Don’t Call Me Resilient

How can we slow down youth gun violence?

Episode Summary

In 2007, 15-year-old Jordan Manners became the first student to be shot and killed inside a Toronto school. Since then, youth violence hasn’t let up in Canada’s largest city. In fact, it’s getting worse. Devon Jones and Ardavan Eizadirad say it’s a major problem that needs a more holistic approach. Ardavan is an assistant professor in the Department of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University who studies the root causes of gun violence. He and Devon run YAAACE – a community organization started by Devon that tackles the root causes of youth gun violence in Toronto. They join Vinita to talk about what has been going wrong and how to get it right.

Episode Notes

It was 15 years ago: police officers flooded C. W. Jefferys Collegiate in northwest Toronto. Outside, hundreds of anxious parents stood waiting for answers. The news that police delivered – as we now know –  was tragic.

Fifteen-year-old Jordan Manners had been killed. It was the first time anyone had been fatally shot inside a Toronto school. Jordan’s death stunned his community and the nation. And for many, it punctured the illusion of safety in Canadian schools.

Since then, we’ve seen a slew of reports and funds directed at anti-violence projects… But youth violence hasn’t let up in Toronto, Canada’s largest city.

In fact, it’s getting worse.

In the Toronto District School Board, the number of physical assaults has risen by 174 per cent between 2014 and 2019 and the number of incidents involving the use of a weapon by a student has risen by 60 per cent.

This year, on Valentine’s Day, a student was fatally shot inside a Toronto high school and in October, another shooting happened outside a school.

Why is gun violence increasing? And can we slow it down?

Devon Jones has spent the past 15 years tackling these very questions. He is a teacher and well-recognized youth worker in the Jane and Finch community - where Jordan Manners was killed. It has been described as Toronto’s most dangerous area to be a kid.

Devon has seen many students who have lost their lives to violence over the years, including Manners. But he has also saved many lives through programs offered by YAAACE - an organization he founded in 2007 that focuses on basketball and academics. He’s a busy man, who had just rushed from dealing with a youth emergency before talking to us from school.

One of the former volunteers of Jones's organization is Ardavan Eizadirad. Eizadirad is now the executive director of YAAACE. He is also an Assistant Professor in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University who has written about the root causes of gun violence.

Join us on  Don’t Call Me Resilient as we speak to both Jones and Eizadirad about the rising rates of gun violence in Canada and the role community organizations play in the solution.

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Articles in the Conversation

Read the companion article to this episode of Don’t Call Me Resilient: To resolve youth violence, Canada must move beyond policing and prison, by Ardavan Eizadirad.

Episode Transcription


Vinita Srivastava: From the Conversation, this is Don't Call Me Resilient. I'm Vinita Srivastava. 

Devon Jones: Folks don't understand how nuanced this phenomenon is. They don't understand how complex it is, and they don't understand the impending crisis if we don't get this right. We have to get this right and there's no margin for error.

Vinita Srivastava: It was 15 years ago, police officers flooded C.W. Jefferys collegiate in northwest Toronto. Outside, hundreds of anxious parents stood waiting for answers. The news that police delivered, as we now know, was tragic. Fifteen-year-old Jordan Manners had been killed. It was the first time anyone had been shot inside a Toronto school.

Jordan's death stunned his community and the nation. And for many, it punctured the illusion of safety in Canadian schools. Since then, we've seen a slew of reports and funds directed at anti violence projects. But youth violence hasn't let up in Toronto, Canada’s largest city. In fact, it's getting worse. In the Toronto District School Board, the number of physical assaults has risen by 174% in the last eight years.

And the number of incidents involving the use of a weapon by a student has risen by 60%. On Valentine's Day, a student was fatally shot inside a Toronto high school, and last month another shooting happened outside a school. Why is gun violence increasing and can we slow it down? 

Devon Jones has spent the past 15 years tackling these questions. He's a teacher and a well-recognized youth worker in the Jane Finch community. Where Jordan Manners was killed. It has been described as Toronto's most dangerous area to be a kid. Devon has seen many students who have lost their lives to violence over the years, but he has also saved many lives through programs like YAAACE - an organization he founded in 2007 that focuses on basketball and academics. 

One of the former volunteers of Devon's organization is Ardavan Eizadirad. Ardavan is now the executive director of YAACE. He is also an assistant professor in the Faculty of Education at Wilfrid Laurier University, and he's written about the root causes of gun violence. Thanks for coming on the pod, both of you. 

Ardavan: Thank you for having us

Devon Jones: Thanks for having us.

Vinita Srivastava: Ardavan, how old were you when you met Devon and how did you meet?

Ardavan: I was a teenager. I was about 16, 17 years old playing competitive basketball. I would see Devon in the gym when YAAACE played, and I think, you know, that's the time when I was really developing a passion for social justice and equity due to some of the things I was experiencing.

Some of the friends I was losing to death, to gun violence, to incarceration, and so I think it started as an informal conversation. I also got into officiating at a young age, and so I know Devon would ask me if I was available to officiate some games, and during those interactions we would kind of talk about community work.

You know, we would talk about issues impacting racialized communities. You know, I was growing up in Scarborough, but traveling to Jane and Finch and the other neighborhoods to play competitive basketball and I was looking for summer employment. I requested to work with Devon and be with the YAAACE and that was a kind of uh, the spark of us becoming deeper friends.

And that work has really just grown since, you know, as I went on to Teachers College. I went to York University and I remember being in the basement of Devon's house and he was writing me a reference letter to get into Teachers College. And so, you know, for me, he's become a, he was a mentor. He still is, and it's an honor to continue to work with him and to do the community work we really believe in together. 

Vinita Srivastava: And Devon, why is sports such an integral part of this program for you? 

Devon Jones: Well, when we started, the objective was to use sports as a way to galvanize a polarized community, meaning that there were, there were two factions in Jaden Finch, the kids north, north of Finch, the kids south of Finch.

They almost never, ever coexisted, and there was a history of reprisal and reciprocal shootings between both communities. So I met a coach who had the ability to get the kids together. We felt that'd be a good way to unify the community using sports, and also sports would allow for what we call expanded opportunities.

A lot of the kids from this neighborhood didn't have access to structured recreation that was local, without traveling hours to other communities. So we figured. It was a win-win. Get the kids together, provide them with expanded opportunities, provide them with a positive outlet, and that way we could make meaningful change in our community with kids who almost never, believe it or not, the kids are from across the street and they almost never, ever coexisted. So we figured that would be a, a great way to bridge the divide in Jane and Finch.

Vinita Srivastava: That divide, was that like a, you know, don't cross the street kind of thing? 

Devon Jones: Finch is like the dividing factor, but even deeper than the street, they're real just theoretical, political, social divisions, you know? So there's a physical street, but there is there's the history of tragedy and life… loss of life in friends that were killed by the other faction across the street. So the street politics is deep as it relates to that level of division and that level of, of of, of… there's always an eminent reality that there could be, there could be some side, some sort of negative reciprocity around violence. So that's always undercurrent to this day. That's very much so pervasive in this community. 

Vinita Srivastava: You mentioned that the children that you work with are vulnerable to violence. How vulnerable to gun violence are the kids and the teens that you work with? 

Devon Jones: Yeah, so this is the way I see violence. I see violence as's an infectious disease. If you look at the way you treat an infectious disease, the way it's spread, the way, the way it decimates, the way it permeates. So what concerns us most also is just at times, just the randomness of this violence. The culture of reprisal and reciprocal shootings. 

And at times these kids are all lumped into the same schools.So you could imagine how toxic that environment could be where you're in a building -an institution of learning - where you have to, pretty much, you, you, you're negotiating your mortality every single day. We have folks on the ground, we have folks monitoring social media, so we can always get some sort of intelligence as, as is to what's taking place in community. And we're also vigilant in being proactive as opposed to being reactive to this phenomenon. 

And what makes it even more disturbing is the fact that after these homicides, folks will go on social media and they'll troll, you know, they'll make fun of the deceased. 

Ardavan: We see, for example, that the perpetrators of gun violence, particularly in Toronto, are getting younger.

The number of daylight robberies and shootings have increased, and it's creating this atmosphere of unease. We're starting to see more shootings on school properties. We've had multiple deaths of 15 year olds. When we look at the report done by Dr. Tanya Sharp, you know, 75% of Canadian homicide victims are African, Caribbean or from black communities. And there's an overrepresentation. 

So I think what we need to do is really break it down. What are the risk factors that drive someone towards violence, whether that's gun violence or other forms of violence. Yeah. And what are the protective factors? Access to quality programs, access to mentors providing services in a social or reflective way that values and recognizes the traumas [that] racialized black, indigenous people of color experience. These help push people away from gravitating towards violence and then connecting them with social support services, helping them with employment housing. 

Vinita Srivastava: Devon, I've heard you talk about this a lot and you get really passionate about it, which is, you know, we are talking about children.

What is it that happens to children? They go from like 13 years old to turning into sort of these almost adult-like people who are carrying weapons. How would you sort of characterize that, that gun problem that we're talking about? 

Devon Jones: That's a great question actually, because you know, for folks like myself and Ardavan, the perpetrators of violence that we are looking at…There aren't kids that we're reading about in a book. Some of these individuals we taught, we coached, we've been around them since they were, you know, nine, 10, even younger.  Right? And then to end up to seeing the final product or seeing that level of moral decay where the concept of life or death does not mean much, much to them.

For me, it's the million dollar question. It's like, not so much what's wrong with you, but understanding what has happened to you. You know? And that is why we have, uh, you know, we have a psychologist on the team who's helping us understand, you know, what leads to that. So a lot of time people are punitive.

They're… they think they can lock, lock these kids away. But I'm like, no, let's try and make sense of it. Let’s make, let's make sense of the 400 homicides since Jordan Manners died in a TDSB school. There's been 400 homicides of school aged kids. Kids 21 and under, right in the GTA. That's an astounding number, isn't it?

You know? So let's try and make sense of who are these young people? Let's try and make sense of the demographic data. Let's try and make sense of, you know, what postal code did these, these young people from? What were their achievement level levels in school? What did they have access to? And let's look at …Let's look at the qualitative or quantitative variables that would contribute, like I said earlier, to that level of moral decay. 

Vinita Srivastava: Ardavan, you said something about good kids and bad kids. You wrote an article about this too. Is it bad kids or bad places? Where is all the violence originating from? Why did you feel it was an important question to ask?

Ardavan: Well, lemme tell you the backstory of how I wrote that paper. It was one day I picked up the newspaper and the front of it in big, bold letters, it said: “Why are all the good kids dying?” And it was at a time when three 15 year olds had died within the span of six weeks in Toronto. And I kind of really sat with that headline, like, what if they were bad kids?

Would they make the front page of the news? Would their story matter? Would their stories be heard? And whether we label them as good or bad kids, does anybody really deserve to die? So for me it was this entry point of that question itself and that entry point of looking at gun violence or the level of violence impacting community is actually detrimental because it actually perpetuates stereotypes.

And so I think when it comes to gun violence, we need to work with communities. We need to value the lived experiences, we have to acknowledge the intergenerational trauma, the colonial history, the white supremacy that has impacted institutional policies and practices, and particularly where they failed.

I think, you know, since George Floyd, you know, we are in a bit of a more woke culture, but change is still slow. It could still be performative, and this checklist approach. And so we always have to measure where were we 30 years ago? Where were we 15 years ago since Jordan Manors and has a whole lot changed? Because this year alone, we've had three incidents of 15 year old shootings or deaths on school property, right?

And so when I think about the 1982 race relations report by Steven Lewis, which happened after the the Young Street Uprisings. There really, a whole lot hasn't changed in 30 years. It's becoming like a broken record of cycles of up and down, a bit of quiet. Then the violence happens, and it's not simply about accessing a gun because I can tell you, you know, it's, it's very easy to access a gun for many people, but many people choose not to do it because of the other protective factors.

You know what? They got too much to lose. They make good choices. They have access to a mentor, so we have to kind of focus on what are the protective factors to actually get people away from the vulnerable circumstances or the risk factors they're exposed to. You 

Vinita Srivastava: You said you looked at the headline and the way that it was, you know, talked about these good kids and, but race is such a big factor there where, you know, we can talk about the 2005 incident with Jane Creba, whose death was tragic, but you know, media focused on that killing quite a bit and this idea of innocence …the innocent death.

Ardavan: So I think what stands out is the level of commitment from the institutions to try to seek justice for Jane Creba. We see an extensive amount of policing, you know, wire tapping the amount of police officers that were assigned to the case. And it's not to say the death of Jane  Creba wasn't important, but from an equity lens, we ask, are all cases treated with such priority?

Particularly, and the victims are black and are coming from racialized communities. It's easy to say, oh, well, you know, they were gang involved, or they were a bad kid, so therefore, you know, it was bound to happen. Right? That's what, that's what we need to disrupt. And if we're not willing to support folks who are experienced, exposed to the most risk factors and are in vulnerable conditions, how can we then expect these cycles?

And in many cases it's intergenerational cycles of poverty and violence to be disrupted. If somebody whose mother or father is incarcerated, they're more likely to gravitate towards violence because of a lack of a mentor, a lack of a support system at home. How do we support the person, but also the family unit and also the community.

Vinita Srivastava: Yeah. I guess you were talking about some of the reasons why some of the children and the, the young people that we're talking about are vulnerable to the effects of gun violence. Why are some children more vulnerable than others? 

Ardavan: Yeah…A 2018 report by people for education found that province-wide, the averageratio for guidance counselors was 396 students for every counselor. How can that happen within a community who is impacted by violence? Who, who students may be grieving the death of a student? They know it's impossible to do it effectively. So this is where we mean we need to funnel and decide where do we put the resources to actually be preventative versus reactionary?

You know, just because we have a few deaths, we'll say, well, let's more money in policing? Well, we know that is, that has been historically and continues to be, you know, a failed strategy. We actually need to invest in creating access and affordability to those programs and social support services, which will reduce risk factors and increase protective factors.

Vinita Srivastava: Tell me about this project you both partnered with the City of Toronto and this TOwards Peace and anti-violence, uh, project. Maybe Devon, you could start, what are, what are you hoping to do with this project? 

Devon Jones: It's a unique initiative because it seeks to target those or the center of producing violence. And ensuring that every step of the way we surround them with folks with lived experiences that can somewhat mitigate what's taking place. So, you know, oftentimes I find communities are reacting to what's taking place, but it's understanding what's taking place and ensuring that there are folks on the ground that can disrupt, that can interrupt, and that can walk folks off the ledge when they need to provide them with meaningful options to employment, education, mentorship, and positive alternatives. So TOwards Peace, it's a great initiative. It's ran well in places like Sacramento, Chicago, and so on, and we have modified it in a sense to make sure the Toronto version of it works. So it's engaging those at the core of producing violence.

Vinita Srivastava: We often hear about and focus our attention on gun violence when we're talking about it. It's in the US over incidences in Canada. Can we even compare the two situations? 

Devon Jones: We're worried about some of those trends from the US setting root, if we don't put meaningful infrastructure in place to disrupt some of this earlier.

With every shooting, the issue becomes more complex. The more we, we pretend this is not happening, it intensifies because you're talking about unresolved or unaddressed issues. So in a sense, yes, if there's a lot we can learn from the US about the mistakes they have made and we can act accordingly. And if we don't act accordingly, if we're not proactive, then we're gonna deal with some of the high escalation in places like Chicago and so on that we see taking place there.

Ardavan: What happens a lot of times is we think the level of violence is so much worse in the United States but we actually try to dismiss how racialized communities are impacted by violence here in Canada, and that's very detrimental and harmful. So we can compare to the United States around what are some best practices, what are some programs that work. 

And so there are some things we can take, but a copy and paste approach will not work for Canada because the diversity of people are different. You look at neighborhood histories and how violence is escalated, it's very different. 

So we can take some good things and also learn from mistakes such as investing in more policing. It doesn't solve the problem. How do we not just focus on, you know, the high profile situations? We kinda have to go back to once again, what are the basic risk factors? If you look at the review of the roots of violence that came out a year after the death of Jordan Manners, if we look at the report, the TSB report that was done by external stakeholders around some of the recommendations.

They've all been identified, but we are not moving on the actions fast enough where we're losing more lives, right? We need to start enacting it. We don't need another study to tell us what are the problems and what are the solutions. What we need is more resources, more funding, more synergy across the institutions and the sectors to actually do the work and involve community with it.

So one of the great things about TOwards Peace: A new narrative, the violence prevention interruption and intervention programs at YAAACE is community is with us at every step of the way, right? We value residents voices. It is community driven and it uses that public health approach, which is proactive, 

Vinita Srivastava: You said, public health approach. And I think that might be a little confusing. If you could take a few minutes just to describe what do you mean by public health approach?

Ardavan: So let's say the act here is an act of violence. Somebody checks into the hospital and they've been stabbed or shot. Okay, well, we're not just gonna focus on the wound.

We're going to say, where was this person before they arrived? Who did they interact with? What is their family situation like? What kind of support services did they have access to or they couldn't access? And how did all of these factors contribute to this tragic incident of a stabbing or a shooting?

All right. And. That's kind of an example of the public health approach. It's very data driven in terms of identifying those trends and then how do you mitigate it and how do you track that over time? So for example, with TOwards Peace: A new narrative on the case management, we provide to clients, we track them through this idea of a life map of what are their goals in employment, in housing. How are we supporting them? Where are they three months from now? Where are they six months from now? Where are they one year from now? How do we support them if they now are incarcerated while we were supporting them? How do we support them while they get incarcerated?

And we're working with the MCCS - Youth Justice Division and Ministry of Solicitor General - to talk about how do we help people transition back into community Because we know the first 48 hours where they give you a bus ticket and say, okay, you’released. That's when folks are the most vulnerable to committing acts of violence or you know, having health issues, depression.

So how do we make sure we more effectively reintegrate folks back into community? And this is why it just can't be a policing, a media or an education solution. All the stakeholders have to work together. 

Vinita Srivastava: Both of you are committed to the work that you do. And I know that Devon, you mentioned Jordan Manners, and I've heard you mention that you used to teach him when he was probably in elementary school. How do you deal with the daily challenge of the work that you do?

Devon Jones: I know for me, the therapy is in the, is in the prevention. It's like you're trying to put a puzzle together that is a thousand pieces, and you know, every time you think you've made meaningful progress, you realize there's a piece outta shape, outta place, or there's a shape that's missing or something is not congruent. For me, the therapy is in the solving this equation. It's getting people to understand, it's getting government to understand, getting school board and stakeholders to understand. So the work is quite daunting.

I told my team, my team on monday morning, if we can fix this problem and if we can provide Canada as a whole with meaningful alternative to this phenomenon, we are in so much trouble. Folks don't understand how nuanced this phenomenon is. They don't understand how complex it is, and they don't understand the impending crisis, if we don't get this right, we have to get this right and there's no margins for error. That's just the reality of it. 

I never thought when I started teaching school in 1999 as a 24 year old young man, that I would eulogize a student or I would sit in a courtroom when a, when a young person is convicted to a life sentence, or I would see countless mothers mourn.

In the lot where my father's buried up the road at Beachwood, I got four students in that same lot who are lost their life under 18 years old. It's dealing with those personal situations and understanding that if we can't prevent this from occurring, if we can't prevent meaningful, alternative or alternatives, then who can? And that's what, that's a driving force, and that's the therapy for myself personally, is ensuring that we solve this puzzle.

Vinita Srivastava: We've heard a lot of people calling for defunding of the police or a reallocation of police budget. So based on what you've seen, where do you want that money to go? 

Devon Jones: As I said, I've lost scores of young people and I have scores of young people, you know who, who are institutionalized based on what is taking place in the communities around violence.

And it has nothing to do with policing. It has to do with the fact that for the most part, there are issues around access. There was issues around social infrastructures. There was issues around parenting. There were issues around a very violent subculture, a very violent ecosystem that was left unaddressed for too long.

Jane and Finch has the highest concentration of gangs, youth gangs. They have the lowest achieving schools in this province. They have some of the lowest income levels in this province. So obviously we need to look at that. 

Ardavan: I think if you ask five different people who use the phrase defund the police, there's, there might be five different entry points and it's okay to not be on the same page.

In my perspective, I don't think police are a non-factor, but I don't think they are the solution. If you ask me defund the police, my take would be that, I'm not saying to have zero policing, but we need to have policing that works with community and where possible, some of those services that are offloaded to the police right now be provided by other professionals who have relationships with the community, such as healthcare services, mental health, checks that can not only free up the police to perhaps invest their time and energy and alternative approaches that helps communities thrive. So I think for me the policing is one aspect of, as Devon said this thousand piece puzzle, it definitely policing as an institution in association with the justice system, habits inequities and it does need to revamp in many ways because we know racialized communities are impacted from racial profiling to sentencing to the conditions within jails. 

But policing alone in the justice system is not gonna solve the issue if they don't work with the healthcare system, the education system, with folks with lived experiences in community with post-secondary institutions and subject experts.

Vinita Srivastava: I guess that's your violence disruptors that you're talking about are people with lived experience in the communities. 

Ardavan: Yes

Vinita Srivastava: Guys, it's been amazing to speak with you. Thank you guys so much.

That's it for this episode of Don't Call Me Resilient. I hope you learned something. I know I did. Are you doing something in your community for youth? Do you want to get involved? If you're still there, write to us on Twitter. I'm at @writevinita. And tag our producers at @conversationca so they can join in.

Use the hashtag, #DontCallMeResilient. You can also find us on Instagram or Facebook. Search for the Conversation Canada. If you'd like to read more about gun violence, go to the We have an article by today's guest, Ardavan Eizadirad with links to additional stories and research. 

Finally, if you like what you heard today, please help spread the word about the pod. Tell a friend about us or leave a review on whatever podcast app you're using. 

Don't Call Me Resilient is a production of the Conversation Canada. This podcast was produced in partnership with the Journalism Innovation Lab. The lab is funded by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council of Canada, and the series is produced and hosted by me Vinita Srivastava.

The lead producers on this episode are myself and Dannielle Piper. The consulting producer is Jennifer Moroz. Our associate producer is Rithika Shenoy. Our assistant producer is journalism student, Ollie Nicholas. Rehmatullah Sheik is our audio editor. Ateqah Khaki is our marketing and visual innovation consultant, and Scott White is the CEO of the Conversation Canada.

And if you're wondering who wrote and performed the music we use on the pod, that's the amazing Zaki Ibrahim. The track is called “Something in the Water.”