It begins with baby steps;- That was the thinking behind a two-week initiative that worked to build relationships between young men in the Somali-Canadian community and the Toronto Police.
On Wednesday night, a group of nearly two dozen Somali-Canadian young men, accompanied by a handful of officers, headed out into the community around Dixon Rd. and Islington Ave. to patrol the streets, giving high fives to trick-or-treaters braving the dreary weather.
The walk-about was the culmination of several hours of discussions that saw police and youth in the Somali-Canadian community take the time to hear one another out, and talk about issues from schooling, to family, to interactions with the cops.
Such a public outing is not as easy as it may sound. Many young people have to battle the stigma of being labelled a snitch for being seen talking with the police.
But for Zach Omar, whose Youth 4 Youth initiative helped organize the sessions and Wednesday’s walk, “you’ve got to take steps to get where you want.” For the 24-year-old Somali-Canadian, that’s helping to fix tensions between the two groups.
“When they’re hurting, people in the community feel they can’t lean on the police,” said Omar, adding. “I’ve met a lot of officers who are standup guys.”
Since June, six young Somali-Canadian men have been murdered in Toronto. On Tuesday, a 17-year-old Somali-Canadian teen was shot in the head on Falstaff Ave., said Omar. “They keep dropping like flies,” he added, shaking his head.
Several in the Somali community have been calling on people to offer information to police. But they have also questioned why police aren’t doing more to reach out, and have asked why there is only one Somali-Canadian officer on the force, out of the roughly 80,000 people who live in Toronto.
In addition to the two-week mentoring initiative, Toronto police have assigned two officers in 23 Division to the Somali community. And while there has been a hiring freeze for the past two years, police said that they have identified several youth they plan to mentor through the process of applying to the police college. Omar, who is currently working for Bell Canada in tech support, said he wants to be an officer and now has several mentors, including Deputy Police Chief Peter Sloly.
“We deliver inclusive police services,” said Const. Roger Mayers on Wednesday night. “(Omar’s) vision is important to us because that’s our vision too.”
In the wake of so many murders, community members have ramped up their organizing on other fronts as well, joining forces with Imams to find solutions from within and also lobbying decision-makers at the Toronto District School board and all three levels of government for systemic changes to address the root causes of the violence.
Somali-Canadian kids — particularly boys — have among the highest high school drop out rates in the city. One in five Somali-Canadians are unemployed, the highest of any ethnic group.
In November, Ontario’s Minister of Youth and Children, Eric Hoskins, will hold a summit with key players.
In the meantime, Omar says he’ll keep at the baby steps.
“In a sense, I feel like the movement that people are trying to do, it’s already happening,” he said.
By Jayme Poisson/The Star