Saturday, February 02, 2008

Toronto Needs a Miracle (Toronto's Year of the Gun?) By: Shane Christensen

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(Image: Toronto's latest gun victim)

The year 2005 is remembered as Toronto’s Year of the Gun, thanks to the high number of homicides (78) and injuries that resulted from random gunfire. And as a final despicable act to rub salt in the wound of an embattled city, a beautiful young girl named Jane Creba was shot and killed while out shopping with her mom across from the Eaton’s Centre on Boxing Day. That story was on the front pages of every notable newspaper across the province and was the major story on all news broadcasts for days, if not weeks. The young victim’s name is a household word in Toronto and most of the country, and her face is now one of the most recognizable out of the millions who live in the Greater Toronto Area.

That senseless crime brought an outpouring of shock, grief, and anger, which culminated in the media demanding that something “had to be done”. But sadly, apart from the usual media ‘routine’ that follows one of these senseless acts, nothing of any substantive level IS being done. Because in the year 2007, there were actually more homicides (82) than in the ‘year of the gun’, and 2008 is already starting out in a similar manner as two innocent bystanders have been gunned down in the last couple of weeks.

The latest victim, 47-year-old Hou Chang Mao, was an immigrant from China who had worked ridiculously long hours at minimum wage, so that he could bring his wife to Canada to join him and their son and daughter in their adopted homeland; until he was killed while stocking an orange cart at the market where he worked. He was in the wrong place, at the wrong time, as rival gang bangers opened fire at each other.

The first victim of gunfire in 2008, 42-year-old John O’Keefe, died a week earlier while innocently passing a strip club on Yonge Street, which is arguably Canada’s busiest thoroughfare of pedestrian and vehicular activity, and is now getting the reputation of being one of the most dangerous spots for people in Toronto. He was at the wrong place at the wrong time as gang bangers tried to take out the bouncer of the club, but missed.

There are a number of other gun-related crimes that have evoked media and civic cries for something to be done. Rachel Alleyne was a 30-year-old mother of a 2-year-old boy, and she was cut down by gang bangers who crashed the housing complex where she was attending a child’s backyard birthday party on a summer afternoon.

Ephraim Brown was only 11 years old when he was cut down in a hauntingly similar fashion as he was atop a fence at a birthday party as gang bangers opened fire at each other in late 2007. The list could go on and on, and includes victims of all creeds and ethnicity, in a city that is known as possibly the most diverse in the entire world. The one constant is that all of these victims were in the wrong place and at the wrong time, so they needlessly lost their lives.

So what is the answer to reducing this problem that plagues Toronto and other large cities across North America and even the world for that matter? In a word, MIRACLE!

That’s right: We need a miracle. But not the biblical miracle of old when the seas parted or hordes of locusts rained down from the sky. I’m talking about a tried and proven method of dealing with the gangs that was initiated by the Boston Police and various community agencies, and which has been so successful that it is now heralded as the Boston Miracle.

This miracle was actually a multi-pronged, anti-gang initiative known as Operation Cease Fire that was launched in 1996, and worked first of all by addressing the root cause of the overall problem, which was primarily the easy availability of guns to these gangs. By aggressively tackling the supply problem by using community ‘intel,’ gangs could no longer arm themselves as quickly and readily as they did before the initiative. The crucial ingredient of this process is that the community, which for years was silent due to fear of reprisal, now actively worked with law enforcement to weed out the gun-runners and gang bangers who terrorized the entire community. So the bad guys no longer enjoyed the safe haven they had grown accustomed to for years and were now faced with the realization that both gang membership and any related activity had severe consequences for them.

A separate but equally important phase of the initiative relied on addressing “at risk” youth in the community, so that the police and social service agencies could “get to them” before the gangs did, and offer them necessities and other support (education, mentoring) to show them that there were other options available than being a gang member. Many of these “kids” came from either single or no-parent environments, and lacked a support structure of any kind. Community pastors and elders worked cohesively to fill this void to try to steer the youth in the proper direction.

The end result was a 70 per cent drop in firearms-related homicides and assaults in the first two years, which leaves no doubt at all that the model used in Boston should become a worldwide means of dealing with an issue in a pro-active and preventive manner to reduce this scourge that is prevalent in many of the globe’s major cities. In fact, jurisdictions as far away as Manchester, England are borrowing these same ideas and strategies as they try to wrestle their gang problems into submission, just as Boston has so impressively done.

So for those who think that it’s impossible to achieve any substantial headway against this modern urban dilemma, we now know that with the necessary funding, strategies, community involvement, and co-operative teamwork between various agencies, this problem can be greatly minimized so that everyday citizens can go to a birthday party and not worry about being killed. The city of Boston and its various agencies have proven this, beyond a doubt. Canada’s largest city and other equally affected urban centres such as Vancouver, should follow suit and do everything in their powers to duplicate this great success and achievement.

We owe this not only to the Jane Crebas and Rachel Alleynes of this world, but also to their loved ones who have to deal with their loss on a daily basis, and relive it every time another innocent is cut down in a senseless act of violence.

Because whether it’s on Yonge Street in the middle of a busy shopping day, or at a neighbourhood birthday party for a young child, no one should ever have to worry about being another statistic in Toronto’s continuing saga of the year of the gun.

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