Group of ‘ex-gang leaders’ aims to end Toronto gun violence through youth programs

An advocacy group against gang violence is trying to curb a spike in Toronto shooting deaths, which has claimed 49 lives so far in 2018, by delivering a slate of youth programs in marginalized communities. 

One by One Movement plans to launch new anti-bullying and gang prevention programs in downtown Alexandra Park next month. The announcement comes as Toronto marked its 94th homicide this year — surpassing a grim record that stood unbroken for nearly three decades. 

“We’re a group of ex-gang leaders, ex-bad guys who have come together to try to divert kids from taking the wrong path that we took,” co-founder Marcell Wilson told CBC Toronto. 

The maze of brown brick social housing townhouses and apartment buildings, nestled between Kensington Market and Queen Street, often makes the news for the wrong reasons: gangs, drugs and guns. What’s often overlooked is the community of people who call it home. (CBC)

Alexandra Park — a small neighbourhood nestled between Queen and Dundas streets and bordered by Bathurst Street and Spadina Avenue — has a history with gang activity, turf wars and retaliation, guns and drugs.

The area recently grabbed the spotlight in relation to the death of a prominent Toronto rapper in a shooting over the Canada Day weekend.  

Smoke Dawg, whose real name is Jahvante Smart, was among two people gunned down in a brazen drive-by shooting in Toronto’s entertainment district on June 30.

Before his death Smart, who established himself as a rapper in the four-member of the Halal Gang, filmed a segment of the music video for his newly released song Fountain Freestyle in front of a rival gang’s community housing project in Alexandra Park.  

A number of fans at the time speculated, on social media and online forums like Reddit, that this video could have made waves with local gangs and prompted a neighbourhood war. Police have declined to comment on the shooting’s motive but have issued Canada-wide warrants for the arrest of two suspects in the case. 

Rapper Smoke Dawg, right, released a video for his song Fountain Freestyle just five days before his death. It features him rapping in front of Atkinson Housing Co-op in Alexandra Park — a move some fans speculate may have led to his death. (878 Dream Team/YouTube)  

Toronto has recorded 49 people killed by guns so far in 2018, according to police statistics — a figure that accounts for more than half of all homicides in the city. 

In all of last year, that number was 39. 

Both the mayor and police chief have said the majority of shootings in Canada’s biggest city are linked to a dramatic spike in gang-related violence. Saunders pointed out during a summer news conference, however, that just because a shooting in gang-related, doesn’t mean the victims are members. 

Kiley Fleming is working as the child and youth program coordinator at the community centre in Alexander Park. (Martin Trainor/CBC)

Kiley Fleming grew up in Alexandra Park and is now a youth outreach worker there. She told CBC Toronto the neighbourhood, which has gone through a massive, decades-long revitalization by exchanging a maze of community housing buildings for shinier condominiums and townhouses, used to have more supports for children. 

“I remember as a young person, as a child, being engaged in programs,” she said of an array of after-school programs and mentorship opportunities.

Oso Agie, who also grew up in the area, echoed that youth don’t have the same opportunities now, noting initiatives like One on One Movement are needed more than ever to curb a rash of gun violence. 

“It doesn’t expose them to different aspects of life, different areas. If you’re just stuck in these four walls, meaning Queen, Spadina, Bathurst and Dundas, than this is all you’re going to believe your reality is,” he said. 

“A lot of these kids just don’t know their worth, they don’t understand the power that they possess, and how they can effect change in the world, so they join a lot of groups that they feel welcome.”

One by One Movement is holding a charity boxing match on Dec. 29 to help raise funds for at-risk youth. 

“We want to serve the community, that’s why we’re here,” said Wilson. 

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