Many of Toronto's young people spend their nights and days contemplating life and death as if they were gladiators in Gaza, Belfast or Freetown. In the past year alone, six have been murdered in north Etobicoke in what police have called "gang- related" incidents. Within a 24-hour span on a weekend in April, four young men were shot, two of them fatally, and a 13-year-old boy lost an eye.
A few days back, a 16-year-old student told me he's just thankful to be alive. "Things are getting bad where I live," he says of his neighbourhood in North York.
Another teen is also nervous, "Things are getting crazy on the street," she tells me. "You're afraid to look at people the wrong way, because you might get shot."
The "inner city" is increasingly to be found in the suburbs. Pundits refer to these areas as violence-prone, but it is the violent lack of opportunity and the violent lack of beauty and peace in the residents' midst that produces carnage on the streets.
But who makes and supplies the guns that shatter these neighbourhoods? There are no munitions factories in Toronto. Why do so many youth have such ready access to weapons? Who benefits when young people kill each other?
What is clear is that in a time of unprecedented prosperity, Canadian society has failed to protect an entire generation of youth at risk, while it has championed a virulent form of alienated individualism without social responsibility.
Governments have not adequately supported the parents and communities that have produced these children. When families are in distress, children become the "collateral damage."
What is certain is that were these shootings happening on the streets of our most exclusive neighbourhoods, governments would declare a national emergency and devise comprehensive programs to save the children.
Most people want to live in safe, clean neighbourhoods. Most, though, choose their place of residence according to what they can afford. When the rent is too expensive and food and bus tickets are hard to come by, when a single parent works three jobs and is too exhausted to spend quality time with her kids, the pressure of daily living can become too much to bear.
The extreme stress of such conditions can lead young people to make destructive choices that damage others but inevitably most affect themselves. Many of our most alienated youth understand at an early age that they are the rubbish and refuse of a society committed to their collective demonization. Their self-destructive rage is a rage against their own neighbourhoods surveilled by excessive police and lacking community centres, parks or affordable recreation.
Young people, like their elders, gravitate toward groupings that provide a sense of solidarity, affirmation and respect. In certain quarters, such groupings are called fraternities, lodges, legions and country clubs. On the streets, they're called "gangs." We all want somewhere to belong.
Surely, we must go beyond ready-made law-and-order prescriptions. We need programs that will encourage communities to become actively involved in the long process of reconstruction and rehabilitation. We need less legislation and incarceration and more constructive engagement. Adrian Harewood is a youth worker in Toronto high schools.