'We're losing kids': Pandemic is pushing youths into gangs

'Crews' are often armed, frequently engage in criminal behaviour and have disputes with other groups.

Matthew Lapierre 7 minute read October 13, 2021

Community activist Paul Howard says the COVID-19 pandemic has cut off access to important programs for vulnerable youths. "A lot of kids have been saved and are doing the right thing but so many more are getting into trouble and falling victim." Errol McGihon / Postmedia

Paul Howard worries about youth violence in Ottawa.

Howard, an IT professional, football coach and activist who grew up in Herongate and has devoted much of his adult life to helping the area’s residents, champions programs that fight against food insecurity, give disadvantaged kids the skills to get jobs and help them avoid violent confrontations.

He frequently criticizes city leadership, tweeting messages like “when will we get serious about youth violence?” after young Ottawans are involved in shootings or arrested for firearms offences — events which have happened with near-weekly frequency since mid-summer.

The pandemic placed an additional strain on the kids Howard works with. Lockdowns kept them cooped up indoors and shuttered their after-school sports programs, acting as another burden on their mental health.

All the while, local “crews” — Howard prefers to use this term instead of “gang,” using it to refer to loosely coupled groups, often armed, who frequently engage in criminal behaviour and have disputes with other groups — were operating. Young men turn to these groups for a variety of reasons, Howard said. They seek a sense of belonging, social status and the prospect of financial gain.

Now, he is seeing more young men joining these crews.

“A lot of kids have been saved and are doing the right thing but so many more are getting into trouble and falling victim,” Howard said in a recent interview. “I’m losing some and it really pains me. … I’ll tell you who’s not losing kids are the crews. I think the crews have been open for business 24/7. That’s who we’re losing them to.”

According to Statistics Canada, youth crime, overall, is declining, but during the summer of 2021, while Ottawa was in the midst of a cluster of gun violence, minors were frequently accused of pulling the trigger.

Ottawa police recently arrested and charged two minors from Montreal with numerous gun-related offences following a shooting on Albion Road. The teens were allegedly part of a group who fired on a home in Blossom Park. In another recent incident, police arrested a 19-year-old and a 17-year-old on Rideau Street following an alleged drug transaction and charged the minor with various firearms-related crimes.

And in August, a 17-year-old accused of first-degree murder in the death of 18-year-old Creflo Tansia surrendered himself to police.

“Things get worse or they get better and right now they’re getting worse and a lot of it is COVID-related,” Howard said. “There was a lid on the shootings last year because there was hardly a car on the street but that’s all changed now. Maybe they’re making up for lost time. I don’t know.”

Although Statistics Canada data shows overall youth crime numbers have been going down since 1991, minors are consistently overrepresented in criminal statistics. And recent police-reported data from Ontario’s attorney general suggest that in 2020 and 2021, rather than decline, there has been a slight bump in the number of cases of young people in Ottawa being charged with some types of violent offences, including homicide and attempted murder.

Meanwhile, shootings in the capital increased in 2021; Ottawa police have so far responded to 69 shootings in 2021, compared to 45 in 2020.

Two criminologists interviewed by this newspaper said the pandemic was likely one of many factors that have led to an increase in gun violence in Ottawa, but it was too early to say with certainty what effect it has had.

Darryl Davies, a criminology instructor in the department of sociology and anthropology at Carleton University, said anecdotal evidence has long been used to justify misguided crackdowns against youth gang involvement, and police-reported data sets, such as those analyzed by this newspaper, do not tell the whole story.

“At the end of the day, we can’t let paranoia and fear dictate the approach we take (to reduce youth and gang violence),” he said. “The approach we take must be based on an actual plan with measurable criteria, clearly stated objectives, and a defined period of time so that we can actually know if a program is having any impact at all.”

Irvin Waller, a professor in the University of Ottawa’s department of criminology and the author of Science and Secrets of Ending Violent Crime, said the pandemic may have been an aggravating factor that led to an increase in some gang activity and violence, but those factors are less visible in Ottawa, where crime numbers are lower by comparison. They are, however, on display in American cities like Chicago, where homicides increased astronomically in 2020, rising to 780 for the year, more than all of Canada over the same period.

Although Waller said good research is yet to emerge about what led to such a high homicide rate, in general, crime is tied to root causes like poverty, which the pandemic made worse for many Americans and many Canadians. “One of the likely reasons our homicide rates didn’t go up like in the U.S. (during the pandemic) is CERB,” Waller said.

Another possible reason, and one suggested by some local politicians in Philadelphia, which has also seen a spike in gun violence, is that the pandemic prevented violence interruption programs from operating. These programs, which share Howard’s goal of reducing youth violence through outreach and opportunity, provide young men with mediation services and access to work opportunities to address root causes of gun violence.


“When COVID came along, these violence interrupters were limited in their ability to outreach to the young men who were drifting into these gangs,” Waller said.

“Policing,” he added, “is a very minor contribution. If it’s part of a partnership, if they focus on deterrents that push young men towards services that they can take advantage of, policing can have an impact.”

Police in Ottawa are increasingly pushing young people towards services catered more to their needs, but both the police and the providers of some of those services have noticed a sharp increase in the need for them — particularly mental health services — since the start of the pandemic.

“As youth have become more isolated or losing their peer group or distressed by the pandemic, we have seen an increase of more calls,” said staff sergeant Bob Price, with the youth section of the Ottawa Police Service.

“Sometimes if we get those types of calls, if it’s not a police matter, we refer them to the right agency where they can get support.  … We have seen an increase in mental health calls involving youth, feelings of loneliness or sometimes parental concerns about youth not being as engaging as they normally are, anxiety, things like that.”

The right agency is often the Youth Services Bureau (YSB), which offers young Ottawans shelter, mental health resources, and employment assistance. But the demand for all of the YSB’s services has grown recently, according to Larissa Silver, the YSB’s associate executive director.

“I think that young folks struggle with a number of things, as we all do, and the pandemic has exacerbated many of those struggles,” Silver said.

The pandemic has also complicated the work Silver and her colleagues do. Rather than meeting with young people face-to-face, they are having to organize visits virtually. While that brings with it an element of accessibility — not having to travel across the city for an appointment, for example — it is harder, Silver said, to make meaningful connections with young people through a computer screen.

Another element of YSB’s work has also been dramatically affected by the pandemic: the bureau operates closed and open custody centres for young people who have been involved in the justice system and sentenced to stay in a facility. Visits to those facilities have been restricted due to COVID-19.

“At the beginning, nobody came into the facility other than staff,” Silver said. “Now young folks (who are in custody) are able to have some visits, like virtual visits, but some of them haven’t had a hug from their families in, I can’t even tell you.

“That’s going to have an impact, absolutely. They’re in a facility, they could already be struggling with adjustments, with choices, with where they’re going next and with no any other additional support services, it’s all virtual, they’re only seeing staff.”

It was, of course, not just youth in custodial facilities who felt isolated during the pandemic. A survey conducted by the Mental Health Commission of Canada found that, of 137 young people between the ages of 12 and 14, nearly half said the biggest challenge they faced during the pandemic was feelings of loneliness and isolation — part of the reason YSB is seeing such high demand for services.

“We’re seeing that with young people, we’re seeing that in their declining mental health, we’re seeing that in some of the increase in adverse behaviour expression,” Silver said.

“It’s increased the sense of isolation for young folks, especially young folks who already were marginalized. The lack of options to distract oneself or to self-soothe — however we’ve normally managed our stress — many of those options were taken away from all of us and young folks are no different.”