The Canadian Imagination

What it means to be Canadian; examining and reworking Canada as a nation.

Monday, January 02, 2006

Political hay

These things aren't supposed to be happening in Toronto.
- Marsha-Jayne, the Raging Grannies

Once, in Toronto the Good (as in the rest of Canada), gang violence was a rare thing; and firearm violence rarer still. The riots of the '60s were ancient history; more modern hints of police department racism and abuse (*cough* Julian Fantino) neatly, if uneasily, swept under the rug of authority. Of course the one-sided disciplinarian approach was exactly what Toronto needed to contain the hint of violence! which in turn justified continual politicised demands for sharp budget increase: didn't the frequent newsbytes keep telling us just that? Had even a single opportunity for high profile "Look-How-Effective-I-Am" publicity been wasted? Never mind that underneath the veneer of the occasional high-publicity hash bust, the death and especially the shooting statistics quietly began to rise. It was isolated. It was in a single suburb. It was just among a couple of local gangs. It is already contained.

And of course it was already contained, or so we wanted to believe. It couldn't happen here, we kept telling ourselves. Not in Toronto the Good.

Police chiefs changed, but the reputation for bias and even corruption remained solid: a reputation which, in all fairness, has actually been quietly building for decades. Only those who were involved in law enforcement and reporting -- and those who lived in the affected areas -- began to suspect that there were actually two Torontos: the second a violent, young, resentful, clawing beast, but still too sleepy to lash out fully. Among those who suspected, the by now established procedure was to isolate and contain ... and the more isolated the police grew from the affected neighbourhoods, the less people in those neighbourhoods were willing to talk to the police. The police came on occasional patrols. The gangs were there 24/7. Mutual isolation grew -- but who in power really saw this as a problem? No one was complaining, at least no one of importance. What is unspoken, might as well not exist.

Now the numbers suddenly began to rise -- very sharply, for Toronto, for all that the media still does report each and every killing. Well over seventy persons had been killed in Toronto this past year, two-thirds of them with a firearm. One person was shot while attending the funeral of another victim. A public transit bus driver lost an eye. And still: disturbing, yes, but a local problem. The shootings seemed to be contained (even if one of them had slipped under the Caribana radar into Dundas Square, last July -- but surely that was the exception which proved the rule). The rest of Toronto went on about its everyday life, and holiday celebrations, and prepared for the annual Boxing Day shopping extravaganza. All Toronto comes downtown on Boxing Day. All Toronto comes to Yonge Street.

The shooting of Jane Creba changed all that.

On Toronto's front doorstep, at the downtown Eaton's Centre corner of Yonge Street near Dundas, a scuffle broke out between two groups of young men. At 5:19 pm on Boxing Day, at the height of the bargain-shopping frenzy, someone pulled out a gun -- several guns, actually. Those who could, dove for cover. Seven other shoppers were injured in the crossfire, two of them seriously. Fifteen-year-old Jane Creba, just another young girl bargain-shopping among all the other bargain-shoppers, was killed. Though two arrests were made within minutes, not one witness was talking.

So, now, vigils are being planned. Candles will be lit. Names will be read. Some will quietly grieve and try to accept. Some will renew calls to restore the death penalty.

And an election campaign which had spiralled down into a subdued Christmas mode was suddenly yanked into sharp focus: what are you going to do about this? For, even as Yonge Street is the front doorstep of Toronto, so Toronto is the front doorstep of Canada. Tighter controls on the existing gun registry? A complete gun ban? Stiffer penalties? Harsher policing? Who can make me the highest bid? Who can make me an effective bid? Political hay, reap it while the reaping is good.

Yet if a person feels the need to wield a gun, a gun will be found; and no amount of deterence after the fact is going to stop them. Addressing what has been done may provide personal satisfaction and perhaps give closure, and it is certainly absolutely necessary that the what be addressed: but recognise also that, in and of itself, it will ultimately solve nothing. Address, instead, why these youths feel the need to seek their answers at gunpoint. All the rest is mere window dressing.

In the meantime, much of what can short-term be done already is being done, quietly, away from the spotlights. Three hundred new police recruits, ready to hit the streets in a couple of weeks. Numbers thrown at problems by themselves are meaningless; but these recruits represent the first ripples of a broader change in policy: break the isolation, return to active neighbourhood policing. Yet unlike his predecessor, police chief Bill Blair will get no publicity for this but negative, reaction to a situation he inherited from his predecessor -- who may well soon be elected mayor, at least partly upon a platform built on this exact issue. Hardly seems fair.

But then, we live in the wrong universe for fair.

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