Roots of violence grow in toxic soil of social exclusion
TheStar.com – Opinion – Roots of violence grow in toxic soil of social exclusion: Only a sustained commitment led by Queen’s Park can build a safe and just society in Ontario
November 15, 2008. Roy McMurtry, Alvin Curling
“Ontario is at a crossroads. While it is a safe place for most, our review identified deeply troubling trends in the nature of serious violent crime involving youth in Ontario and the impacts it is having on many communities. Those trends suggest that, unless the roots of this violence are identified and addressed in a co-ordinated, collaborative and sustained way, violence will get worse. More people will be killed, communities will become increasingly isolated and disadvantaged, an ever-accelerating downward cycle will ensue for far too many, and our social fabric as a province could be seriously damaged.”
This is how we open our five-volume report to Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty on the roots of violence involving youth. The words come from our hearts, which remain very deeply troubled by what we found during our review. They also come from our heads, which tell us that those roots are now so extensive, interconnected and entrenched that only a sustained and aligned commitment, led by the provincial government, can maintain Ontario on a relatively safe and healthy path from the crossroads we identified.
These roots took years to grow. They are not the responsibility of any one political party or government. Indeed, our report acknowledges the positive steps that the present government has been taking, notably those to advance early childhood initiatives, put poverty reduction high on its agenda and improve the education system. But serious issues remain to be addressed.
Across Ontario we found a sad similarity in what too many youth must face on a daily basis. There is far too much poverty in Ontario, and far too few services and supports for those struggling to get ahead.
The housing market, and some planning practices, have driven the most disadvantaged to live in high concentrations of poverty, fundamentally changing the greater economic integration of earlier days.
Racism is worse than it was a generation ago, while there are fewer resources and structures to counter this great evil than existed in years past.
We also found widespread youth mental health problems going unaddressed, a school system that fails to connect with far too many youth, communities that seem designed for crime, a lack of mentors for youth and supports for their families, a failure to listen to youth, engage them and respect their varied backgrounds and perspectives, the absence of places for youth to gather or play, curtailed economic opportunities for youth, and numerous other manifestations of a social context that is broken for far too many.
Particularly troubling is the compounding of these factors in areas where disadvantaged groups are concentrated. These are areas many people leave when they get a job, where the teachers reside far away and, therefore, often cannot understand the circumstances of their students, where public services are often stretched and inaccessible, and where core facilities such as parks and recreation centres are lacking, or not available because of the fee structure or because both youth and their parents fear violence.
Tragically, these fears are well-established in the neighbourhoods we visited. We heard about gun violence, violence around drugs and drug dealing, robberies on the street, swarmings, verbal abuse, intimidation, threats, gangs and claims of turf, attacks with knives, fights at school, violence in sports, domestic abuse, sexual assaults, dating violence and violence that flows from systemic issues such as racism, inequality and poverty.
Predictably, fear in neighbourhoods is on the rise, a code of silence is increasingly taking hold, communities and youth are being stereotyped and becoming desensitized to violence, which is becoming a more acceptable way of dealing with conflict, and gangs are proliferating.
It is not just the bullets that kill that devastate these communities, as they do all of us. Those that miss their targets are equally terrifying, as are the guns that are not fired. The constant threat of serious violence isolates parents from their neighbours, stifles community-building, keeps youth away from healthy activities and often leads them to the gangs for self-defence or safe passage.
The human cost of this is staggering and heartbreaking. Youth are coming to believe that their hopes should be as limited as their horizons, that they are not expected to succeed, and that high barriers lie between them and any chance of belonging to the prosperous future we all want for this province. The deepening alienation and the lack of hope or sense of belonging that result damage the lives and prospects of many youth, and powerfully increase the risk that increasing numbers of them will be involved in extreme and unpredictable violence.
But this distressing downward cycle can be stopped. Our report shows the way forward. A determined, aligned and focused provincial government, structured to work effectively and invest strategically across the existing silos, and to collaborate with local governments, community agencies, youth and strengthened neighbourhoods, can design, implement and sustain initiatives that translate despair into optimism, convert alienation into belonging, and transform social exclusion into meaningful and ongoing engagement and opportunities.
The foundations for this undertaking exist already in the many people working with compassion and deep wisdom to counter the grim reality that their communities face. They are also found in the work of the United Way, and other agencies, on poverty and community-building. The initiatives of cities like Toronto are focusing real resources and continuing commitment in areas of concentrated disadvantage. Most importantly, the fact the premier invited this fundamental analysis provides real hope for significant and sustained change.
Roy McMurtry is a former chief justice of Ontario and former Conservative attorney-general; Alvin Curling is a former Liberal cabinet minister and speaker of the Ontario Legislature.