Review of the Roots of Youth Violence: Executive Summary

What are the Roots?

Based on our identification of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth, we go on in our report to outline the major conditions in which those factors grow and flourish within our society. We review how each of the many roots we identify can lead to one or more of the immediate risk factors. Our focus is on the effects, rather than the existence, of these roots.

While we discuss each root separately, many, if not all, of them frequently interconnect and intertwine in ways that create devastating cumulative impacts for far too many of our youth. These interconnections must be recognized in long-range comprehensive strategies to address the roots of the serious violence that confronts us as a society.

We will not attempt in this executive summary to summarize all of what we have said about the various roots. We will, though, provide an outline of some of the most pervasive of them, starting with poverty. We stress that these are roots of the immediate risk factors such as alienation and lack of hope, and are by no means direct gateways to violence involving youth.


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

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

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

High concentrations of people living in poverty, substandard housing, poor community design, limited public services, few stores or businesses, restricted transportation and employment options, few positive role models or mentors, no places for recreation or the arts or just to gather, the barriers that Ontario's own social assistance laws and regulations place in the way of people who want to get ahead through employment or education and the other circumstances flowing from poverty that we discuss in our report all combine to be powerful sources of the roots we have identified.


In 2005, the Supreme Court of Canada stated that “racial prejudice against visible minorities is…notorious and indisputable… [it is] a social fact not capable of reasonable dispute” (R. v Spence, [2005] 3 S.C.R. 458, para 5).

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

Racialized groups are highly diverse, and the manifestations of racism affect them differently. Most encounter subtle and systemic barriers, including “glass ceilings” and other limits on their ability to participate fully in society. Others, in particular Aboriginal people and African-Canadians, continue to also suffer from a seemingly more entrenched and often more virulent form of racism.

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

Our report speaks in terms of racism, not race. Race has nothing to do with violence. No race is inherently more violent than another. There are well-documented circumstances that would produce alienation and the other immediate risk factors in any group, and the sad reality is that in Ontario, a disproportionate number of racialized groups are subjected to those circumstances.

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

The very real potential for this to create the immediate risk factors should not be hard to understand. How can it not erode your self-esteem to feel that, no matter what you do or what you achieve, you can be excluded or undervalued simply because of your race? How can it not be alienating to know that you can be or have often been stopped by the police or followed in a store or denied housing for that same reason? How could your willingness to study and work hard to get ahead not be eroded by a clear sense of having more limited prospects than others, and how could that not reduce your sense of hope?

And, as well, when you look to society’s major institutions for leadership in confronting these insidious realities and find almost no focus on this issue, how can all those feelings not be made more deeply hurtful and exclusionary?

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

Community Design

The conditions of the communities where young people live not only greatly affect the quality of their lives and the opportunities available to them, but also how they perceive themselves, society and their role in it.

Regrettably, right across Ontario, there are many examples of poor planning and poor design of the built and the developed natural environment, creating places that make some youth feel powerless and isolated, leading them to believe that their options are as limited as their horizons. These negative factors include physical and psychological isolation from the broader community; bleak landscapes with no inviting places to gather or play and little usable green space; a lack of adequate and accessible social and physical infrastructure; limited or non-existent transportation services; and unsafe streets, common areas and passageways.

Youth in many neighbourhoods are cut off from the wider community by geography or a lack of access to transit, and for these same reasons find job searches and getting to jobs challenging. The same circumstances leave many parents with little time to parent or engage with their children’s schools or their community.

A major concern of those we met was the lack of anywhere for youth to go. We found neighbourhoods characterized by unwelcoming environments and a disturbing lack of places for youth to gather, play or create. This leaves youth with the greatest need for such facilities with no positive outlet for their energy and time, no space or facilities for creative self-expression and no place that fosters contact with coaches and other positive mentors. When these youth hang around, for lack of anything better to do, they are then often stereotyped and harassed for so doing, further driving their sense of alienation.

There is a similar lack of space for organizations seeking to work with youth, particularly organizations led by youth themselves. This further reduces the number of services and programs available to the youth who need them the most.

Issues in the Education System

Education is universally seen as one of the best ways out of poverty and as a sound investment in the future of individuals, families and communities, and thus in the social fabric of our entire society. Although education is increasingly well-resourced in Ontario, we found that five elements of the system are among the roots of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth. They are the safe schools policies, the curriculum, the approach sometimes taken to guidance and counselling, the composition and training of the teaching force, and criminalization.

The safe schools provisions of the Education Act promoted a policy of “zero tolerance” for “bad” behaviour in schools. Some of that behaviour is indeed serious and requires a strong response. But, under those provisions, many youth have been suspended or expelled from school without a full consideration of their circumstances and without adequate supports to maintain their learning or occupy their time in positive ways. There is a wide consensus in the community that the safe schools provisions have had a disproportionate impact on racialized students, students with disabilities and youth whose parents are not adept or at ease in dealing with teachers and school administrators.

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

Another of the other major concerns about the education system in Ontario is the issue of the curriculum. Previous reports have noted that the curriculum is “largely reflective of European presence, settlement and development of Canada and as such provides little or no incentive for Black Canadians to develop pride in their African heritage” (Four-Level Government/African Canadian Community Working Group, 1992: 78). The same could easily be said about Aboriginal people.

For youth who are developing their identities, this signals that races other than Europeans have not made valuable contributions to the social, cultural and economic development of Canada and the world; they and their families are of lesser importance to society; they can only succeed in certain subjects; and their success and/or achievements may not be recognized. It is clear that students who do not see themselves reflected in the curriculum will experience a lesser degree of attachment to the education system.

Another concern is guidance counsellors who have not been trained to have an in-depth understanding of the complexity of the factors that affect the ethno-racial youth who seek their advice. For many, guidance advice often appears to be given from a perspective of low expectations based on the ethno-racial background of the youth.

Similarly, students, families, communities and advocates have long been struggling with the low expectations some teachers have for racialized students and, in particular, Black students. As well, they have continuously raised the issue of the absence of teachers who have the training to understand the particular nuances and struggles experienced by racialized children, and of the lack of role models for their children. Seeing teachers and administrators from their own race and colour can help youth have the will to succeed and can give them hope in their ability to do so. It can also help students from other backgrounds see these youth more positively.

The last issue is criminalization. Expulsions and suspensions put many youth on the streets for extended periods and lead to more interactions with the police, increasing the potential for criminalization. At the same time, zero-tolerance policies have led many schools to call in the police for activities that would have been addressed by the schools alone in earlier times. This has also led to the increased criminalization of many marginalized youth, with consequences we discuss below.

Family Issues

Most families provide secure and safe places for children to grow and learn. But many do not. Families can be divided, abusive, or struggling emotionally or financially. Some youth have no family. Without the support of a strong family, alienation, low self-esteem, a lack of hope or empathy, impulsivity and other immediate risk factors for involvement with violence can set in and take hold of a young person, especially if the youth is also experiencing other roots of the immediate risk factors, such as poverty, racism or mental illness. A severely troubled home life can have a damaging effect on a youth’s interest in school, ability to learn and interactions with peers and teachers.

As the portrait of the Canadian family continues to change, social programs, policies and structures, often based on the nuclear family model, are failing to serve a growing number of families. Many single parents cope with the daunting task of raising children alone very well, but many need additional support to do so, especially if they are dealing with those additional stresses. When those supports are provided, children can be raised with hope and bright expectations. In the result, it is not the structure of the family, but rather the stresses bearing on the family relationships that can create immediate risk factors for violence involving youth.

An increased presence of fathers, and particularly Black fathers, is often cited as a force for keeping young Black men away from the arena of violence. Yet the experts and individuals we consulted in the course of this review, regardless of their faith, race and sex, expressed the belief that nurturing, encouragement in school, recognition, attention to mental health, respect, opportunity, good housing and sufficient positive reinforcement of race, faith and culture are critically important factors in a youth’s life. Where a father is present, what is important to the outcome is not that presence alone, but the degree of responsibility the father assumes for child-rearing and his participation in imparting positive values.

Youth from immigrant or refugee families are often the most vulnerable to the conditions that can give rise to the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth, including racism and poverty. Parents who are recent immigrants or refugees dealing with urgent settlement problems may not be able to turn their attention to difficulties their children are having in school, or they may be unable to help because they cannot communicate with the teachers or are reticent to engage with authority figures. Schools often lack the capacity to help them adjust or the creative outreach that would make them welcome, and settlement services to assist them are often far short of what is needed.

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

Children and youth in the child protection system often “cross over” to other systems, such as the criminal justice system. We were told that a disproportionate number of youth in the young offender system have been in the care of child welfare authorities in Ontario, and that there is a trajectory from the children’s services sector to the young offender system.


Health plays a role in the development of the immediate risks factors for violence involving youth. Certain health issues are closely linked to some of the other roots that we have already discussed, rather than being roots in themselves. Examples include nutritional deficits, physical inactivity, obesity or eating disorders, which have links to the roots of poverty and urban design. Other health issues, such as mental health and substance abuse, can be viewed as direct roots of the immediate risk factors for violence involving youth, particularly alienation, impulsivity and no sense of belonging.

Mental health is an often-overlooked, but very significant, issue for youth. Of course, the majority of young people who experience mental health issues are not involved in violence, but the consequences for them and their families can be serious.

Across cultures, about one in five Ontario children and youth experience a mental health or behavioural disorder requiring intervention, but we were advised that 80 per cent of them do not receive mental health services or support. This lack of treatment allows the mental health condition to worsen and its effects on the youth (and their alienation, impulsiveness and self-esteem) to grow. It adds pressure and stress to the families of these youth and can lead to the youth disrupting the lives of classmates, friends and peers.

Of particular concern to us is that preschool and younger school-aged children who suffer from mental illness receive the help they need. The earlier the mental health intervention, the higher the chance of a successful outcome.

Lack of a Youth Voice

The sense that many youth already have of being alienated from society is reinforced when they do not have opportunities to be heard in areas that directly and immediately affect their lives. This can lead to a negative concept of self, a greater distrust of authority, a sense of powerlessness and a sense of exclusion from the broader community.

And yet, our experience over the past year was that youth brought many fresh insights and inspired solutions to the issues we were grappling with. In many ways, youth and youth-led organizations are best-positioned to know what will work for other youth. The absence of their voices in many areas of immediate importance to them sends a message of limited opportunity as well as excluding the youth perspective from many decisions.

Lack of Economic Opportunity for Youth

There are many barriers for youth from disadvantaged communities who seek opportunities. These include things as simple as the lack of transportation to get to a job interview and as deeply complex as racism. The experiences of parents being denied the ability to use all of their skills and experiences can also play a devastating role.

Many youth lack role models to inspire them, or people who can help them prepare for an interview or deal with the early weeks on a job site. Others have been conditioned to believe that they have little to offer, or learn all too early that their postal code alone will act as a bar to employment.

Many youth are frustrated and angered by their inability to support themselves or their families. When these and other factors are combined with the high value our society places on economic success and possessions, the consequences for self-esteem and any sense of hope, opportunity or belonging can be serious.

Issues in the Justice System

In our report, we outline our concerns that Ontario’s youth justice system does not have an overall strategy or coherent vision for youth justice in Ontario. Three ministries operate parts of it, with no ministry in charge, no overall policy direction, and no ministry with the mandate to look across the whole system to identify the best ways to allocate the roughly $850 million it spends each year.

There is clearly a lack of strategic thinking about how youth justice can affect the roots of violence involving youth. At present, that system is too often deployed in counterproductive ways. We see this as leading to two ways in which the immediate risk factors for involvement in violence can be created.

The first is through over-criminalization. We, of course, do not take issue with the use of the justice system to address crime. We do, however, raise concerns about excessive reliance on the justice system for minor matters that do not involve violence. Criminalization can cause youth to see themselves as having no other future and can change for the worse the way they are seen by their peers, families, schools and communities. It can severely restrict both their opportunities and their own sense of those opportunities. It can lead directly to criminal associates. It can destroy hope and feed alienation.

We accept that criminal charges are necessary in many instances, but feel that the decision to criminalize should be a strategic one, taken in full awareness of the consequences. Where it is used unwisely, the youth justice system has the potential to create risks for future violence rather than reducing them.

The second issue has to do with interactions between police and youth, primarily but not only minority youth. In many parts of our province, these interactions are characterized by undue aggressiveness. Again, we do not take issue with where and how the police deploy their forces, but with the ways in which some officers use their powers. We do so in the context of deep appreciation for the hard and often-dangerous work police officers perform on our behalf, and respect for the professional way in which most of them carry out their responsibilities.

The second issue has to do with interactions between police and youth, primarily but not only minority youth. In many parts of our province, these interactions are characterized by undue aggressiveness. Again, we do not take issue with where and how the police deploy their forces, but with the ways in which some officers use their powers. We do so in the context of deep appreciation for the hard and often-dangerous work police officers perform on our behalf, and respect for the professional way in which most of them carry out their responsibilities.