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The Ottawa Police East Division Station. [Photo © Michael Nellis]

While headlines dominate North American media about debates over United States’ gun control policy, Canadian officials have been tackling the question of how to curb a recent jump in gun and gang violence this side of the border.

“While overall crime rates in Canada are much lower than decades ago, homicides, gun crime and gang activity have all been steadily increasing,” Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale said in a statement following a summit on gun and gang violence in Canada. “Gun homicides have almost doubled over the past four years — and more than half are linked to gangs.”

The Summit on Gun and Gang Violence took place in Ottawa Mar. 7 and brought together different levels of government, academia, law enforcement and community groups to talk about the recent spike in gun and gang issues. Goodale listed Ottawa, as well as Toronto, Vancouver and Edmonton as being “hard-hit” by the problem. Goodale had also teased some upcoming gun control legislature, which was tabled two weeks afterwards.

Law enforcement officials point to gangs and the drug trade as major factors. “We’re seeing minor disputes being settled with firearms, rather than more traditional ways of beatings and threats,” said Ottawa Police Superintendent Chris Renwick about how gang violence has changed.

Homicides in Canada had been dropping steadily since a peak in 1975, when there were three homicides per 100,000 people in the country, according to Statistics Canada. This decline hit a low in 2013 with 1.5 homicides per 100,000 — half the amount recorded four decades prior.

The number of homicide victims who were killed by shooting was also low in 2013, when there were 134. In 2016 that number rose to 223, a 66 per cent increase.

But the federal government has been criticized for using this 2013 benchmark, since it could just be a low outlier. If you step back a year, to 2012, when there were 171 homicides caused by shooting, 2016 would represent a 30 per cent increase in gun homicides, half the increase seen using 2013 as the baseline. Since 2013 saw the country’s lowest rate of homicides since 1966, just about any year looks high by comparison.

In 2016 there were 1.68 homicides per 100,000 people, meaning homicide in general, despite a recent spike, is still half what it was in 1975. Nevertheless, public safety officials would likely point out that even in a year like 2013, 509 homicide victims is 509 too many.

And 2016 saw the largest percentage of homicides linked to gangs in 18 years. In 1999, only 8.7 per cent of homicides were linked to gang violence, versus the 23.1 per cent measured in 2016. This percentage rose steadily until 2008, when it dropped again before another rise in 2015 and 2016.

Renwick notes that innocent people can also be caught in the crossfire of gun violence. “We’ve got open gun gunplay, running gun fights on our streets, outside of houses,” Renwick said. “We’ve had instances where projectiles have gone into houses and struck people.”

Such an incident occurred this year when three houses near Manor Park were hit by gunfire on Jan. 10. No one was injured in this incident, but two years ago, an Ottawa woman, Tiffany Moreau was shot by a stray bullet while sleeping in her own bed. Two bullets had blown through the ceiling of her Pineview neighbourhood apartment — one of which struck her foot.

So how do we prevent this issue? “It’s quite a complex answer,” Renwick said, “and really you can turn the same question: what makes young men choose to enter into a very high risk, dangerous trade such as drug trafficking where the probability of them being victims of violence and shooting is high?”

Renwick referred to the Ottawa Street Violence and Gang Strategy, from Crime Prevention Ottawa. Several of the first parts of the strategy are community-based, and youth centered. It’s predominately young men who join gangs, he said. It’s important to focus on them in the 8 to 12 age range through youth groups and youth programming.

The Ottawa Police work with Christie Lake Kids, as well as other community-based programs in Ottawa, which offer after-school programs for kids, camps, as well as opportunities for children to interact with local law enforcement. Renwick said this is key to long-term success.

Natalie Benson, director of communications and fundraising for Christie Lake Kids. [Photo © Michael Nellis]

Christie Lake Kids is free, which reduces economic barriers for the children and predominately hosts sports programs in low-income, community housing areas.

“Kids are more likely to join gangs if they have poor parental attachment, exhibit aggressive behaviour early in life, do poorly in school, and have lower levels of self-control,” said Natalie Benson, the communications and fundraiser director for Christie Lake Kids.

“Gang members also tend to be marginalized members of society in terms of social and economic status.”

The charity originally started as a camp for kids who had got in trouble with the law, but, as Benson said, was changed to focus on at-risk, low-income children as a means to prevent kids from getting in trouble with the law in the first place. Christie Lake Kids also offers yearly sporting events, such as a hockey day, where kids get to play alongside Ottawa police staff.

“A lot of times kids who live in Ottawa’s priority neighbourhoods, and Ottawa’s most at-risk neighbourhoods have a lot of fear of the police,” Benson said.

According to Benson, allowing kids to participate in sports with police helps them to see officers as “very human and not see them as someone they have to fear.”

Ottawa police have also focused on upping their efforts on seizing weapons used by gangs. Renwick acknowledged that this won’t likely remove all the guns from circulation, but said it at least drives up the price in the illicit market. Last year, Ottawa police seized 76 crime guns, 47 of which were handguns. In 2016, 62 firearms were seized. In January of this year, 11 were seized.

On Feb. 22, 2018, Ottawa police, in an investigation with Gatineau police, arrested seven people and seized an assault rifle with several high-capacity magazines. [Photo courtesy of Ottawa Police Service]

On Jan 31. 2018, Ottawa police confiscated two handguns after performing a “high-risk takedown of a vehicle.” Four men were arrested and charged with gun and drug charges. [Photo courtesy of Ottawa Police Service]

On Mar. 20 Goodale tabled Bill C-71, which serves to toughen gun control laws. One leg of this is giving the RCMP say on final classification of weapons, instead of elected officials. Background checks are being extended beyond the current five years limit to look at an entire person’s life for possible issues. And gun vendors are required to track sales of firearms, as well as ensure the buyer has a valid license.

Two types of weapons — the Ceska Zbrojovka CZ-858 rifle and certain Swiss Arms firearms — are being reclassified as prohibited after the previous government had made the decision to knock them down to restricted. There are also further restrictions on how restricted and prohibited firearms can be transported.

In November Goodale had announced that the government is investing $327.6 million throughout five years, and then $100 million the following year to bring together government support of community prevention and enforcement efforts to tackle the issue of gun and gang crime.

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