Canada cracks down on rising violence
The latest move was a key sting operation last week in Toronto, where fatal handgun shootings have quadrupled since 1995.
The predawn sting operation last week that resulted in more than 100 arrests of individuals associated with Toronto's Jamestown gang, is being hailed as the city's largest anti-gang sweep ever. The raid netted a substantial cache of guns, cocaine, marijuana, and stolen cars, and more than 1,000 criminal charges were levied.
"The community is talking to us a lot more and providing us with crucial information since more officers started doing foot patrol late last year," says Toronto's deputy police chief, Tony Warr, who heads the city police's guns and gangs unit. "People ... seem relieved that gun-crime legislation is getting tougher," he adds.
Both the sting operation and the recent legislation are part of a larger crackdown on handguns and gang violence in Canada, particularly in Toronto where handgun murders and injuries doubled between 2004 and 2005.
But while police and the public applaud the hard-line approach, social pundits and criminology professors are skeptical that the approach is getting at the roots of the problem: poverty, illiteracy, dysfunctional families, and racism in a diverse ethnic population. They cite US cities such as Boston, where a similar initiative led to an 80 percent drop in homicide rates by 1999 - a success dubbed the "Boston miracle." But fatal shootings have more than doubled since.
In Canada, guns and gangs are a relatively new phenomenon, particularly in Toronto, known as "Toronto the Good" for its traditionally safe streets and low homicide rates. There were 52 deadly handgun shootings in the city in 2005, compared with 12 in 1995. Police and social workers alike attribute the acts largely to young black males - many of whom are the children of West Indian immigrants - who feel marginalized and drop out of school early to join the "gangsta" culture where they make quick money through drugs, guns, or prostitution.
The Ontario provincial government has earmarked $51 million Canadian ($46 million US) to spend on crime deterrence and new social programs related to education, employment, and skills training - C$5 million of that has already been spent on forming a 24-hour police street squad who ferret out drug dealers, illegal guns, and people breaking parole or on warrants for crimes in Toronto's most violent neighborhoods.
Provincial money has also been designated for a $26-million Operations Centre for the Guns and Gangs Task Force, as well as for 31 prosecutors, three judges, and several high-tech courtrooms specifically designed to try gun- and gang-related crimes.
In addition, Prime Minister Stephen Harper's new Conservative government recently introduced tough new legislation designed to curb handgun deaths, reduce the trafficking in illegal weapons, and shut down growing inner-city gangs. Coupled with other new legislation for "lesser" offenses like trying to steal a weapon, the initiatives will cost Canadian taxpayers an additional C$220 to C$240 million annually for extra prison facilities alone.
While several multimillion-dollar programs that address the educational, social, and employment needs of disenfranchised youth have been implemented over the past year, critics say effective solutions that get to the crux of the problem haven't yet been found.
"What [these kids] really want is respect, a school system that's responsive and sensitive to their social situation, money for education and employment, and positive male role models," says Anthony Hutchinson, a former professor of social work who served as a consultant to the "Safe Schools, Healthy Communities" initiative of the Conservative government last year.
"If you give them proper funding for skills training and provide those with good [grades] free postsecondary education, many of them will turn around and teach and do social work in the communities they left. If the government saved just 25 percent of the money they use to control crime for crime prevention, they'd eliminate a lot of it and save money in the long run," he adds.
"I work in Jane-Finch, one of Toronto's most violent areas, and it's nothing short of miraculous the transformation I've seen happen with potentially violent youth once we spend consistent time with them, listening, disciplining, and guiding," says the Rev. Alvin Nicholson of Coalition of Christian Leaders, which implements Down with Guns - a C$3 million program funded by the provincial government that primarily targets black youth vulnerable to gang involvement.
"We stay with them through whatever programs they're in until they come out the other end - many of them end up then mentoring other troubled youth," says Mr. Nicholson.
But such government initiatives are often hit-and-miss, says Josephine Grey, a widow who started the nongovernmental organization Low Income Families Together several years ago in response to what she saw as a huge discrepancy between the public system's treatment of the middle class and the working poor.
The widow - who says she supports her four children on C$1,200 a month - points to the new community center built for St. Jamestown, one of Toronto's largest multiethnic, low-income areas, where she lives. The free programs, including continuing education and language classes, are primarily used by outsiders with computers, she says, because they can register more quickly.