Ten Lost Years

STREETS OF FIRE

Crime may be declining elsewhere in Canada, writes CHARLIE GILLIS, but violence burdens the troubled Toronto neighbourhood where Omar Hortley was gunned down

June 7 2004
Ten Lost Years

STREETS OF FIRE

Crime may be declining elsewhere in Canada, writes CHARLIE GILLIS, but violence burdens the troubled Toronto neighbourhood where Omar Hortley was gunned down

June 7 2004

STREETS OF FIRE

Ten Lost Years

Malvern

Crime may be declining elsewhere in Canada, writes CHARLIE GILLIS, but violence burdens the troubled Toronto neighbourhood where Omar Hortley was gunned down

The faces in cabinet changed from time to time, as did the priorities. But as successful as the Liberals have been at the polls, much has been neglected over their three successive mandates, in an election campaign series starting this week, Maclean’s looks at people and places that have not shared in the country’s general well-being over the past decade.

HER VOICE WAVERS, and she pauses at times to stop her tears. But Patricia Fough is ready—determined, actually—to tell her story. It begins in a suburban home in northeast Toronto, with her 21-year-old son, Omar Hortley, rising after dinner and asking if he might go visit some friends. It was a cold evening last January—not the kind for a walk down a windswept Scarborough street. But Omar’s mates had arranged to watch a wrestling match on pay-per-view television, and the house where they were meeting was only 2 V2 blocks away. So he pulled on his coat, kissed his mother goodbye and promised to call before he came home.

The next few hours are a blur. At 8 p.m. there was a puzzling call from Hortley’s friends, who were still awaiting his arrival; then, her own desperate inquiries with hospitals and police as it became clear Omar was missing; finally, after 11 p.m., a visit from two Toronto police detectives confirming her most sickening fears. Hortley, they said, had been killed by a bullet to the head in a driveby shooting mere minutes after stepping out of his own front door. Because he’d left his wallet at home, they’d been unable to identify him until she showed them his picture.

For Fough, a 43-year-old accounts clerk who was born in Guyana, the loss defied all logic. For 13 years, she’d lived without a hint of trouble in her neighbourhood north of Highway 401, raising a son who seemed the very antithesis of disaffected adolescence. “We were like best friends, brother and sister, you name it,” she recalls. “He was my whole life.” Far from running with a dangerous crowd, Hortley spent most of his time at home, caring for his grandmother before her death 18 months ago and, later, preparing to attend Durham College in nearby Oshawa. “He was not a gang member,” Fough stresses. “He always asked me if he could go out, which I found amazing for a 21-year-old kid. I had never had any trouble with him.”

CANADA, the statistics tell us, is not a violent place, and crime is way down the list of issues driving the current federal election campaign—no doubt because Canadians have suffered progressively less of it over the past decade. Between 1992 and 2002, the overall crime rate fell nearly 25 per cent across the country, while even growing cities like Toronto saw general declines in violent crime from their heights in the early 1990s. But Hortley’s death and a rash of other shootings in suburban Toronto point to anq emerging hazard on the criminal landscape, one that’s been largely ignored as the rest of the country grew peaceful. In the past 12 months, there have been no less than five gunrelated deaths in the neighbourhood known as Malvern, a cluster of winding residential streets in Toronto’s northeast end, and still more shootings in northwest neighbourhoods like Rexdale, near Pearson International Airport. Several people have been injured as a result, and in a few cases, stray bullets have flown through the walls of homes, in one instance killing someone inside.

The effect has been to create a series of nogo zones around the perimeter of the city, formerly peaceful bedroom communities burdened by a distinctly un-suburban sense of violence, poverty and despair. While Malvern was once a thriving blue-collar neighbourhood, the most recent census figures suggest some 19 per cent of its mostly Caribbean, East Asian and South Asian families now live below the poverty line—almost three times the 1981 level. That decline epitomizes a city-wide shift in poverty from the old city toward the inner suburbs, where there has been a sixfold increase in the number of higher poverty districts, according to a report published recently by the United Way of Greater Toronto and the Canadian Council on Social Development. Not surprisingly, there is little confidence among young people in these areas that things are going to change: at a community meeting in Rexdale last March to discuss the growing

problems of gang violence, teenagers dismissed the event as a publicity stunt, and warned that most people hope to leave the first chance they get. “If things continue the way they are and I have a family,” said 17-year-old Ankit Kadakia, a student at North Albion Collegiate, where the meeting was held, “I would move out of the area for their protection.”

MALVERN was once a thriving blue-collar community, but now 19 per cent of families live below the poverty line

This bleak outlook prevails despite a flurry of official initiatives, including a strategy announced by Mayor David Miller to explore ways of preventing violence. The police, too, have been busy, arresting some 64 suspected members of a gang called the Malvern Crew on May 12 in a sweep that won widespread applause. But enthusiasm over such victories has been tempered by the slow grind of bureaucracy, or the frustrating vagaries of the justice system. So far, Miller’s initiative has produced an advisory panel, a “community safety secretariat” and a variety of well-intentioned plans, but little in the way of concrete results. The police, meanwhile, saw 10 of the first 15 alleged gang members who were processed in court released on bail. As if to mock the whole process, several of the accused mooned and gave the middle finger to the media on their way out of court; one invited a photographer to try taking pictures on the suspect’s “home turf.”

Hortley’s murder in January, one of five gun-related deaths in the neighbourhood in the last 12 months, remains unsolved

PATRICIA FOUGH has certainly placed her faith elsewhere. In the days following Omar’s killing, the grief-stricken mother found solace at Rhema Christian Ministries, a 2,000-strong, largely black congregation running services out of a warehouse complex in northeast Toronto. At the time, she was near distraction from mental images of her son falling to the sidewalk, and haunting thoughts about his final seconds. “I’d wonder whether he’d cried out,” she says, “whether he’d asked for me before he died.” The shooters, she knew, were still at large: while they paused long enough to spray several bullets in Hortley’s direction, nobody came forward to identify them. And while Fough had her husband (not Omar’s father) to support her, the church offered her a place to grieve, pray and call for solace at practically any hour of the day. “Just hearing that voice,” she says, “would make me feel better.”

Discovering Rhema proved as fateful for the church as it did for Fough. Inspired by the woman’s plight, its founder, Orim Meikle, a rhetorically gifted, born-again pastor, made troubled neighbourhoods his church’s keystone cause. In February, he held a funeral for Omar in Rhema’s cavernous sanctuary, and has since made no secret of his belief that secular authorities are out of their depth. “Government should govern,” he says in his spartan office, “and the church should make sure that the social structures—the fibres of family and community—are in place.”

The message is a familiar one from Christian churches working in troubled neighbourhoods. The absence of religion in modern life has broken down the family unit, they say, driving young people out of the house toward gangs and drugs and sexual permissiveness. But Meikle, who is black, has added an overtly racial dimension to the theory, which he’s happy to rub in the face of the politically correct. Born in Jamaica and raised in Toronto, he frequently calls on black people to assume greater personal responsibility for their troubles, and to exercise will against their appetites. Compare the black community to other ethnic groups, he argues, and its failures stand in bold relief: “Whether it’s Asians who come and do menial labour to make their way, or [East] Indians who come and live in one house until everyone can buy a house,” he says, “they’re doing some things and they’re advancing, while we’re kind of laissez-faire, sitting back.” Such talk is bound to ruffle feathers, Meikle acknowledges, but tiptoeing around the issue isn’t going to change anything. “Plain speech,” he says, “is what people want to hear.”

To prove his seriousness, Meikle has taken his message—and his congregation—directly to the street. On May 1, he led more than 600 supporters on a march through the residential avenues of Malvern, and had planned another such demonstration for last weekend in Regent Park, a downtown Toronto housing project. The church has also started a basketball program at one of Malvern’s high schools in hopes of keeping youths away from gangs, and is in the process of purchasing homes in the neighbourhood, which will become hallway houses for gang members emerging from prison. All three initiatives have been well-received, inside and outside Malvern, with onlookers applauding the church’s activism at a time when secular agencies appear paralyzed by indecision.

In the meantime, Rhema can claim another kind of victory in the spiritual restoration of Patricia Fough. Last week, with her emotions in check and a determination to speak out, she swept gracefully into an anteroom at the church’s sprawling facility, where in a lengthy interview she gave credit to her fellow congregants for rushing to her aid in the days and weeks following the shooting. There was a time, Fough acknowledged, when she wished to hide from the world, when the mere thought of Omar was enough to knock her flat. “But I know my son would not want me to shut myself away,” she says. “I can almost hear him saying it: ‘Mom, you’ve got to go on. I’m OK, and I’m always there with you. I’m not going to be there in flesh, but I’ll always be there in spirit.’ ”

charlie.gillis@macleans.rogers.com