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August 7, 2012

Lack of social cohesion basis for youth crime

The recent spate of shootings in Toronto - especially the episode in the Danzig neighbourhood - has sparked a flurry of comment.

According to Mayor Rob Ford, immigrants are the likely culprits. This evidence-free muckraking was welcomed by Immigration Minister Jason Kenney, always on the lookout for ways to justify his incarceration approach to asylum seekers, and his disdain for refugees. Whipping up public suspicion that such individuals are likely criminals-in-waiting is a great help.

Then there were the predictable reactions from the other side of the political spectrum. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty put his emphasis on community programs, designed to target “at risk” young people, both to prevent youth from engaging in crime and rehabilitate those who have. “At risk” is a euphemism that usually refers to kids from poor communities, who happen to be ethnic minorities like youth of Caribbean descent or often (though not in this case) First Nations youth.

In fact, these responses are two sides of the same coin. Both assume that the likely criminals among us — those most likely to pick up a gun and go on a rampage — are somehow inherently different. Either they were born somewhere else, or their upbringing in Canada was so deficient that they are “internal foreigners.”

McGuinty got something right: young people, especially those between the ages of 15 and 20, make up the majority of all those charged with criminal offences, according to Government of Canada figures from 2010-2011.

But the claim that race or economic status are the key factors in this behaviour is another matter altogether.

Consider the riots that broke out in Vancouver during the Stanley Cup playoffs in June 2011. Hundreds of young people (mainly white and East Asian), participated in or cheered on a festival of criminal behaviour. In addition to burning police cars and vandalizing other vehicles, there were four stabbings and a spate of robberies, including at the Bay’s flagship store where display windows were smashed and crowds rushed in to seize whatever they could lay their hands on.

The initial response of Vancouver Mayor Gregor Robertson and the chief of police was to blame the riot on a small group of “anarchists.” This conveniently isolated the cause of the problem and branded the criminals as outsiders — an attempt similar to that of Mayor Ford. Yet the evidence was otherwise. Many of those who stole from the Bay and smashed cars were solidly mainstream, middle-class Canadians. They included Nathan Kotylak, a member of the junior national men’s water polo team.

These youths fail to fit into any of the tidy criminal risk categories currently being discussed: they were not poor, black, or foreign. They also seemed largely free of ideological commitments of the anarchist kind.

What they lacked was something else.

A recent study by the Vancouver Foundation, a non-profit community foundation, draws attention to the changing sense of community and belonging in the city.

Tracking indicators such as how many of us have a clue who our neighbours are, or have any sense of belonging at all in our communities, the report shows a sharp fall in our connection to those around us. Never mind such values as “loyalty” or “solidarity,” we seem reluctant to be grounded in anything larger than our immediate personal space. Communities seem to be about Facebook and Twitter.

Block Watch programs and other neighbourhood initiatives only stop crime if they aren’t trumped by the impulses of isolation and disconnection. It is much easier to smash up a city you view as someone else’s, or open fire on a crowd of strangers.

Social identity — shaped by where you see yourself belonging, and the people you look up to — has a decisive influence on action. Gangs are one way of filling these gaps, but not the only one which will lead to criminal behaviour. Lone criminals like Kimveer Gill, the perpetrator of the fatal shooting spree at Montreal’s Dawson College in 2006, often have a mentality of radical separation from their communities and peers. But the lack of any meaningful ties, and the ensuing loss of social responsibility, is the kind of gap that allows fascination with violence to take over.

If public spaces are simply areas where isolated individuals move past each other, and communities are reduced to a virtual reality, we will lack the sense of identity necessary to foster ethical citizenship. That puts us all at risk.

Eva Sajoo is a research associate with the centre for the comparative study of Muslim societies and cultures at Simon Fraser University in Vancouver. (Troy Media/

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