Dwayne Brown says it was fun to be a 10-year-old growing up in The Lane.
He remembers running up and down the courtyards between the townhouses. Knocking on neighbours’ doors. Learning different languages. The smells.
But Brown’s parents were scared to put him in the local middle school and frightened after three-year-old Breanna Davy was shot and killed nearby, and so the family moved a few kilometres west and out of Yorkwoods Village, the Toronto Community Housing complex at Grandravine Drive and Driftwood Avenue, known as The Lane for those mazelike courtyards.
Six years later, in 2016, Brown’s older brother Jermaine, 22, was shot dead a barely a block from their old home. Ten years after that, Brown’s nephew Caheem, 17, was killed in a backyard on Shoreham Court, not far to the north.
Few communities in this city have as painful a history with guns and the people who use them as The Lane. Two men were shot dead in one of the courtyards Oct. 1, the end of an hour-long shooting spree at three crime scenes in North York’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood — violence, witnesses stressed, that began outside the community.
Ahead of the Oct. 21 election, as the federal parties argue over how to tackle rising gun violence in cities like Toronto, the public debate has revolved around the Liberals’ pledge to let cities ban handguns — the principal weapon in most shooting deaths, including last week’s, according to Toronto police and witnesses — within their borders. A chorus of voices, including a number of GTA mayors, has called instead for a national handgun ban. However, opponents say a ban would mainly affect law-abiding citizens because criminals typically don’t use legal weapons.
Meanwhile, Toronto advocates, activists, medical professionals and educators say the federal debate is missing the point: Ending gun violence is about much more than gun control.
Here’s what they stress:
- Admit Toronto has a problem
Louis March gets frustrated when he hears any politician say the phrase: “Toronto is a safe city.”
Yes, Toronto is relatively safe on average, but hearing the mayor or other local leaders speak to the averages is exactly the problem — gun violence is an “epidemic” in some Toronto neighbourhoods, says March, a longtime advocate for the city’s African Canadian community and the founder of the Zero Gun Violence Movement.
The three federal ridings where gun violence has been most frequent in recent years — Humber River—Black Creek, which contains The Lane, Etobicoke North and Toronto Centre — have seen a total of 53 fatal shootings since 2016, with an outright homicide rate (six per 100,000 residents) that would rank second only to Thunder Bay among Canadian cities. In that same period, Willowdale, Parkdale—High Park and Don Valley West saw a combined total of two fatal shootings.
“Stop saying this is a safe city, unless you qualify it,” March says.
Overall gun violence continues to be at near-record levels in Toronto. As of Tuesday, 210 people had been killed or injured in shootings this year. That’s up from 82 by that date in 2014 and the most by Oct. 15 in any year in police records that go back to 2004.
Experts say the number of people hit by a bullet is the best overall measure of gun violence, in part because whether a shooting is fatal often comes down to luck.
When the same data is adjusted for population growth, the rate of people killed or injured in 2019 is lower only than 2005, at the time dubbed the “year of the gun.”
The toll is a “report card” on a made-in-Toronto problem, March says, adding that any serious solution will take commitment from all three levels of government. “It’s like a jigsaw puzzle, everyone has a piece.”
As for the debate over a handgun ban, March is dismissive — it’s distracting people from talking about the root causes of crime, he says.
“It’s more than banning guns. Stop wasting my time.”
A gun ban is “not even close” to a solution, says 24-year-old University of Toronto medical student Semir Bulle, who said as much at an event with Liberal Leader Justin Trudeau last week. Real progress, Bulle says, needs a vastly larger investment in ending poverty, like what he saw as a child.
Bulle says his mom, a refugee from Ethiopia, needed to work three jobs so the family could save up enough to leave a Toronto Community Housing tower at the eastern edge of Moss Park on Sherbourne Street. His parents bought a house in Etobicoke’s Willowridge neighbourhood with an aunt and uncle in the late 90s, and that move is a big reason why Bulle says he has had a chance to succeed.
“When you have a family and you’re stuck in government housing, life is bleak,” he says.
Growing up in a secure home with parents who pushed him to study, Bulle says he could focus on school, work to pay his way through an undergrad degree and earn scholarships for medical school. A lot of friends, cousins and classmates who lived in rougher rental homes, like the towers nearby on Willowridge Road, didn’t have that luck, he says — many have been in jail, a few have been shot.
According to the latest census, more than 54 per cent of children in the Willowridge towers area come from families that earn less than half the median income of a Canadian household of the same size. That measure is similar to other diverse and poor Toronto communities: 60 per cent in The Lane, 80 per cent in the block east of Moss Park, 73 per cent in the Jane Falstaff community where a 16-year-old boy was shot dead in August.
That’s compared to a citywide rate of 26 per cent for children, 20 per cent overall. (Statistics Canada stresses that this is a measure of relative income, not absolute poverty.)
“These kids don’t choose to be born here,” Bulle says, emphasizing that the level of investment in anti-poverty measures to help young people in these communities is “a Band-Aid on a gushing boat.”
“You can’t expect everyone to be exceptional,” he says.
Naya Smith-Pearson, 17, says that The Lane has been an “amazing place to grow up.” Still, the York University student says, she understands why an outsider might not see it that way. “From the outside looking in, it looks like a terrible place,” she says.
That look is more than an esthetic problem; city reports have long emphasized that the designs of older subsidized townhouse communities can make preventing crime more difficult.
The Lane, which was built in 1963 amid the construction boom in North York’s Jane and Finch neighbourhood, shares a design with many subsidized housing communities of that era. With more than 300 townhouse units set well back from the street along secluded pedestrian-only courtyards, it’s a virtual island community — very unlike a traditional urban neighbourhood
It and other Toronto Community Housing complexes from the era, like the Thistletown community on Jamestown Crescent or Regent Park downtown, were created with many hidden spaces that are difficult to keep crime-free.
Toronto Community Housing now uses a method called “crime prevention through environmental design” to help build subsidized housing with safer, better-lit public areas that allow for more “eyes on the street,” spokesperson Bruce Malloch said in a statement.
The agency is also using those principles to help improve its existing communities, Malloch said, pointing to a 10-year plan to address “safety challenges created by narrow streets, poor lighting, closed spaces or lack of access” in the original designs.
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In The Lane, Toronto Community Housing has spent $1.2 million over the last three years on better lighting, security cameras, sidewalk improvements, signage and efforts to make common areas more visible, Malloch said. The agency is also helping the Toronto police investigation into last week’s double homicide, including sharing security camera footage, he said.
The effort put into the community in recent years is clear — the community has bright new-looking playgrounds and basketball courts, there are cheerful murals on the boys and girls’ club and locals say children are always playing in much-improved courtyards.
Still, much of Toronto Community Housing’s aging housing stock is from the same era and the agency has a daunting citywide repair and renovation backlog, even after Ottawa pledged it $1.3 billion earlier this year.
- Take a public health approach
If politicians want to stop gun violence, Dr. Najma Ahmed says they need to treat it like the disease it is. The goal, the trauma surgeon says, must be to minimize exposure to the vector of the illness: the gun.
Assaults happen, but the greater lethality of shootings compared to a typical assault “is directly tied to guns,” says the trauma surgeon, who says she treats gunshot victims weekly at St. Michael’s Hospital downtown.
But even Ahmed, who is as vocal an advocate for gun control as any Toronto-area medical professional, stresses that a firearm ban is not a complete solution to getting the vector out of the hands of Torontonians. No one policy will work in isolation, she says.
Ahmed was among a chorus of medical professionals who last week urged Trudeau to treat gun violence with a public-health approach, a multi-pronged tactic that has been effective reducing illnesses caused by tobacco-use or vaccine-preventable diseases.
“Banning guns will not solve the problem,” but even a marginal impact is worth it, she says.
After all, she says, even though other countries like the U.K., Australia and New Zealand have similar issues with mental illness and poverty, they don’t have the same problem with gun violence as Canada.
The New Zealand government passed a sweeping new gun control law less than a month after an attack on a mosque in the city of Christchurch killed 51 people this spring. The new law included a ban on most semi-automatic guns and assault-style rifles and offered a buyback program for illegal weapons.
Australia passed similar laws following a mass shooting in Tasmania that killed 35 people in 1996.
(March, with the Zero Gun Violence Movement, is more skeptical that a ban will lessen gun crime, noting that there is little publicly available data on how often a legally sourced gun is used by criminals. “Without that data, how can you say that banning a handgun is going to help,” he said. “We need data.”)
- Give kids the tools to deal with their environment
For his part, Brown says that although a ban can only help, it’s not top of mind for his work helping young people in the Jane and Finch neighbourhood get mental health support and learn life skills — things like learning financial literacy or help with knowing how to respond emotionally to insults or fear.
He remembers The Lane being “filled with love,” but kids in communities like it often struggle with these “21st-century skills,” which may not be taught in school — and besides, when kids are focused on how hungry they are or whether mom might be home that night, Brown says, it can be difficult to focus.
Brown says his organization, it’s called Generation Chosen, was lucky to get a provincial Trillium Grant for funding to help the 60 to 90 kids who show up to weekly sessions. Before the grant, it was church fundraisers.
“When you feel helpless, that’s a kind of trauma,” Brown says. “Hurt people hurt people.”
- What the parties are pledging
The Liberals are calling for a national ban on “assault-style” weapons and says it will work with provinces to let cities ban handguns. The party is also promising to spend $250 million over five years to help Canadian cities combat guns and gangs, and for large investments to repair affordable housing.
Conservative Leader Andrew Scheer has argued a firearms ban punishes lawful gun owners. His party has proposed a suite of new enforcement and sentencing measures, including a pledge to reform bail and a plan to identify known gangs as “criminal entities” similar to how terrorist organizations are identified.
Like Trudeau, New Democrat Leader Jagmeet Singh has argued cities should have the right to ban handguns. The NDP is also calling for funding community-led projects to help deter youth from joining gangs, and for the construction of 500,000 new affordable housing units.
Green party Leader Elizabeth May has argued for a ban on both assault weapons and handguns. Her party is calling for more than 15,000 new or refurbished affordable housing units each year.