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November 5, 2013

Ottawa acts to contain Gangs

Reuel S. Amdur

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In a public reporting session on October 21, Crime Prevention Ottawa outlined the community's cooperative response to the problem of gang activity in Ottawa.

While the number of those engaged in gang activity is relatively small, the impact is considerable.  They make their revenue from illegal activities, especially in dealing in illicit drugs.  These activities are extremely lucrative, and they pay no taxes on them.  The gang members are typically from 20 to 28, but some may be younger or older. 

One gang activity that is particularly disturbing to a neighborhood occurs when a gang takes over a residence.  Typically, a single woman, often a mother, who is a drug user, finds herself controlled by gang members who supply her with drugs and move in to use the place as a centre of operations.

Crime Prevention Ottawa’s approach is multi-dimensional and involves interagency communication and cooperation. 

One element is an outreach to neighborhoods and immigrant groups to improve the understanding of immigrant communities of the Canadian justice system and to improving relations between them and the social service system in Ottawa. 

The neighborhood approach also includes an outreach to the local community to lessen the trauma to the community of major incidents, especially involving use of weapons.

Prevention involves indentifying youth at risk of becoming involved and engaging them.  Intervention includes outreach to affected communities. 

For people who have been sentenced for gang activities, the challenge is to get them into training and other activities to prevent their return to a gang.  There is currently a province-wide initiative, beginning in Ottawa, to prevent recidivism beginning at the time of release.  The initiative faces the key questions facing the person at the time of release: where will he live?  How will he make money?  One of the approaches looked at is to focus on the building trades.

Nancy Worsfold, Executive Director of Crime Prevention Ottawa, cited one problem faced in aiding people coming out of prison to integrate back in the community in a positive way: the difficulty in expunging a criminal record, as such records make employment prospects difficult.  “Ten per cent of the population have a conviction,” she noted.  She advocates making it easier to get a conviction expunged, but the Harper government is moving in just the opposite direction, making things more difficult.  Tough on crime rather than smart on crime. 

A major focus of the gang-related efforts is “downstream,” youth and families at risk.  For example, a family would likely be identified as one with children at risk if an older sibling is already involved in a gang. 

The glaring omission in the session was the lack of a voice of a front-line worker on the panel of presenters. 

I spoke to Kathleen Marr, one of the front-line workers present.  While she sees pay rates for her colleagues as being comparable to those working elsewhere in the social services, employment itself is precarious, relying on contract positions rather than permanent jobs. 

“Even the United Way doesn’t fund permanently,” she noted.  Funding for her kind of work is usually for one to three year projects.  The implications of that are clear—who will choose precarious employment when they can find a permanent job that is part of a career path?  Such funding promotes turnover and the loss of relationships and of skills and knowledge.

Worsfold sees the lack of funding from the higher levels of government as crucial in addressing the problem of gangs.  It was pointed out that the gangs are not just local.  Ottawa gangs include members who travel from Toronto and Montreal, and some even from out West.

She is right about the lack of provincial and federal dollars.  However the local government is limited in its ability to respond to this and other needs because it has to rely for funding largely on the regressive and unpopular property tax. 

The provincial legislation in Ontario prevents municipalities from levying an income tax, and momentum to make such a tax possible is lacking.  For example, Ottawa’s Mayor Jim Watson opposes such a tax. 

The province should either belly up to the bar and meet the financial needs or allow local governments to impose an income tax to fund local needs.

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