth justice legislation has led to a lack of community trust that government will act to implement long-term sustainable policy directives that would help to address some of the most crippling root social issues facing racialized and marginalized communities in Ontario.

This report and the documentaries and community action forums that resulted from the research process seek to directly challenge the Government of Ontario and all political parties in Ontario to adopt policy legislation that is long-term, sustainable and community-driven. We are also writing this report directly to fellow members of our communities as a call to action to ensure the implementation of these policy demands happens promptly, effectively and with participation from our communities.

Alternative Thoughts, Alternative Action ’08 and Beyond

Fresh Voices

“I am often amazed at the passion, tenacity and professionalism displayed by my peers. The greatest revolutions were driven by young people and I believe the only thing necessary in order to see the same type of widespread change in our communities is a conscious process of political education — where young people begin to see their private issues as public ones and shift their gaze from their immediate surroundings to the communities that they belong to”

Alpha Abebe, Young Diplomats
Strategizing Minds Participant

This “report” on the roots of the violence that youth face is far from a report in the conventional sense. GYC was invited to take part in this review to provide the review with a perspective straight from the youth in our communities. However, we decided to opt out of the well-worn method of organizing youth focus groups and distilling their voices into a report. We felt that this approach would be both irresponsible and unethical at this stage. Almost all of the individual organizations within GYC, as well as the collaborative itself (see Youth on Youth and From the Roots Up!), have initiated or have received funding to commission similar reports before. To return to these same youth and ask that they reiterate their experiences and frustrations when the recommendations from previous reports have not been implemented, would betray our community-oriented philosophy. Feminist methodological literature, which drives many of our organization’s practices, has identified similar ethical concerns in its critique of Western research in the Global South. It has been described as “‘pillage of raw data for export’ akin to colonial powers’ exploitation of the Third World’s material resources” (Miraftab, 2004: 596).

This document has brought together excerpts from previous reports from grassroots youth organizations, whose content and recommendations are just as relevant in today’s context as they were when they were written. We have also included notes from “Strategizing Minds: Alternative Thoughts, Alternative Action ’08 and Beyond.” This event was held on January 26, 2008, as part of this review, to bring together youth organizers from marginalized and racialized communities in Toronto for a day of collaboration and strategizing. Structuring this forum as a strategizing meeting rather than a focus group was part of our attempt at making this process just as important as the outcome. The event brought together a number of young people, from a wide variety of organizations, all of whom are amazing social entrepreneurs and community organizers who had identified and begun to address the roots of the violence that youth face long before this report was commissioned. The result was an important meeting that yielded great strategies for how our communities can continue to tackle the issues that directly impact violence and oppression in our communities, and how the various levels of government must join in this effort by addressing the policies identified as hindering this process.

Through our community work and contacts, we identified four general categories of issues that contribute to the violence affecting our communities in the City of Toronto. These categories are not comprehensive, but they attest to the experiences and realities facing youth participants, the staff of GYC member organizations and our peers in the city with respect to four broad categories: 1) education; 2) criminalization; 3) economics and opportunity; and 4) space. The breakout sessions at the Strategizing Minds forum were organized around these categories, as are the following sections of this document. Each section begins with relevant quotes, taken directly from the Strategizing Minds forum, which speak to each issue. The section discusses how the issue is a core contributor to the violence youth face in Toronto and outlines specific policies or lack of action that serve to perpetuate the problem. As a collaborative of motivated, capable youth organizers, we feel that it is important to always meet grievances with a plan of action. Thus, we have included examples of how communities have already begun to organize around these issues, both in the report and in the Grassroots Action sections. Additionally, this report will end with a set of demands. We challenge the Government of Ontario to implement them in a timely and effective manner, and to show their serious intention to act on the work of the study they commissioned one year ago.


Brazilian theorist Paolo Freire wrote in his 1970 book, The Pedagogy of the Oppressed, that “[e]ducation either functions as an instrument which is used to facilitate integration of the Younger generation into the logic of the present system and bring about conformity or it becomes the practice of freedom, the means by which men and women deal critically and creatively with reality and discover how to participate in the transformation of their world” (Freire, 1970). The Ontario curriculum has long been an instrument to suppress and dismiss the contributions and work of marginalized and racialized communities. A history of racism, Residential Schools and a Eurocentric curriculum continues to permeate today’s more “multicultural” education system.

Strategizing Minds

“The education that we all have has taught us to think in bubbles — like Black History Month. The history of African people is also North Ameri- can and South American history!”

Strategizing Minds Participant, 2008

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.

In 2003, the For Youth Initiative (FYI) published a report entitled Exploring Empowering Education for Marginalized Youth In Toronto after receiving funding from the federal Department f Justice’s National Crime Prevention Strategy Program. FYI is a youth-led GYC member organization that uses popular culture to bring critical theory and Social systemic change to the streets of the former City of York, North Etobicoke and West Toronto. Since this organization attempts to provide capacity-building opportunities to youth through education, training and other forms of engagement, the findings from their study are particularly relevant to this report. Further, considering that the National Crime Prevention Strategy Program, the principle funder of FYI’s study, has a mandate to approach crime prevention through a focus on the root causes of crime, the findings and recommendations put forward by FYI should be seriously considered in the report of the Review of the Roots of Youth Violence. The FYI report is briefly discussed below. To obtain a full copy, please contact

Fresh Voices

“The United Way report ‘Poverty by Postal Code’ named 13 neighbourhoods in Toronto as priorities of special fo-cus - 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.”

Amanda Parris,
Co-Founder of Lost Lyrics
Strategizing Minds Participant

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 report includes a critical literature review, as well as the results of their qualitative study that included five focus groups and 15 in-depth interviews with educators and youth from various backgrounds in Toronto. 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.” (FYI, 2003: 13-14) These sentiments were most poignant when expressed by youth who had prematurely left the education system.

In the super-industrialized service economy of Canada, it is well known that access to the job market is highly regulated by the mainstream educational system. The core issues in education relating to the violence that youth face are access to education, discrimination within the educational system, a Eurocentric and colonial curriculum, and limited alternative educational strategies and programs. Most of the young people implicated in youth violence have had encounters with or are still within the Canadian educational system. The policies, curricula and attitudes that shape their experiences have a lot to do with why many youth are either unsuccessful or no longer within this system. Although it has become common knowledge that those who are pushed out or who drop out of high school are vulnerable to economic and social insecurity, and that this can often lead them into situations of violence, there has been a shortage of critical assessment of all the institutions implicated in this situation.

For example, in 2004 The Learning Partnership, a national organization that conducts research and develops policy alternatives for the Canadian education system, came out with a report entitled The Quality of Public Education in Canada: Students At Risk. This report used data from the Child Poverty Rate, the Dropout Rate, and the Vulnerability Index to assess what they saw as the key factors that put students “at risk” of being unsuccessful. They listed the four key factors as poverty, a child’s natural development, parental influence, and the neighbourhood (Levin &Peacock, 2004). Here we see an example of the common unwillingness to challenge the educational system head on in order to hold it responsible for the ways in which it creates the environment of insecurity invoked by its own discourse on “risk.”

Fresh Voices

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

Ian Kamau,
Schools Without Borders
Strategizing Minds Participant

For the purposes of this report, we felt it necessary to contextualize the various issues with regard to the policies, programs and institutions that relate to them. This is an overt attempt to avoid the possibility that these issues will be seen as philosophical ones. Rather, we wish to contribute to a widespread political education that would enable young people to see their private issues in very public ways. A lot of the disillusionment that young people express towards school has to do with their inability to relate to the material taught. In their report, FYI refers to the document Removing the Margins: The Challenges and Possibilities of Inclusive Schooling (from the Canadian Scholars’ Press), which states that “understanding curriculum as the ‘whole environment’ and culture within which schooling takes place, means that representation in education is achieved through creating a sense of presence for all students in school” (FYI, 2003: 9). Thus, it is not so much a matter of building more “inclusion” into the education system (i.e., trying to add more cultures to a primarily white, Eurocentric, male-dominated curriculum), but rather, what is required is a “re-centering” of curriculum within a model that values the histories and struggles of indigenous people, racialized communities, women, queer communities, disabled communities, and other poor and/or marginalized communities.

Although Black History Month is a wonderful opportunity to celebrate and remember the contributions and struggles of Black people in North America, there has been no serious attempt at making the entire Ontario curriculum representative of and appreciative of the histories and knowledge of indigenous, poor, racialized and marginalized communities in Canada in a way that reflects and values the students in our schools. As one contributor at the Strategizing Minds forum said, “We are not the only ones that need to learn our history, but white people need to learn about it too because they are also implicated in it.” Ian Kamau, another participant of Strategizing Minds added to this:

Our entire education system is built on a European structure, with European ideas and a European concept. And that wouldn’t even be okay if was only European’s or people of European descent sitting in those classes. It is made even worse given the fact that our schools are so diverse and there are people from different cultures, religions, geographical locations, and economic settings. It should be a natural thing that the full reality of the world would be taught as history >— but not just history, also things that happen in a contemporary context so kids have an education where they learn about the whole world not just one part of the world — I don’t think that is unreasonable... When they do talk about Black history they just speak about slavery, which is only a particular part of the black experience for a specific group of Black people. Or when they teach about the First Nations they only talk about residential schools — but there are so many other major experiences and contexts that we don’t spend more than a day or page in the curriculum on.

Ian Kamau, as well as many other contributors at the Strategizing Minds forum, explained how these issues with the curriculum have deep-seated implications and are well overdue for serious consideration.

In 2006, GYC received funding from Justice Canada to organize From the Roots Up!, a forum on building safe and healthy communities. One of the recommendations from the forum’s report was that Ontario’s Ministry of Education revamp the current high school and grade school curriculum. This recommendation came out of concerns with the current curriculum as expressed by the youth at the forum. One of them said, “It makes you think... why is it that we receive 11 months of European history... no months of indigenous history and only one month of the histories of the many people who helped to build this country?” (GYC, 2006: 12) Even with more recent prospect of building a Black-focused school in Toronto, the issue of a Eurocentric and colonial curriculum remains at the forefront of preventing education from being more relevant, accessible, honest and empowering to all youth in Canada. However, discrimination in the school system is not confined to the curriculum. Marginalized youth are encountering barriers to education through educational policies such as differential streaming and the Safe Schools Act.

Streaming has increasingly become an issue in limiting the opportunities for higher education among racialized and marginalized youth. FYI’s report 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’” (FYI, 2003: 34). Many of the experiences of youth in GYC member organizations validate this finding. For example, the outreach workers from Young Diplomats, a youth-led organization that runs a mentorship program for Ethiopian youth in Toronto, often have to do “damage control” and intensive mentoring with youth in their community whom educators have discouraged from proceeding in the education system.

The Safe Schools Act (SSA) is another policy that has been the target of criticism from youth, parents, community workers and even educators since its introduction in 2000. The criticism stems from the fact that the SSA sets the terms for mandatory expulsion and suspension and from the widespread evidence showing that it is predominantly Black and Aboriginal youth who suffer the brunt of this policy. While many amendments have been made to the Act since 2000, the most recent being the changes taking effect on February 1, 2008, policy-makers have ignored the call to repeal the whole Act and put provisions in place “to actually make schools safer places” (GYC, 2006: 22). At a Scarborough community forum organized to discuss the recent revisions to the SSA, a lawyer from the African Canadian Legal Clinic urged the group not to be too quick to celebrate the changes made to the SSA. She reminded everyone that the Act was not simply changed because the school board felt it needed to be — the Act was changed because Black students and their parents were filing human rights complaints against the school board. She explained that, many times, a student’s reaction, which subsequently warranted disciplinary action, was actually the result of low teacher expectation and racial harassment in the school. Further, the overall language of the SSA very much supports the stereotype of “the troublemaker,” which is highly racialized. In an attempt to correct discriminatory policy, and ultimately to get at the roots of the violence that youth face, policy-makers must stop making surface changes to policies that are inherently damaging, like the SSA.

Lost Lyrics: Alternative Education through Hip Hop

Lost Lyrics is an alternative education after-school program that uses Hip Hop culture as a way of defining who we are and expressing a knowledge of self. This eight-month program provides an encouraging atmosphere, using relevant mentors and facilitators who work with youth ages 11-14 in the Jane/Finch and Malvern neighbourhoods. The goal of Lost Lyrics is to get youth to critically analyze the world around them and utilize this new lens through creative arts such as rhyming, film, photography, beats production and more.

Alpha Abebe, Young Diplomats
Strategizing Minds Participant


Rather than discuss criminality with regard to youth violence, which would suggest that the root cause is within the youth him/herself, we have chosen to discuss criminalization instead. The culture of criminalization implicates not only the criminal justice system, but also every other institution that structures our society. Criminalization is the manifestation of prejudice, fear and oppression, and it shapes the way certain people are monitored and subsequently treated. In some senses, criminalization does not belong in a report about the roots of youth violence, as it often is a precursor, setting the terms for what is viewed as violence and who is chosen to be seen as perpetrating this violence. That being said, we felt it critical to bring this issue to the fore in our report in an attempt to challenge policy-makers to recognize how young people are being marginalized in very real and damaging ways.

Strategizing Minds

The thing on my head don’t mean adamn thang
People think a do-rag means you gang bang
And it’s kind of funny how y’all stare
When really I’m just a kid who wants waves in his hair.

“Do-Rag” was performed at the forum by local artist TWest — also a social entrepreneur from
Lawrence Heights/Jungle

The issues raised by the criminalization working group at the Strategizing Minds forum were quite varied. The contributors found it difficult to discuss criminalization without discussing opportunity — and found it hard to discuss opportunity without outlining the lack thereof. The barriers and challenges relating to criminalization included housing, employment, racism, homophobia/heterosexism, political agendas, wrongful spending, policing culture, criminalizing legislation, and hypocrisy. One of the contributors described the problem broadly as “political and economic structures that keep certain people in positions so they may stay in power, and creates barriers for others to influence or gain power.” There was an overall consensus that certain groups, neighbourhoods and schools were the target of excluding and criminalizing practices. However, there was also the acknowledgment that part of criminalization is the social contexts, which push young people into anti-social and violent situations that subsequently lead them to encounters with disciplinary institutions.The reality is that young people are growing up in environments that are structured by barriers to accessing conventional means of economic and social sustenance.

From: Strategizing Minds: Alternative Thought, Alternative Action

What is Criminalization?

Policing focused on existing biases and prejudices

  • There are no less drugs in some high schools than others, however, certain schools are perceived as having more or being more problematic

Negative police focus

  1. Who gets arrested/targeted is affected by greater police presence in certain neighbourhoods

Classism influencing judgement of justice

  1. An ‘industry of criminalization’: The response towards ‘summer/year of the gun’ was $55 million towards a policing task force, $100 million to-wards a youth super jail, and only $15 million towards youth programme funding

There seems to be unwillingness, however, to look at the institutions that contribute to such environments, and, instead, a preference for criminalizing those who must live in these environments. GYC has previously raised concerns over certain terminology, like “at-risk youth” and “youth violence,” which demonstrate the tendency to locate the problem in the individual rather than the context. (See Youth on Youth: Grassroots Youth Collaborative on Youth Led Organizing in the City of Toronto for discussion.)

Scot Wortley, a leading criminologist at the University of Toronto, has been at the forefront of exposing the racialized practices of criminal justice workers in Canada. His work has also shown that this does not stem from some conspiracy within the system, but rather reflects deep-seated prejudices running through the whole fabric of our society. On October 19, 2002, the Toronto Star began publishing a series of articles on race and crime. Their analysis revealed that Blacks in Toronto are highly overrepresented in certain charge categories, and that this is consistent with the allegation that Toronto police engage in racial profiling. Their rather modest account of the issue has been substantiated by a wealth of evidence, both in the academic sphere, by scholars like Scot Wortley, and by grassroots accounts. In response to the Toronto Star series, the Toronto police led a campaign of denial, spearheaded by then-Police Chief Julian Fantino, who declared that, “[w]e do not do racial profiling .... There is no racism ... We don’t look at, nor do we consider race or ethnicity, or any of that, as factors of how we dispose of cases, or individuals, or how we treat individuals” (Wortley &Tanner, 2003: 368). Canadian criminologists have published numerous accounts that demonstrate otherwise, including quantitative analyses of diversion, charge, and sentencing data, as well as qualitative accounts from hundreds of diverse Toronto youth whose personal experiences with the police speak volumes against Fantino’s claim (e.g., Ruck &Wortley, 2002; Wortley &Tanner, 2003; Tator, 2006; Wortley, 2006).

The Neglected is a song written by two budding young rap artists from Toronto, Abel Shimeles and Rosie Marfo. This song was written and recorded specifically for GYC’s documentary on the roots of youth violence as part of this project. The powerful lyrics of this song demonstrate that young Canadians are very conscious of the institutional forms of racism and criminalization in their communities, despite the fact that many of the authority figures in these very institutions refuse to recognize it themselves. The following lyrics from the second verse in The Neglected speak to the ways in which Black youth are stereotyped, how these perceptions stifle their ambitions and dreams, and how these young people often find ways to be resilient nonetheless.

I’m the neglected, constantly tested. The government he want me arrested, society’s minds are infected. By the bullshit that is taught through institutions that me and u invest in .... Too many blacks living in a stereotype. That was put on them from the beginning constantly sinning. For what, corruption within our own race. Like a race with no prize to chase it doesn’t make sense. Hence why I spit bout this. I see through system like lens on the other side of the fence. When expression is answered with neglecting. It usually leads to violent ways to show aggression. Anger builds with depression. But God’s been there for me with protection. That’s why I count all my blessings.

Regent Park Focus Youth Media Arts Centre is a non-for-profit GYC member organization that is youth-driven and committed to exploring issues and developing resources that sustain healthy communities and address systemic barriers to equitable social participation. This centre was established in 1989 and has been an innovative leader in engaging youth through youth-led media productions.

Fresh Voices

GYC: Youth on Youth (2005: 25)

“My problem is with the basic assumption implied by terms of narrowing it down. I personally think that there are a lot of institutional barriers that prevent young people in general from participating fully in society. This whole category of at-risk is a way of not facing those barriers... not facing barriers of institutional racism, not facing barrier of poverty, not facing barriers relating to housing ... those are the real issues. The at-risk terminology hides those issues because they say, we can’t face these systemic barriers, we only want to focus on programming to those youth in the community who are unable to cope with the barriers that we put up — youth who react to those barriers in ways that are destructive to themselves and to others.”

Adonis Huggins,
Regent Park Focus

Regent Park TV (RPTV) is an Internet broadcast station, run by the youth at the centre, which airs interviews, debates, short dramas, documentaries, news shows, public service announcements (PSAs) and Super8 films — all of which provide a forum for local youth to voice their experiences, share their stories and explore issues that affect them and their community. (Please visit or for more information.)

Fresh Voices

RPTV: Police and Youth Relations Part II

“...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.”

Regent Park youth resident

“ 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.”

Regent Park youth resident

RPTV: Police and Youth Relations Part III

“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 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.”

Regent Park youth resident

RPTV ran a youth-directed three-part PSA series on Police and Youth Relations, in which youth explored issues of racial profiling, police harassment and police corruption through interviews, personal narrative and drama. The short videos (found in the website’s archives) included young people’s real life negative experiences with Toronto police. They also included some very innovative solutions to the problem, which came from the youth themselves. In response to the problem that youth have with police harassing them in their neighbourhoods, one PSA suggested that “during their patrols police should build better relations with young people by informing them about job opportunities, programs and services” (RPTV: Police and Youth Relations Part II). Another PSA suggested that “the government should set up an independent police complaint process and all complaints should be investigated thoroughly” (RPTV: Police and Youth Relations Part III).

Toronto Youth election poster: Prevention or Detention?  Bullets or Basketball?

This suggestion was echoed at the Strategizing Minds forum, where contributors stressed the need to “police the police” with an independent police monitoring system. Another relevant recommendation, previously made to Justice Canada by GYC, was the need to “support community based safety initiatives that are independent of the Toronto Police Services or any other branch of enforcement” (GYC, 2006: 18). As demonstrated in the decision to build a $100 million youth superjail rather than invest those dollars into youth programming, politicians and justice workers have shown that their responses to youth crime have been politically rather than socially motivated. The meaningful inclusion and committed support of community-based approaches to safety would be a much-needed step in the other direction, and would do much more to alleviate the violence that youth face than any other law-and-order approach.

Grassroots Action

No One is Illegal (Toronto) is a group of immigrants, refugees and allies who fight for the rights of all migrants to live with dignity and respect. Some of their demands include an end to detentions and deportations; an end to racial or religious profiling; and recognition of indigenous sovereignty. They were the force behind TDSB’s 2007 decision to adopt a Don’t Ask Don’t Tell Policy in Toronto schools — preventing schools from asking for, reporting or sharing information about a student’s immigration status, therefore providing all youth access to education without fear.

Economics & Opportunity

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

Strategizing Minds

“There are brilliant young people who are inspired by our organizations but are not met with support from the outside world. These are people I would hire in my own company to be my second hand but instead are working at Tim Horton’s.”

Strategizing Minds Participant, 2008

At the Strategizing Minds forum, the economics and opportunity working group engaged in a lively discussion about the related challenges and barriers that youth in Toronto face. Many of the institutional barriers that put youth in compromising social circumstances also threaten the organizations that are dedicated to empowering and engaging them. Policy responses aimed at creating more opportunities for marginalized youth — economic or otherwise — must be coupled with sustained support for the organizations and groups that best relate to the lives and culture of these young people. Mario Murray (a.k.a. TheVoyce) was an organizer of Strategizing Minds. He is also the Workshop Facilitator and Operations Coordinator for Beatz to Da Streetz, a GYC member organization that runs an innovative arts program aimed at empowering and opening up opportunities for professional mentorship, education and generation for homeless and underserved youth in Toronto. As part of the economics and opportunity working group in Strategizing Minds, Mario noted that “in the world, money keeps moving, all we have to do is have some move through our organizations so our youth don’t always have to flip burgers but can get some real experience and skills from our administrative, coordinating and arts heavy work.”

We have separated this report into the categories of education, criminalization, economics and opportunity, and space for the purpose of convenience, but it is important to note that none of these issues are mutually exclusive. Rather, all of these issues feed into each other in fundamental ways. It is impossible to discuss economics and opportunity without highlighting the effect that a lack of education has on getting a job, the near impossibility of gaining sustainable employment with a criminal record, and how a lack of community space to run youth programming impedes organizations from providing critical life and social skills to marginalized youth. Nowhere do so many social determinants intersect as sharply as they do with homeless or street-involved youth. In 2004, the Toronto Youth Cabinet published a report on youth homelessness, Catch Us Before We Fall, based on a two-part forum on shelter and housing issues. Their report challenged policy-makers to appreciate the ways in which mental health, substance abuse, education policies, and social welfare systems all contribute to the precarious living conditions of so many young Torontonians. This is yet another example that demonstrates the need to take a multi-faceted approach to youth development.

Fresh Voices

TYC: Catch Us Before We Fall (2004: 7)

Education and training:

  • Homeless youth face numerous barriers of entry while enrolling in schools or other formal educational institutions, including internships and apprenticeships, further depriving them of their right to education.
  • Homeless youth also face barriers of entry to employment enrichment programs.
  • Homeless youth with mental illness and/or substance use issues lack adequately-focused support systems like harm reduction programs.
  • Zero-tolerance in Safe Schools policies and legislation place at-risk youth in increasingly harmful situations, through suspensions and expulsions without productive activity and supports during these times.


  • Homeless youth surviving on social assistance have trouble finding jobs that pay a living wage. Whether they work or only receive social assistance, they currently receive virtually the same amount of money. Regular youth employment centres do not help youth with substance abuse issues.
  • Complex barriers exist which prevent homeless youth with mental health and/or substance use issues from obtaining employment.

Report on Youth Homelessness

In 2006, the Somali Youth Association of Toronto (SOYAT), a youth-led GYC member organization, partnered with the Toronto Training Board to publish a report that helps elucidate this problem. Towards an Integrated Strategy: Maximizing use of local resources is a report on best practices and barriers to the use of North Etobicoke employment services by Somali youth. SOYAT spoke with employment agency staff, Somali parents, and Somali youth to understand why so few Somali youth used the employment agencies in North Etobicoke. (To obtain a full copy of SOYAT’s report, please contact

SOYAT found that 82% of Somali youth surveyed had never taken part in any employment training program or service, which was consistent with the initial impetus for the study. The next step was an analysis of what the barriers were for Somali youth in accessing these services.

Although “many agency staff emphasized personal barriers such as single mother households, lack of role models, and parental shielding of children from the job market ... the youth stressed institutional and systemic barriers such as racism, ageism, and institutional bias” (SOYAT, 2006: 5). There were also very practical concerns that reflected the shortcomings of the programs that do exist. For example, when asked to rank in order of importance the most common barriers affecting their ability or willingness to use employment services, transportation was by far the number one barrier cited by Somali youth who had never visited an employment agency. “They said they needed transportation or bus tickets when looking for jobs or starting work and these are not supplied by any of the agencies. The youth noted that many of their families are on social assistance”. (16). While some youth faced very practical barriers, others who had been through such agencies explained how their experiences with discrimination in the agency, the workplace, and during the hiring process have made them disillusioned with such programs.

The inadequacy of many employment agencies and programs for youth is compounded by the reality that many of these young people are in dire economic situations. Young Diplomats (YD), a youth-led GYC member organization that works with Ethiopian youth in Toronto, conducted a community-based research project commissioned by the UN University for Peace in 2006. In Youth Perspectives: Challenges to peacebuilding and development in the Ethiopian community, YD presented their findings from their surveys and focus groups with over 175 Ethiopian youth from the GTA.

Fresh Voices

SOYAT: Towards an Integrated Strategy (2006: 17)

“When it comes to the agency, I have friend, she doesn’t wear hijab or any-thing, she’s not even a Muslim, but me and her are registered with the same agency, and we both have the same qualifications. With these agencies, you sit at home until they call you and find you a job. She keeps getting these calls about jobs and telling me about it, while I’m not getting any calls. And I have to call them and tell them to tell me about the job, and that’s how I found it.”

Somali youth participant

Youth were asked to describe their biggest challenges and problems in their day-to-day lives without any pre-selected options for their answers. Of the nine general categories under which their responses fell, the category of “finding a job/money problems” elicited the most responses, with 25.5% of the youth citing it as a primary concern (YD, 2006: 35). Through the questionnaires and focus groups, YD found that youth repeatedly stated that they lacked positive role models and, as a result, they “resorted to non-constructive activities; were ill-informed about educational opportunities; had difficulty identifying resources in the community; and suffered economic constraints” (41). As this research was participatory and action-oriented, YD recommended that a comprehensive mentorship program be implemented for these youth, which would encompass social, academic, and professional streams. This resulted in a highly successful program, which YD implemented with funding from The Youth Challenge Fund and Toronto Community Housing. (To obtain a full copy of YD’s report, please contact

Fresh Voices

GYC: Youth on Youth (2005: 50)

“I think [high turnover of projects and staff] affects young people around their housing because there are young people here who have rent to pay....There is an assumption around that youth are not living on their own and are thus not relying on a job like this [and] when they lose that support in a lot of ways they go backwards....They have to take a meaningless job at McDonald’s which is not giving them the skills to get into school to make it to the next stage.”

Adonis Huggins, Regent Park Focus

Grassroots organizations can be utilized not only in helping youth find employment opportunities, but also as a source of employment. The funding provided for and generated by such organizations creates opportunities to hire young people to run programs, and also to find ways to pay youth through the programming activities and outputs. In GYC’s report Youth on Youth, Gavin Sheppard from IC Visions (now the REMIX project) explained that there was a great benefit to what is described as “social entrepreneurial ventures” — something that deviates slightly from the non-profit norm.

The same GYC report also highlighted the importance of paying appropriate wages to the youth who work in these grassroots non-profit sectors. For many of them, it is their only source of income and they demonstrate their entitlement to adequate and sustainable wages through their excellent work. Overall, support has to be coming from all directions: youth need more meaningful employment; relevant and equitable employment agencies must be established; grassroots organizations need sustainable funding; and there must be commitment to providing all youth with full access to opportunities after they do receive training and skills development. As with everything else presented in this report, there is a need to direct policies and dollars in more relevant and community-oriented ways.

Grassroots Action

The Remix Project

The Remix Project is a youth-led arts program driven by young people aspiring to start careers in the urban arts sector. This program acts as a bridge to employment, education, and mentorship by supporting youth’s skills and aspirations in fields as vast as radio, music, film and television, animation and web design, graphic design, creative writing, and photography, and creating opportunities for professional and creative development in these sectors.


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 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.

Strategizing Minds

“There is an article written by a group of paediatricians ... what they said was that until it’s a white child that gets hurt there is no human view on it; they don’t really see it as a social problem that needs therapy, they see it as a criminal thing. So when we go and ask for space, they ask — Space for what? For drug dealers, for hiding criminals? Although they use the idea of multiculturalism to sell Toronto, they haven’t really adopted it themselves. When we talk about space, they don’t understand that it is not theirs — it’s not their space to give — it’s all of our space.”

Strategizing Minds Participant, 2008

The For Youth Initiative (FYI) has been at the forefront of a movement that has been lobbying for more access to youth-friendly space for grassroots organizations. As an agency serving the former City of York, they have been frustrated by an overall lack of community space made accessible to organizations, like their own, that work with youth from racialized and marginalized communities and yet have so little space in which to do their work.

With funding from the Trillium Foundation, FYI partnered with urbanArts in 2005 to conduct a study that was primarily an investigation of space and asset mapping in the former City of York (Wards 11 and 12). Meetings and interviews with service providers, youth, and stakeholders during their study brought out some critical issues relating to space and program scarcity for youth in Wards 11 and 12 — but also raised critical awareness around general issues surrounding youth space in Toronto.

Accessing public space was also an important theme that surfaced from discussions with GYC members back in 2005, as documented in the collaborative’s report Youth on Youth. Cutty Duncan from Rathburn Area Youth (RAY) described the difficulties in achieving his organizational mission and mandate because of a lack of space: “We pretty much serve all of Central Etobicoke .... it’s a big area [we’re supposed to service] and there is not an agency here... So the space that you see downstairs is the only space that we have for community space, so we can’t even promote it and stuff because then we would have too many people here...and we just don’t have the space and facilities” (GYC, 2005: 45). GYC members chronicled the many institutional barriers they faced in their attempts to secure adequate and safe spaces to run youth recreational programming. The bureaucracy that community organizations must go through in their attempts at securing space for youth programming is highly unnecessary — not to mention counterproductive.

Fresh Voices

FYI: Thinking About Tomorrow’s Space Today (2005: ii)

Space Issues:

  • The need for opening up school space
  • Inadequacies of existing space
  • Limited time availabilities and location of space
  • The monopolization of space by longstanding permit-holders
  • The lack of space specific for youth that is “youth-friendly”
  • The “political minefield” behind advocating for and securing community space
  • The sub-standard conditions of current facilities. (FYI, 2005: iii)

Youth Recreational Programming in the Former City of York

Vathany Uthayasundaram, the former Program Coordinator at Canadian Tamil Youth Development Centre (CANTYD), a youth-led GYC member organization, described the “drawn out and oft unsuccessful bureaucratic process” that her staff go through, just to get space for a basketball drop-in: “Even in trying to run a basketball drop in we have to run around asking all the community centres for a gym... some [of which] are prebooked a year ahead of time....And then there’s funding for permits....There is a whole process you have to go through.... You call a certain department and then you fill out an application and then take it to another department ... but you don’t have that time...and are often unsuccessful, and youth don’t understand the process.... We have money issues, space issues, permit issues!” (GYC, 2005: 45). Staff are usually underpaid and overworked, and the tasks involved in simply securing space often take valuable physical and human resources out of the organization’s programming.

Some of the reluctance to open up existing municipal space to grassroots organizations is shaped by fiscal concerns (e.g., paying janitors to stay after hours). However, participants at a recreational forum held in 2002 by the Laidlaw Foundation have quite successfully argued that the gains of supporting enhanced recreational programs and infrastructure (even if they are only calculated in numbers) can easily outweigh the costs: “Investment in recreational opportunities for youth pays for itself. In the short term, low-income families who have access to recreational services leave social assistance in greater numbers and reduce their need for a broad range of social and health services. Over the longer term, recreational opportunities for youth result in stronger school attendance and achievement records and higher academic, social and interpersonal competence, and is a strong predictor for success in higher education and subsequent careers” (Cited in FYI, 2005: 9).

Contributors in the working group organized around space at the Strategizing Minds forum also conveyed a similar optimism relating to the impact that such opening of community space can have. They explained that many youth have a “geographic connection” to their neighbourhoods but lack a “real connection to the issues that the community faces.” Extending full access to community resources could begin to seriously change this — as youth would see themselves as full members of their communities, and their physical access would translate to civic access that could begin to mobilize youth around the issues that affect their communities. Andrea Zammit, the current co-coordinator of GYC and former Program Director of the For Youth Initiative, further explained the importance of opening up youth-friendly space during Strategizing Minds:

Having worked in many of Toronto’s underserved/ 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 and to access social-recreational programming. Community Centres and programs run by mainstream social service providers that have facilities are not “youth-friendly” or accessible to youth, particularly Black youth.

Fresh Voices

FYI: Thinking About Tomorrow’s Space Today (2005: 25)

“If we mobilize the people in our community, we can raise the voices loud enough to say you know what, we pay tax dollars like everyone else. We’re not begging. We’re asking for what is rightfully ours”

Youth Voice, FYI

The last report published by GYC, From the Roots Up!, included a recommendation to the City of Toronto to increase the use of facilities and space for youth-led programming. It is promising to see that there have been incremental steps towards this goal; the most recent being the announcement that Ontario will increase its investment in the Community Use of Schools program to $66 million over the next four years. The February 5, 2008 news release from the Office of the Premier stated that the new funding will:

At the time of writing this report, this still remains a promise, and only time will reveal the authenticity of this promise. Since the writing of FYI’s report Thinking About Tomorrow’s Space Today in 2005, the City has also agreed to look into building a community centre in their ward — the only one in the city without one. There are still problems with the City’s proposed plan, as it would still include barriers to access for low-income residents. And, like the provincial news release, it remains political rhetoric until it is implemented on the ground. Regent Park Focus Youth Media Centre is another organization that has been put in a precarious situation because of city redevelopment and lofty support from governmental agencies. As Adonis Huggins of Regent Park Focus explained, the centre was granted space in the new Regent Park redevelopment; however, it has been made clear to them that they will no longer get this space in kind, and TCHC and the City will have to recover the market rent for it. At Strategizing Minds, he commented that “[t]he question is why is the City abdicating their responsibility to build social infrastructure in stressed neighbourhoods and why does TCHC and the City feel that it can no longer be a partner in the provision of social capital in neighbourhoods that are owned by the TCHC/City? Part of their rationale is lack of investment from the Feds as they are too busy building SuperJails yet they (TCHC) have no problems investing in security cameras, which if diverted could be spent building a neighbourhood center in every public housing area in the city.”

As one of the contributors at the Strategizing Minds forum expressed, we are “not arguing that a community centre is the answer.” All the issues outlined in this report warrant responses that translate into capital gains, but they also warrant responses committed to engaging youth at all stages of developing these gains. As the Strategizing Minds forum and all of the texts cited in this report demonstrate, young people are qualified and entitled to be consulted and included beyond token positions in decision-making processes. Youth violence is not an issue — it is a symptom. By resurrecting some of the many reports that have been published by grassroots organizations relating to these symptoms, the “findings” of this report reflect hundreds of voices, over several years, across numerous communities in the City of Toronto. Anyone who is honest about their desire to reduce the violence that youth face — whether they are city residents, community workers, policy-makers, or youth themselves will take steps at addressing its roots, many of which have been outlined here.

Grassroots Action

Somali Youth Association of Toronto (SOYAT) is a non-profit youth-based community organization, serving Somali youth in Toronto since 1992. The organization places itself as a conduit of access for Somali youth, and also collaborates with stakeholders to innovate appropriate services for Somali youth, children, and other marginalized youth in their community. While there are a number of community, recreational, and employment centres in the North Etobicoke area that Somali youth have tended not to utilize, SOYAT’s space has proven to be youth-friendly and culturally relevant, and as such, their centre and programs are highly utilized and effective.


Since its inception, the GYC has been asked and encouraged to make recommendations to governments; some examples include deputations to the municipal government, the Police Services Board and the Toronto District School Board (on multiple occasions). GYC has also attended and spoken on panels at municipal and provincial forums on “gun violence” and at the federally funded From the Roots Up! forum. We have seen little or no changes in policies from these government bodies.

Violence is a direct result of oppression and internalized oppression, which requires governments to first acknowledge the colonization and genocidal policies against indigenous nations and land, systemic racism, poverty, ableism, ageism, sexism, heterosexism, etc., and it is not until then that governments can begin to create effective policies and programs that will have a meaningful impact on communities where high levels of violent incidents occur. Many of the young people that we work with have no trust in public institutions. After much encouragement from governments to participate in public processes, and a failure on their part to make much needed systemic changes to reduce violence in communities where many members live and work, GYC has recognized the need to create and sustain our own structures.


1) Repeal The Safe Schools Act

Safe schools are not schools in which racialized youth, queer youth, or differently abled youth are targeted for suspensions and expulsions. Rather, they are a place where students, teachers and parents work together with staff and administration to build a safe and open educational environment for all students.

The Safe Schools Act pushes students (particularly racialized students) out of the education system and criminalizes them. We believe that this Act has done more damage to our schools by minimizing the relationship of trust and education between teachers/principals and students and supplanted it with a relationship of authoritarianism and control.

We do not feel that the reforms presented on February 1, 2008 actually address the serious issues brought forward by the Ontario Human Rights Commission, including:

We have no confidence that the reforms presented by the government will legitimately address the issues noted above. Instead, we call for a complete repeal of this regressive legislation and a process of consultation with students, families and communities on developing school governance policies that are truly meant to make schools a safe and meaningful learning environment.

2) New Ontario Education Curriculum

The Ontario Education Curriculum isolates students, creates silos and streams that limit a student’s ability to grow and is not adaptive to the multiplicity of issues, needs and educational goals of Ontario’s students. This inevitably leads to an extremely high push-out rate amongst indigenous and racialized youth in our communities. The new curriculum and standardized testing implemented by the Harris Conservatives in the mid/late 1990s has had a significant negative impact on developing learning environments that are adaptive and supportive of the diversity of cultures, learning styles and needs of students in Ontario.

The curriculum in Ontario is meant to align with the interests of the corporate sector, which requires an exploitable, docile and expendable workforce to maintain the profits in its industries. This leads to issues of streaming, Eurocentric academic curriculum, and labelling of students as “troublemakers,” rather than addressing some of the root issues that cause students to rebel against or to lose hope in the current education system.

The Ontario curriculum should be redeveloped to include a diverse, integrated and honest account of history and society that is reflected within all courses (not just history or social sciences).

The Ontario curriculum should be redeveloped in collaboration with students, parents and other organizations that have done a number of studies and proposed numerous improvements. Education is not simply about training someone to get a job, but also about building the whole robustness of experience that shapes a young person’s life.

We believe that it is incumbent on the Government of Ontario to ensure that Ontario’s education system reflects not just a history that shows Canada as a peace-keeping, multicultural, utopian society, but rather is one that is honest about Canada’s ongoing genocide of indigenous nations, the slavery of African peoples, the exploitation of migrant labour and the multitude of challenges and oppressions being fought by ordinary people.

Education should be flexible and adaptive to the needs of students and should be focused on building solutions with the community (not simply the next-generation workforce).

3) Make Post-secondary Education Accessible

While admissions to post-secondary institutions in Ontario may be on the rise, the cost and the process for admission has become more limiting. The astronomical increase in tuition fees in Ontario since the early 1990s has left more students in debt or tied to employment opportunities that simply allow them to pay their student debt.

Education is a right. It should not be restricted to those who have the means to pay for it! We demand a drastic reduction in tuition fees immediately! This must be coupled with the reintroduction of a system of grants and scholarships that reduce a student’s reliance on debt to finance their education and with a university environment free from corporate interference.

We also demand that being on social assistance not hinder the ability to receive funding to go on to post-secondary education, and call on the Ontario government to end the practice of disallowing people living on welfare from obtaining loans from the Ontario Student Assistance Program (OSAP).


1) Repeal The Safe Streets Act

The Safe Streets Act is a social cleansing bill that aims to criminalize and attack the most poor and vulnerable people in our city. Particularly offensive is the way it targets poor and homeless youth, and its impact on their ability to obtain jobs and social services that would address some of the root issues that they face on the street.

With a ban on “aggressive panhandling,” and no definition of what constitutes “aggressive,” poor, homeless and marginalized youth are often targeted and harassed by police officers for occupying public space in the downtown core. We believe the Safe Streets Act actually makes the streets more dangerous for poor and homeless youth and can lead to significant abuses of power by police officers and security guards.

We call on the Ontario government to legislate an immediate repeal of this repressive piece of legislation and to actually address issues that cause people to be on the street in the first place, including: inadequate supply of affordable housing; lack of funding for emergency support services for homeless or under-housed people; lack of strong legislation to protect tenants (the Tenant Protection Act primarily serves to protect landlords).

2) Stop The Construction Of The Roy Mcmurtry Youth Superjail

The rate of incarceration of young people in Ontario is significantly higher than in most jurisdictions in Europe and even some in the United States. It is clear that indigenous and Black youth are statistically overrepresented in the prison system, and particularly in the youth prison system. Most youth offenders continue to be non-violent offenders, yet the Ontario government’s and the mainstream media’s framing of violent crimes involving youth in Toronto as “the Summer of the Gun,” and stigmatizing poor and racialized communities as “violent” or “dangerous,” has created a sense of panic within our communities and has resulted in increased targeting of Black youth by police.

The Youth Criminal Justice Act (YCJA) that came into effect in 2003 attempted to redress some gross injustices that were apparent in the Young Offenders Act that preceded it. One such issue was the logical step to minimize the rate of incarceration of young people and to provide young people with alternatives to incarceration. We believe that Bill C-2, the federal government’s “Anti-Violent Crime Legislation,” is a direct attack on the progress that was fought for and won by our communities in the YCJA, and will undoubtedly result in increased incarceration of young people and further disparities with regard to the incarceration rate of young people.

In 2004, after a coroner’s inquest into the suicide death of David Meffe at the Toronto Youth Assessment Centre (TYAC), the report from the inquest made a clear statement that large closed-custody youth prisons were counterproductive, overly punitive and not likely to facilitate support for the youth incarcerated.

Specifically, the Meffe inquest report called for:


Location of New Toronto Youth Detention Facilities - New Facilities for the custody and detention of youth in Toronto (replacing TYAC) to be constructed as smaller stand alone facilities located throughout the GTA. Potentially, have one location for each of the major cities (Scarborough, North York, Toronto, Etobicoke, etc).


This would reinforce the Ministry’s commitment to a philosophy of family and community involvement in treating and managing youth in custody and detention, as well as compliance to the “United Nations Convention on the Rights of the Child”. This would also acknowledge the fundamental difference in support needs between adults and youth. This recommendation is aligned to the research and expert witness testimony submitted on managing youth in detention. Multiple small locations will;

• Facilitate critical family access and community support for the youth. • Allow management of youth in smaller groups allowing more one- on-one time to develop custodial relationships and reducing the risk of peer on peer violence.

Instead, the Ontario government has made the decision to continue the construction of the Roy McMurtry Youth “superjail8,” a 192-bed facility that will cost Ontario over $100 million to construct, and which directly contradicts the recommendation for small stand-alone facilities that would bring Ontario in line with the UN Convention on the Rights of the Child. Although youth incarceration rates dropped under the YCJA, we believe that the new federal legislation will inevitably lead to a rise in incarceration of youth, longer sentences and harsher penalties.

We call on the Ontario government to immediately halt construction of the Roy McMurtry superjail, to renovate the uncompleted prison into an actual community centre for youth in Brampton and North Toronto, and to take the recommendations outlined in the Meffe inquest seriously. We do not want more jails in our communities; we do not believe they make our communities safer.

3) Implement An Independent System Of Police Monitoring: Stop Police Brutality And Harassment

For too long, police impunity has been prevalent within Ontario (and particularly Toronto). From the murders of Dudley George, Jeffrey Reodica, Edmond Yu, Alwyal-Nadhir and Byron Debagassie, to the constant harassment, profiling and disrespect of racialized, marginalized and homeless youth in the City of Toronto, we have witnessed some of the most blatant cases of police violence and oppression in our communities. We say: “Enough is Enough!”

We demand that the Ontario government implement a comprehensive and independent police-monitoring and abuse-reporting system that is community controlled and that addresses the serious issues facing community-police relations. We want less talk about community policing and more talk about policing the police! Police officers should respect and be driven by communities, not intimidate, harass and violate them at will.

The Ontario government continues to be reactionary in the face of violent incidents within our communities by hiring more police officers, increasing funding for “guns and gangs” squads and building expensive super jails for youth. We think this is the absolutely wrong approach, and it completely contradicts any work towards addressing the root causes of violence in our communities.

Police complaints should be processed through independent community-run police complaints tribunals in each police division in the city. These community-run police complaints tribunals should have the power to suggest to the Toronto Police Services Board and the Chief of Police the suspension, firing or criminal prosecution/investigation of police officers.

The militarization of our streets, our schools, our youth organizations and community centres through increased police presence only exacerbates the problems, tensions and issues that impact our community. The ballooning police budgets in our cities is a direct affront to those who have fought for more social housing, better funding for schools and youth organizations, and more access to community space.

We demand that the Government of Ontario start taking police violence seriously!

We demand that the Government of Ontario begin to conduct research studies similar to those in the United States, which show that increased enforcement and incarceration have no/little correlation with a decrease in crime rates.

We demand effective and frequent human rights/anti-oppression training for police officers, especially with regard to new policies and procedures (i.e., the “Don’t Ask” policy with respect to undocumented people passed by the Toronto Police Services Board in February 2006).

4) Pass A Provincial “Access Without Fear” Policy to Ensure That Residents of Ontario Without Full Immigration Status Have Access to Essential Services

There are estimates of over 500,000 people living and working in Canada without full immigration status, with more than 80,000 of those people living in the City of Toronto alone. As youth organizations, and in our communities, we work with undocumented people on a regular basis, sometimes as some of the only social services that they can access without fear of being detained or deported.

We are endorsers and supporters of the “Don’t Ask, Don’t Tell” campaign, and demand that the Ontario government support the rights of all those living and working in Ontario without full immigration status to access essential community services like schools, women’s shelters, community centres, youth programs, health services and emergency services, without fear of detention and/or deportation.

Further, we demand that the Government of Ontario use its powers under immigration law to immediately begin implementing a system to grant permanent residency to undocumented workers in Ontario.

Economics and Opportunity

1)Raise the Minimum Wage to a Living Wage

As Ontario continues its transition into a service-based employment economy, many secure, reasonable-pay unionized jobs have been replaced with precarious, part-time, service-based jobs that pay wages well below what one needs to subsist in cities like Toronto.

Youth in this province are convinced and coerced into finding more and more service sector jobs through “job seek” programs and government ads with the express intention of ensuring that the corporate sector has a cheap and exploitable workforce. The lack of employment opportunities that are full-time, non-contractual and pay reasonably continues to fall, and this is not reflected in the “unemployment rate.”

There have been calls for an increase in the minimum wage to $10/hr in Ontario. According to our calculations, even if one is able to find a full-time job (37.5 hrs/wk) at that rate, one would only gross $19,500 per year. We believe that this remains criminally low and does not ensure that someone working at minimum wage can afford to subsist in the City of Toronto. We call on the Ontario government to implement a “living wage” minimum wage of at least $15/hr, plus a cost of living adjustment (COLA) on an annual basis.

2) Youth Self-employment Opportunities

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!

3) 40% Increase in Social Assistance and ODSP Now!

Since the drastic cuts to social assistance and ODSP under the Mike Harris regime, impoverished people in Ontario, and particularly in the City of Toronto, have been living in dire poverty, often having to make decisions around whether to spend money on food or shelter. This is appalling, and the Government of Ontario under Dalton McGuinty have done nothing but a meagre 3% increase in rates to relieve people of the starvation and homelessness that this cut has produced.

The health of young people in Ontario is being significantly compromised by the criminally low rates of social assistance and ODSP. We demand an immediate 40% increase in social assistance to more closely align welfare rates with the subsistence rates prior to the Harris era. While the purchasing power of Ontarians (and particularly those in Toronto) continues to diminish, the government has stepped back, as people are forced to choose between shelter and food for their children, as food bank use hits all-time highs and as jobs become more precarious than ever before.

4) Increase Social Housing and Repair Current Social Housing Stock

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 concerned that the practice of social cleansing, like the gentrification of Regent Park, has been confused with meaningful and real solutions for the housing crisis we are facing. We do not want to be forced out of our homes and communities. Rather, we want the government to step up and start to build and repair social housing that accommodates all those who can no longer afford housing in the City of Toronto.

We support the 1% solution put forward by the Toronto Disaster Relief Committee and other academic and social groups. We believe that housing should be a right for all people living in Ontario, and that the realities of youth homelessness are directly linked to the fact that housing in the City of Toronto is unaffordable. We call on the Ontario government to stop propping up the business of condominium development and speculation (which artificially inflates the cost of rent for all people living in the city) and invest in social housing and repair that makes our communities safer and healthier!

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.

5) Investment in TTC and Transportation

Transportation costs in the City of Toronto continue to skyrocket. Youth and youth organizations who depend on the TTC have been systematically shut out of travel in this city due to the exorbitant costs of transportation. Toronto’s transportation system has been placed in a crisis because of downloading and lack of investment from the federal and provincial governments.

We demand that the Ontario government acknowledge its responsibility to addressing the funding crisis for transportation in the City of Toronto. The $2.75 per trip is higher than almost any other jurisdiction in North America and has created significant issues of isolation and immobility for youth across the city. The Ontario government must invest immediately in both infrastructure and operating expenses for transportation. Moreover, the Ontario government must work directly with the federal government and the City of Toronto to lower the cost of fares, improve the infrastructure of the TTC, and invest in the future of public transportation throughout the province.

6) Universal Day-care Program

In the current economic context, working parents have little or no affordable options for child care. This lack of affordable options leads to significant economic constraints and missed job opportunities.

We believe that universal child care is a quintessential part of a social system that ensures the full participation of both men and women, single parents and young families. We also must condemn the exploitative practices of the “live-in caregiver” program that uses Filipino and Caribbean women as cheap and exploitable labour. We believe that child care needs to be respected as the important work that it is.

As such, we demand a universal child care program that pays workers fairly and that ensures access and quality child care for all people living in Ontario.


1) Build and Invest in Community Space

There is a significant shortage of accessible and good quality community space, which is needed for youth organizations, small social enterprises, community groups and neighbourhoods. Most city-controlled space lacks in accessibility, and many neighbourhoods in Toronto lack any kind of community centre. Spaces in low-income neighbourhoods do exist within Toronto Community Housing, the school system and in mainstream organizations, and while the racialized youth within these communities could benefit the most from this space, they find it the least accessible.

We demand that the Government of Ontario invest in a fund that directly supports the building of community centres that would be controlled, kept up and staffed by community members themselves. We feel it is critical for more youth-led spaces to exist in the city that are creative and that evolve with the changing needs of the community. The physical spaces do exist, but the bureaucracy in accessing such spaces is a massive barrier for youth and youth organizations. Barriers must be removed that prevent access for groups or individual young people who want to run study groups, hold dance practices, basketball games or even start their own drop-ins or after-school programs.

Moreover, we believe that schools are an integral part of building community and demand that all schools be made available for free use by the community after school hours. We also call on the Government of Ontario to put programs in place to help integrate community groups with student groups and build stronger neighbourhoods and spaces of learning.

2) Stop the Privatization of Social Spaces

Increasing privatization of social spaces, like the developments happening at Yonge-Dundas Square, have led to increased policing of social spaces and an increased sense that to be a part of a community, one must be a consumer in it. This type of exclusion of poor people and youth from “legitimate” social spaces has created a culture of supervision and policing that is far more aggressive than ever before. The use of regressive policies like the Safe Streets Act to cleanse these privatized “public” spaces is readily apparent.

Public space creates a hub for communities to engage in positive activities, have an outlet for physical activity, and mobilize as a collective around the issues that matter to them. The proliferation of privatization that we have witnessed in our communities has brought increased policing, bureaucracies and financial exclusion, which renders these spaces inaccessible to many of the people who live in these very communities. We have also seen an increase in public facilities charging general public user fees, and thus these spaces should no longer be called public.

We demand that the Ontario government begin a process and consultation with Ontarians about the use of public space for private and commercial purposes. We want the hypocrisy of commercialized spaces being given the right to poster through out the city, while many poor and marginalized people are being ticketed for simply being on the street, to stop!

3) Develop a Plan to Fund Physical Infrastructure for Youth-led Work

A critical part of building safe and healthy communities is supporting and developing safe and open spaces for young people to develop programs, run workshops and support their communities. This must be done in such a way that youth-led initiatives have the space and resources to effectively take on the work that is needed in their communities. The provincial government should invest in social capital and physical infrastructure in marginalized and racialized communities (as well as in the downtown core) to provide services directed towards youth. These spaces should be youth-centred, and not simply extended to mainstream social service providers.

Community development can only happen if people have the space to congregate, build their communities, and work with each other in collaborative and creative ways. The current context of instability in funding for youth-led initiatives, and being forced to move from space to space, creates insecurity, precariousness, and an inability to maintain long-term programs in particular communities. All of these issues would contribute to the alleviation of violence, poverty and lack of resources in our communities.


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8 We reject the Government of Ontario’s using the term Youth Centre to describe a prison. We think it is an affront to the work of youth centres throughout Ontario that engage in positive and community-based work. This facility, at 192 beds, the largest youth incarceration facility in Ontario is more aptly described as a “super jail.”


Volume 1. Findings, Analysis and Conclusions

Volume 2. Executive Summary

Volume 3. Community Perspectives Report

Volume 4. Research Papers

Volume 5. Literature Reviews