News and Articles

Gun Violence In Toronto: Inspiring a Cultural Shift Towards Prevention

Photo by Jeswin Thomas from Pexels
September 23, 2021

Devika Parsaud is a 2021 Social Connectedness Fellow working with the City of Toronto. She graduated from York University’s School of Health Policy and Management with a Masters in Health specializing in Health Policy and Equity, and holds an Honours Bachelor of Arts degree in Sociology and Health Studies from the University of Toronto. She grew up in Toronto and is passionate about the social determinants of health and public policy. She has goals of exploring social injustices and being a part of interventions and change for a more equitable healthy society.

This is the second article in a two-part series outlining the issue of gun violence in Toronto. The first article discusses the role of trauma in community violence and highlights a pathway to becoming a trauma-informed city.  While this article focuses on moving from a culture of response to a culture of prevention and features case studies as models that Toronto can use in its implementation strategy of SafeTO, the city’s Community Safety and Wellbeing Plan. 

The year 2005 was coined the ‘Summer of the Gun’ in Toronto, as the number of gun-related homicides reached a record level of 52 murders with a wave of shootings occurring in the summer months. Today, in 2021, gun violence continues to plague Toronto neighbourhoods and communities, with 232 shootings and firearm discharges, and 21 deaths, just 7 months into the year. 

Gun violence is not just a community-specific issue. It affects all members of society, not just those directly impacted. Studies have shown “a range of negative impacts of community violence such as chronic illnesses, post-traumatic stress, altered activity patterns due to fear, behavioural, emotional and learning problems among children and youth, reduced educational achievement that limit future economic success; and negative effects on the economic well-being of neighbourhoods.”

It is time we shift our attention and move away from the heavy focus on emergency response and a tough-on-crime agenda that is geared towards individualization, criminalization, and over-policing. These agendas are damaging and harmful to communities as it does not tackle the underlying conditions that make communities vulnerable to gun violence in the first place. 

Adopting a public health approach to gun violence allows us to focus on a culture of prevention and social development. This approach collects, monitors and analyzes data on violence in order to develop coordinated evidence-based policy, practices, and program solutions with various sectors and community members. In focusing on addressing the elements that lead to gun violence before such incidents occur, versus after the fact, the utilization of a public health approach can address gun violence at the root of the issue. Ultimately, this approach can save lives. 

This also means addressing the systemic root causes such as socioeconomics and poverty, systemic racism and violence, and trans-generational trauma and aggression that place communities and individuals in environments that make them vulnerable and susceptible to violence. 

Reducing gun violence requires an investment in and empowerment of communities, which can include measures that reduce economic inequality and poverty. Adopting a culture of violence prevention can also include the creation of inclusive spaces with supports and resources that are culturally sensitive. This is in addition to supporting healthy child development through parenting supports, and quality early childhood education and programs, to ensure a broad range of age groups can have their needs met. Lastly, it is important to move towards becoming a trauma-informed city to understand the ways structures have created and perpetuated inequities and exposure to violence. 

Milwaukee and New York City are two cities in North America that have started to make this cultural shift of prevention, one that can be used as a blueprint within jurisdictions such as Toronto. 

Milwaukee Blueprint for Peace – Office of Violence Prevention 

Milwaukee Blueprint for Peace has adopted a public health approach and a unified plan towards working collaboratively in a coordinated manner to advance public safety. Blueprint for Peace focuses on “addressing underlying factors that contribute to violence, building on community assets and culture, and systematically applying data and science to ensure effective solutions.” The approach involves diverse leadership and oversight and centers the voices of those who are most impacted by the issue. Through a public health approach, the Blueprint model focuses on violence prevention, as well as intervention after violence has occurred to reduce its impact and prevent future incidents. Blueprint is working to:

  • Improve collaboration across sectors 
  • Collect, track, and communicate relevant data to understand the current state of violence and the impact of Blueprint strategies over time 
  • Ongoing education and training provided to individuals and entities involved in violence prevention 
  • Identify 10 priority neighbourhoods for implementation of Blueprint strategies 
  • Work with education and youth development partners to develop youth engagement opportunities 
  • Secure necessary resources and funding to sustain strategies over a long period of time 
  • Analyze policies at the federal, state, and local level that are relevant to the goals of Blueprint 

NYC Mayor Action Plan- Office of Criminal Justice 

In 2014, the Mayor launched the Mayor’s Action Plan for Neighborhood Safety (MAP) in 15 highly prioritized public housing developments that contributed to almost 20% of violent crime in the City’s public housing. MAP is a coordinated comprehensive approach aimed at reducing violence through investing in people and communities by:

  • Strengthening social supports
  • Increasing opportunities for youth mentorship and employment
  • Investing in the neighbourhoods through revitalizing physical infrastructures and supporting public spaces 
  • Expanding recreation opportunities such as free exercise classes, sports programming,
  • Addressing lack of physical activity and unhealthy eating that contributes to chronic diseases that disproportionately affect low-income neighbourhoods through investing in new urban farming, connecting neighbourhoods to fresh produce, and nutrition education in neighbourhoods. 
  • Working with families to prevent violence in the home by providing comprehensive supports 

MAP works with city agencies and civic partners to deliver a coordinated system to promote well-being and quality of life, and to address physical, economic, and social conditions that give rise to violence. NeighborhoodStat is a tool used to share knowledge, data, and performance metrics among residents and stakeholders to discuss public safety and identify and deploy solutions to challenges that arise to create tangible results that repair neighbourhood trust. 

Toronto is in the midst of making this cultural shift with the development of SafeTO- Toronto’s Community Safety and Wellbeing Plan that aims to advance community safety by working collaboratively across sectors, communities, and governments. SafeTO adopts a public health approach and focuses on prevention, social development, and individual and community investments to address the root causes of crime – poverty, and inequity. SafeTO has been passed by the City Council, and is in the stage of finalizing its implementation plan! During this stage, the City of Toronto could look to the above-mentioned jurisdictions as a model and resource.