Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

More play, less police, to solve gangs

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People who live and work in the inner city are frustrated with city hall.

"We are desperate for progressive people at city hall," an inner-city community worker explained.

"I live and work in an inner-city community that has a recreation centre that is closed on weekends, where we don't have the capacity to keep our skating rink operating, and we can't get help from the city to mow the grass in our parks so the kids can play in them. This just isn't right. We could be doing so much better."

With the exception of a handful of progressive councillors, city council, and in particular Mayor Sam Katz, can't seem to see the forest for the trees. This lack of vision is becoming increasingly problematic for many reasons. Poor planning, insufficient revenue and the nickel-and-diming of important programs are creating long-lasting problems.

One is the apparent lack of understanding of the connection between poverty, access to recreation, and the relationship with gangs and crime. And even when we hear some acknowledgement of a connection, city officials defend their lack of action and defer to the province as the level of government responsible for poverty issues.

But the city can do more. Significant funding increases for recreation funding can provide greater opportunities for poor kids and deter them from joining gangs.

Youth participation in gangs is a concern in urban centres across the country. Proposed solutions range from the very conservative knee-jerk reactions that lead to "lock em up" solutions, to solutions that tackle the root causes that draw children into gangs.

The research is clear. Access to skill-building recreational activities that develop self-esteem can help protect kids from the lure of gangs. But we don't really need the research to tell us this. All parents know that keeping their kids busy in sports and recreation keeps them out of trouble.

But many low-income families are unable to provide such opportunities for their kids. That is why we need free and public recreation centres that are open when kids need them the most; local skating rinks that kids can actually skate on, swimming pools that are centrally located, and soccer pitches and playgrounds that are regularly mowed. Higher-income neighbourhoods are fortunate because they are more able to draw on skilled volunteers to keep things running. For poor communities, this is a bigger challenge.

In a report for the Ontario government, Dr. Mark Totten stresses that "taxpayers are better off with improved access to recreation for low-income families... for each dollar spent on quality programs, more than a dollar's worth of benefits are generated."

He recommends the elimination or substantial reduction of user fees; increasing capacity of recreation programs to meet the unique needs of new Canadians, ethno-racial minorities, aboriginals, girls and young women; increasing outreach to low-income families to promote participation in recreation programs; and guaranteeing stable funding for the recreation sector.

In a nutshell, we need to do more, not less. But Winnipeg is doing less. The number of fee waivers was cut by 30 per cent between 2005 and 2007 and the hours of free programming at youth sites was cut by 20 per cent.

In the 2009 preliminary operating budget, city council proposes a mystifying savings of $400,000 in recreation "program efficiencies" and there continue to be whispers of the closing of Sherbrook Pool -- a facility of significant importance to inner-city kids. The budget also projects a $212,000 cut in funding to community centres.

The budget shows an increase for recreation centre co-ordination but the city can't take credit for the allocation; it is provincial funding specifically for this purpose.

Policing clearly is the big winner in this year's budget with increased funding of six per cent ($8.8 million) in 2009 with further increases of three per cent in 2010 and again in 2011.

In contrast, the Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives 2009 Alternative Municipal Budget calls for an increase in spending on recreation by $4.3 million and we show how this can be done with a shift in priorities and with new revenue-generating initiatives.

Reduced access to recreation increases risk for low-income kids. The literature shows that youth participation in athletics has resulted in a decreased likelihood of risky behaviour.

Totten points to a number of studies that show that individuals who participated in at least one extracurricular activity were less likely to drop out of high school and abuse substances. He also points to research showing that "young people who have higher participation rates in recreational activities typically display fewer criminal behaviours and children and youth who participate in structured sports have reduced rates of criminal arrest and antisocial behaviour."

If we really want to reduce crime and gang activity among our youth, we need to invest in recreation. It is in the best interest of everyone to do so.


Shauna MacKinnon is the director of Canadian Centre for Policy Alternatives -- Manitoba.

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition March 15, 2009 a10

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