Summoning hope from despair

Posted on November 17, 2008 in Child & Family Debates, Education Debates, Equality Debates, Inclusion Debates, Social Security Debates – Opinion – Summoning hope from despair
November 17, 2008. Jim Coyle

In its goals of a fairer, safer, better world, the report on the roots of youth violence delivered last week by Roy McMurtry and Alvin Curling was as utopian and idealistic as anything in the Gospels.

Yet in its images of the urban hell to come if prompt action is not taken, it was as chilling and contemporary as The Wire.

“The sense of nothing to lose and no way out that roils within such youth creates an ever-present danger,” it said.

It was a report that conjured images from the sacred to the profane. Not least the stacks of similar reports published in years past on poverty, racism, marginalized youth – reports duly commissioned, researched, delivered, lauded … and ignored.

To read its passages on the effects of community design on quality of life is to hear the voice of Jane Jacobs. To read it on police-minority relations is to hear Walter Pitman.

When it speaks about the increasingly localized pockets of poverty it revisits years of study by the United Way of Greater Toronto. When it calls for urgent action on children’s mental health it echoes legions of experts who know this as a chief cause of violence.

So it is either the shame or the promise of this latest version that it builds on the accumulated experience and wisdom of decades.

To their credit, McMurtry, a former attorney general and chief justice in Ontario, and Curling, a former provincial cabinet minister and diplomat, have looked at the big picture and taken the long view – rejecting short-term solutions of the sort governments usually favour.

Which is probably why Premier Dalton McGuinty, facing the double whammy of high expectations and shrinking revenues – seemed so generally vague in response to a broad blueprint that would carry an unknowable price-tag.

The authors said poverty does not directly cause violent crime. What does is “poverty without hope, poverty with isolation, poverty with hunger and poor living conditions and poverty with numerous daily reminders of social exclusion.”

The worst of it occurs where poverty and racism intersect. The authors were taken aback, they wrote, “by the extent to which racism is a-live and well and wreaking its deeply harmful effects on Ontarians.”

What the report was, among other things, was an implicit repudiation of almost everything the former government of Mike Harris stood for – with all its harsh justice, zero-tolerance, stigmatizing and scapegoating. The current government was not to be criticized for the “ongoing effects of past policies, most of which it inherited,” the report concluded. Enough said.

The authors, as veteran former politicians, know as well as anyone all the reasons why things can’t be done. Those can be found in the very description of the problems – the “complexity and interconnectedness” – and in their prescription for “structured and sustained” solutions.

Traditionally, government has not done complexity or the long haul very well. The imperatives of electoral cycles are inherently short term. But more delay, the authors say, will occur at heavy cost.

The authors know that little in this report has not been said before. Still, they know that sometimes timing is everything, that hope and change, wafting north, are these days in the air.

Besides, they are not the first to summon hope to realms where dis-appointment has gone before. For there seemed a little, too, of the poet Seamus Heaney in their work.

“History says, Don’t hope,

On this side of the grave.

But then, once in a lifetime

The longed for tidal wave

Of justice can rise up,

And hope and history rhyme.”

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