It’s a bit of a mug’s game to try to find meaning in the kind of shooting crime that occurred June 2 in a food court at Toronto’s Eaton Centre, in which one man was killed and two other people – including a 13-year-old boy eating dinner with his family who was hit in the head by a stray bullet – were seriously injured.
The details will only come out at trial, so it’s hard to speculate on what exactly happened or why it happened. But reports suggest the shooter and the victim were part of the same gang, and the shooting may have been in retaliation for the victim (and the injured man) having robbed and stabbed the shooter this past winter.
The reports also suggest the two men ran into each other randomly in the mall, so this appears to be partly a crime of opportunity. Nevertheless, their alleged gang affiliations belie police claims that the shooting wasn’t gang-related, presumably because it wasn’t a case of gang-on-gang violence.
The shooting has generated a huge amount of news coverage and a deluge of commentary and analysis.
Torontonians need to take a deep breath and avoid hyperventilating about the incident, but we also need to figure out if anything can be done to avoid similar events in the future.
For once, I find myself (partially) agreeing with our usually clownish mayor, Rob Ford, who said on his Newstalk 1010 radio show the day after the shooting that “Toronto is a safe city… Things like that do not happen very often in our city.”
Indeed, the annual Maclean’s survey of major Canadian cities found that Toronto – Canada’s largest city by far – is the country’s 13th most violent urban centre and ranks 52nd in terms of “crime severity,” behind such other larger centres as Winnipeg, Edmonton, Montreal, Vancouver, Victoria, Regina and Saskatoon.
But I also agree with Toronto Star city columnist Royson James, who noted that people who are insulated from these kind of incidents – that is, middle class people like me – tend to see them as isolated, while those directly affected tend to think the city is degenerating into chaos.
Others take the position that as long as “bad guys” are shooting other “bad guys” in their own neighbourhoods, most of us need not care.
The problem, as James notes, is that sometimes the mayhem spills out of the neighbourhoods where the “bad guys” live.
Crime stats can be manipulated, but the reality is that pockets of poverty – for instance, in downtown public housing projects such as Regent Park and Alexandra Park, as well as parts of the inner suburbs, including large swaths of the northeastern and northwestern parts of the city – have fostered a gang problem in Toronto.
This isn’t an earth-shattering observation.
Most of the time, the problem stays in the places that spawned it, but people travel, and some of these poor areas are near or beside quite affluent ones. Regent Park is east of downtown and not far from the gentrified neighbourhood of Cabbagetown, nor is it very far from affluent Rosedale, for that matter. Lawrence Heights, meanwhile, is just north and just west of some middle and upper middle class neighbourhoods.
And while a majority of Torontonians can’t name most of the victims of violence who met their end in their own downtrodden neighbourhoods, many of us do remember the name of Jane Creba. She was a 15-year-old white girl who died after being hit by stray bullets during a gunfight between rival gangs on Yonge Street near the Eaton Centre on Boxing Day 2005 .
When innocent citizens in a prominent public place are affected by violent crime, as in the most recent incident at the Eaton Centre, people take notice.
And in a cold country like Canada, malls often become our de facto public spaces. They’re also temples of commerce and consumerism, and gang members, like many of us, gravitate to the ostentatious signs of wealth on display there.
The Eaton Centre isn’t the only place gang members apparently hang out. Another upscale mall that has experienced problems with gangs is Yorkdale, located just north of Lawrence Heights. It was the scene of another notorious shooting incident in 2009.
Despite the violence, there’s no appetite for armed guards and metal detectors at mall entrances, since it would be bad for business (although Israel does it, and shoppers aren’t deterred).
But armed guards at malls and police crackdowns on gangs, while perhaps useful, won’t solve the problem.
It’s clear to me that no matter how unfashionable it is to say so, the Eaton Centre shooting points to the need to deal with the root causes of this kind of violence.
The police seem to be doing an admirable job cracking down on gangs in the city – we haven’t seen the kind of recent levels of violence since the so-called “Summer of the Gun” in 2005 – but, ultimately, the police can’t solve this problem alone.
A real solution will require helping young people make better choices before and after they become involved with gangs.
Despite recent high-profile examples of drug-addled criminals committing violent crimes (such as the recent bath salts face-eating incident in Miami) or apparent narcissistic psychopaths acting out horrific fantasies (as in the recent case of a videotaped murder and dismemberment, with the victims body parts mailed to points across the country), crime is often the result of bad choices, or a string of them.
Indeed, reports that have emerged about the alleged shooter, Christopher Husbands, 23, paint a complex picture of the suspect that make it hard to characterize him as the monster he was initially portrayed to be when the brazen shooting first happened.
One account describes how a passerby found Husbands bleeding in the street near Regent Park in February with stab wounds to his face and chest.
“I felt so connected to this guy,” urban arborist Todd Irvine told the Toronto Star. “All of this horrible trauma he has inflicted on others — I’m one of the few people in the city who feels empathy toward him. I saw him [nearly] bleed to death in front of me … he was so alone. At that moment, he was a young kid.”
Other reports spoke of how kids in a city-run after-school program in East York – where Husbands had been working despite being under house arrest for a 2010 sex assault charge – actually liked him.
“He was my friend, he would always ask us how our day was,” one eight-year-old girl told The Globe and Mail. “Whatever we needed help with, he would help.”
In highlighting stories that humanize Husbands, I’m not suggesting that he shouldn’t be charged with murder or held accountable in the harshest of ways for what he’s alleged to have done. We’re all responsible for our decisions and actions, and it’s important to remember that most people raised in difficult conditions don’t grow up to kill people, although it seems to me that an impoverished childhood certainly increases the chances of that happening.
What these reports tell me is that people who commit crimes shouldn’t be written off as irreparably damaged or beyond hope, even at age 23.
If this crime can tell us anything, it’s that no matter what the statistics say, we can’t call Toronto a safe city as long as pockets of poverty and violence exist inside it, because, as James noted, the “bad guys” don’t live on islands.
They live in our city, and we need to find ways to make their lives better and less hopeless, as well as to help them make better choices before their bad ones make life miserable for all of us.
Which is why it was heartening to see city council vote almost unanimously (33-1) last week to accept $350,000 from Ottawa to extend a three-year federally funded pilot project that aimed to help 300 young people “at high risk of gang attachment” in Rexdale, Jane-Finch and Weston-Mount Dennis find legitimate employment, and help the city to learn which tactics used to help them work and which don’t.
Who was the lone dissenting vote? None other than Mayor Ford, who said he was acting in the name of the taxpayer, even though his Conservative compatriots in Ottawa were footing the bill.
Apparently gangs are our problem, but not his problem.
As I’ve said before, Ford just doesn’t get it, and it looks like he never will.