Kofi Hope of Community Empowerment Enterprises addresses a soggy crowd at Dundas Square.
The speakers at an anti-gun rally held in a rain-soaked Dundas Square Monday night were there to send a message about violence in Toronto's marginalized communities.
They spoke passionately, and from personal, often painful experience. But several speakers who didn't show up provided just as clear a picture of how real the threat of violence is in the city's priority neighbourhoods - they backed out of the event because they were too afraid to talk publicly about gun crime.
"We've had a number of cancellations," said Councillor Kristyn Wong-Tam, who organized the Vigil for a United Gun-Free Toronto. "People would say, ‘I'd love to speak,' and two days later they'd call us and say, ‘I don't think I can do it, in case this gets back to my neighbourhood.' So, that's real."
The wild June 2 shooting at the Eaton Centre food court, which injured six and claimed its second life late Monday when a 22-year-old victim died in hospital, has once again vaulted gun violence to the front pages of newspapers. But according to Wong-Tam, that single horrific event has overshadowed chronic violence in other, nearby parts of the city.
"When a shooting takes place at the Eaton Centre, the whole city stands and takes notice," she said. "But there's been a number of shootings in our city proceeding the June 2 shooting, and it looks like that was not receiving the same amount of attention."
Along with Councillors Adam Vaughan and Pam McConnell, she helped organize the vigil - which featured speeches by religious leaders, community workers, and parents from troubled communities - to give a platform to those groups that "have been hurt, but ... have not been heard."
Colleen Lavellée, a mother who lives in the Alexandra Park housing development just a few blocks west of the Eaton Centre, stood at the podium and tearfully described a community where young people are at constant risk of being caught up in crime.
"We've seen children who have given up, and made choices that nobody wants their children to make," Lavallée told the sodden crowd of roughly fifty people. "And we live with that reality every day... It's [the] fear that your child can be stolen from you."
Kimberly Belle, a young woman who also lives in Alexandra Park, said that while she thinks the stigma attached to her neighbourhood isn't fully deserved, she only feels safe there "up to a point."
"I feel safe but, when you see [police] tape when you wake up in the morning and you don't know who it is and you hear somebody's been shot, then you definitely feel unsafe," she said.
But Belle's encouraged that many young people in her neighbourhood are consciously rejecting the lure of crime and are engaged in community programs that help them find work and stay in school. She herself is a graduate of the Catalyst program at Scadding Court Community Centre and now mentors other youngsters.
But the city investment such programs need in order to thrive have recently come under threat. Scadding Court was one of 10 community centres that had their funding cut by an average of 10 per cent in the in the 2012 budget as part of Mayor Rob Ford's efforts to shrink government.
Similarly, seventeen of the city's 29 youth outreach workers, who help connect vulnerable young people with city services, were also slated for layoffs in the budget. Last Thursday however, in the wake of the high profile mall shooting, council voted to reallocate the $678,000 needed to keep them on at least for the rest of the year.
But Councillor Wong-Tam isn't satisfied with simply investing in communities as a way to deter gun crime, she plans to go after the guns themselves. She and Councillor Vaughan are working on a council motion that would, she says, "remove the handgun off the streets."
It is far from clear that the city has the authority to ban any kind of firearm and the pair have no firm plans as yet, but they are consulting the city solicitor on possible strategies.
The solicitor, Anna Kinastowski, currently has her hands full working on another unexpected ban; the surprise prohibition on plastic bags council approved last week.