Under the gun in Toronto

The summer of the gun in Toronto in 2005 left a trail of dead and wounded youth and a posse of government agencies struggling to respond to the crisis.

The street shootouts jarred federal, provincial and municipal officials into exploring the underlying reasons for the violence that was spawned directly by illegal guns and the drug trade, Sue Corke, deputy city manager in Toronto, told a plenary at the Lac Carling Congress.

Working together to deal with the crisis in Canada’s largest city became a demonstration of how far the three levels of government have advanced in collaborating on the delivery of services to the public – and how much remains to achieve the seamless service they have talked about.

Donna Achimov, assistant deputy minister with Service Canada, said the violence in Toronto highlighted the need for better co-operation among the three levels of government. Responding to the crisis “showed we made great progress but that we still have a long way to go.”

Ron McKerlie, recently appointed CIO for Ontario, said his short time in the post has convinced him that change has to come much more quickly. “I struggle with how long it takes to do these things (collaborative projects). This is meaningful work. but it was talked about 10 years ago. This is not tough stuff to do; it’s about will, focus and getting it done. We are just in the first of many phases.”

The work on Toronto’s gun play kicked into high gear with the Boxing Day shooting of a teenaged girl in the city’s shopping district, Corke recalled. “That got the senior bureaucrats into the room.”

What the officials determined during their examination of the escalating violence last year was that young people from 13 high risk neighbourhoods felt shut out from the economic and social life of the city and had turned to guns and drug pushing for an identity. Fueling their alienation were a lack of activities for young people, gaps in social services and a lack of jobs, the officials concluded. Their answer: New after-school sport programs and other pastimes for young people and greater attention to how government programs can improve the lives of residents in the troubled areas.

Corke said in a later interview that the programs are intended to deter younger kids from emulating the criminal behaviour of older youth by giving them alternatives. Those already involved in criminal activities are for the police to deal with. “We are reaching for the kids on the edge where our efforts might make a difference. We want to reach them while they are in school so they don’t fall off the edge.”

Getting governments to work together requires building trust among the different jurisdictions, she added. What the situation in Toronto produced was a framework for government investment in troubled neighborhoods. Service Canada is providing more advice on government programs while the Ontario government has set up a summer jobs initiative for the troubled neighbourhoods as have the Toronto Police. Next, Corke observed, is finding a way to get the guns out of the city.

“We found we needed more effective programs and faster responses to problems,” she said.

McKerlie said Ontario’s experience in moving to an electronic birth registry from a paper-based system provides a clear example of the benefits of better service delivery. The system is to deliver birth certificates to the parents of newborns in two to three weeks instead of four to six months. As well, the electronic system is to cut down on the number of errors that occur in the paper system. Sending the birth information to the federal government triggers the process for issuing a social insurance number.

McKerlie noted that it took two months to agree on the electronic system and nine months to get the funding. “Hopefully we will be better the next time we do this kind of thing. After all it is all about better service.” 066171

– Binkley

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