Critics and community advocates say the city must move quicker to create safer communities after a long weekend that saw an unusual spike in gun violence across the city.
Despite Mayor John Tory saying Tuesday that the city is doing all it can to address gun violence, some council-approved initiatives have been left unfunded and new proposals to support youth and address root causes have been left on the table.
The spike in gun violence over a 72-hour period this weekend that left 17 people injured in 14 separate incidents comes as the city is experiencing a three-year low when it comes to fatal shootings — there have been 19 this year, compared to 30 by this time last year.
But while experts warn against drawing conclusions from a small amount of data — even just one year compared to another, let alone just a weekend — 17 people injured within a few days is undoubtedly “a pretty big number,” said Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control and professor at Ryerson University.
“We are lucky that the people doing the shooting were not better shooters, but that should not make us complacent in terms of the problem of the proliferation of firearms,” she said in an interview Tuesday.
“Often, whether someone dies or survives is a millimetre difference in where they are hit.”
Among the initiatives critics say was a missed opportunity to address gun violence was a proposal to double the number of city-run youth hubs — safe, dedicated spaces for youth to hang out, do homework and be mentored — which would have put a number of new hubs in the northwest part of the city where many of this weekend’s shootings occurred.
One location, at the Falstaff Community Centre — which city staff said could have been open by the end of next year, if funded — would be just a two minute walk from the Toronto Community Housing complex at 30 Falstaff where 16-year-old Hanad Ali was gunned down Thursday.
Another was proposed for the community centre in Lawrence Heights where there were reports of two people injured in a shooting Monday and another five shootings recorded by police in the last three weeks.
Tory and a majority of councillors voted against funding eight additional youth hubs earlier this year — the first stage of the proposal from Councillor Josh Matlow.
On Tuesday, Tory was asked on CBC’s Metro Morning whether council is doing “absolutely everything” to address gun violence in the city, to which he began his response by saying: “I think so.”
“If you looked at the sort of suite of measures that as a municipal government we have brought forward, we have been voting for just about all the tools that have been talked about,” he said.
When pressed by host Reshmi Nair about voting against a motion to double the number of dedicated spaces for youth at community centres and libraries, Tory attributed such proposals to purely politics.
“What happens at city council is that people will move motions that are almost as designed as much as anything else to embarrass people so that people can then read those votes back,” Tory said.
Matlow, who moved in March 2019 to fund the eight additional youth spaces this year at a cost of $1.4 million — a fraction of the city’s $13.5 billion operating budget — first pushed to build new hubs in 2013 and has been a vocal advocate of them since.
The seminal Roots of Youth Violence report commissioned by the province emphasizes the importance of safe spaces and access to recreation for youth. City staff have backed up the need for such spaces in Toronto, documenting the immense popularity of the city-run sites and their ability to attract young people just by being open.
Matlow included a plan to double the number of spaces in his 2018 platform for re-election as the Toronto—St. Paul’s representative. That idea was assessed by city staff, who reported that it was not only feasible by the end of 2020, but would only cost $3.25 million.
Still, in the midst of a difficult budget year with a continued push by the mayor to not raise property taxes above the rate of inflation, Tory and a majority of councillors rejected the plan in a 8 to 17 vote. Council approved funding for two previously planned hubs in the Thorncliffe and Parliament St. library branches, which have not yet opened, according to the Toronto Public Library.
“The growing number of tragic shootings in our city clearly demonstrates that any politician who claims ‘Mission Accomplished’ is either out of touch or unwilling to do what it takes to genuinely address the problem,” Matlow told the Star on Tuesday. While he said he supports Tory’s ongoing call for a handgun ban in Toronto, “there will continue to be illegal guns brought to our city that vulnerable young people will pick up if we don’t address the roots of youth violence and provide them with a path that improves their lives, supports their families and creates safer communities.”
Bill Sinclair, executive director of St. Stephen’s Community House — which provided the model for the city’s youth hubs — praised council’s youth equity and other strategies, but said the implementation of those plans has been lacking.
“I think people are right to point out they are not always resourcing those strategies and statements fully,” he said Tuesday. “The youth spaces is a great example of something they believe in . . . and they are implementing it very slowly.”
In the CBC interview Tuesday, Tory also said the city’s youth equity strategy — a program designed in 2013 to address the roots of youth violence based on the provincial research and at Matlow’s urging — has been fully funded in the last budget cycle, but also that the money required to fully fund it is not yet available.
“If we if we look objectively at what the city is doing, it is fully funding the youth equity strategy for this year. We are not in receipt of the money we need from the feds to help with that as yet. But we’re still working on that.”
The Star earlier reported the city was falling behind on the strategy’s goals and that the city’s anti-gun violence plan championed by Tory and council has remained largely unfunded.
The anti-gun violence plan relied entirely on funding from other levels of government when it was approved by council in July 2018. But the federal government rejected most of the city’s requests for funding. Several of the initiatives directly or indirectly relate to the city’s youth equity strategy.
Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said Tuesday that the federal government has earmarked funding to help the city curb gun violence and is close to releasing a “very strong and effective package” that could further restrict assault-style weapons in the coming weeks.
Though Goodale referred to previously announced funding, he did not make any promises of future contributions to the city’s anti-gun violence plan.
Goodale suggested that the new policy measures, under consideration since before Christmas, were close to being announced, putting the issue front and centre in the fall federal election.
The weekend’s spate of gun violence prompted Toronto police Chief Mark Saunders to hold a news conference at the force’s headquarters on a holiday Monday. Decrying the number of people who “have a bullet in them,” Saunders called for witnesses to come forward and pledged to increase policing resources, though he did not provide specifics.
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“I can tell you that we will be putting additional resources in specific places that we think will help deter and reduce the gun violence that’s occurring in the city,” Saunders said.
Among the incidents that took place over the weekend was an early morning shooting at a North York nightclub, District 45, which injured five people, and a Sunday shooting in the city’s Bridle Path neighbourhood, injuring one.
The latest Toronto police statistics, updated Tuesday, provide mixed messages about gun violence in the city in 2019.
Year-to-date fatal shootings are at a three-year low, and are significantly down from last year; there have been 19 gun deaths so far this year, compared to 30 this time last year, 23 in 2017 and 26 in 2016.
Overall homicides, too, are down dramatically from last year. The city’s seen 35 so far compared to 59 at this time last year, a stark difference even when taking into consideration the 10 homicides linked to the April 2018 Yonge St. van attack.
But gun-related injuries are at a more than 10-year high. So far this year, 111 people have been injured in a shooting, compared to 105 this time last year, 96 year-to-date in 2017 and 92 in 2016.
2019 has also seen an increase in shooting “occurrences,” defined by police as instances when someone was shot or shot at, and where evidence exists to show a bullet was discharged from a real firearm (such as shell casings). So far this year, there have been 244 occurrences, up from 238 this time last year and 226 in 2017.
Police also provide statistics on shooting “victims” and that number is up this year over last, at 365 compared to 324 at this time last year. But the Toronto police definition of “victim” goes beyond those killed or injured to include those who were “shot at,” allowing for a great degree of variability.
A shooting such as the one inside nightclub District 45 early Monday, for example, could potentially have a high number of victims, since over 100 people were in the nightclub at the time.
Asked for her thoughts on how Toronto could be experiencing a surge in the number of shootings, but a decline in gun-related deaths, Cukier, the Coalition for Gun Control president, said that legal gun owners tend to be more effective in killing people because they spend time at target practice, or hunting.
“One of the terrible ironies is that when you see the proliferation of guns often associated with gang violence, you have lots of shootings but fewer people are killed, perhaps because they don’t spend hours and hours at the shooting range,” she said.
She acknowledged, too, that medical advancements — getting people to the hospital and giving them the care they need — play in role in reducing the number of fatalities, “but it isn’t something we want to, in my view rely on,” she said.
Though the number of homicides has fluctuated over the last five years, the percentage of murders claiming the lives of youth has stayed consistent — between 40 to 47 per cent of all homicides in the period between January and August.
In 2019, 13 youth aged 13 to 29 were killed, five of them 18 years old or younger. All but one were shootings.
The Star has been tracking the number of youth killed, using the age range the city targets for community supports like those funded under the youth equity strategy. The list excludes homicides that have been identified as domestic.
In total, 166 youth have been killed since the start of 2014.
On average, that is one young person killed every eight days for the last five years and seven months.
Jennifer Pagliaro is a Toronto-based reporter covering city politics. Follow her on Twitter: @jpags
Wendy Gillis is a Toronto-based reporter covering crime and policing. Reach her by email at email@example.com or follow her on Twitter: @wendygillis