At the age of six I was exposed to my first bully. I was punched in the face and thrown to the ground. As a child growing up in the west-side of Toronto, I would come to learn that I lived in a community that bred violence, where tough guys were respected, and where the weak were preyed upon.
By high school the bullying took on a new life, as I was physically and psychologically tortured by boys that were not only bigger, but who had also developed a reputation for hand-to-hand combat and the utilization of weapons. During my teen years I was robbed at gunpoint, stabbed and, at times, beaten to an inch of my life. It seemed that the bullying had multiplied in high school, as several tough guys would create “crews” that not only dominated the internal environment of school, but also the external space of the community or “block.”
As a result of these experiences, I feared for my life every day. I hated having to go to school, where my bullies lived to destroy me. Eventually, I just couldn’t take it anymore, so I decided to find other friends who were going through similar problems. Our small group learned to fight and defend ourselves, and we began to inflict harm on those who had harmed us. I ended up in a gang.
Wars began over turf, respect and money. Violence came with them, and as a result I began to carry weapons to stop my enemies from trying to kill me. And with every perpetration and victimization I became numb to violence and developed a complacency for human life. This goes on in cities all across Canada, where for many young men, violence is power. Plenty of regions have come up with short-term approaches to rescue boys and young men from violent streets, but the problem remains: there’s always a new cohort of vulnerable boys behind them, ready to take their place.
Last year was a banner year for homicide in Toronto, compounding a spike in gang violence across Canada. With the homicide rate at a 10-year high, politicians at various levels of government, in various provinces, have committed themselves to finding a solution.
For the federal government, it means a plan to limit access to handguns and assault rifles, along with $86 million in funds earmarked to tackle gun violence. At the city level, it means more police officers on the streets (in places like Toronto), and funds for programs such as WrapED in Edmonton, which offers counselling and resources for at-risk teens on a one-on-one basis.
But while access to after-school programs, counselling, mentorship and employment are all pieces that can have a protective effect against violence, they may not actually change the blueprint that causes violence in the first place: systemic racism, poverty and unemployment and toxic masculinity.