Winnipeg Free Press - PRINT EDITION

Vote Canada: Tough talk wins suburbia

The issue: Crackdown on Crime

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TORONTO -- The stretch of sidewalk along Yonge Street in downtown Toronto has changed a little in the five years since 15-year-old Jane Creba was murdered here.

The Sam the Record Man store where she was shopping with her older sister on Boxing Day has been torn down. A new building for Ryerson University is slowly rising in its place.

But the Pizza Pizza outlet where she was headed that day is still here, packed with people looking for a quick lunch on another busy afternoon in the core of Canada's biggest city.

So is the Footlocker store, a metre or so from where Creba was standing when she was shot in the back after a cellphone argument erupted into a spray of bullets between nearly a dozen young men.

Six people were shot. Only Creba died. The bullet struck her in the heart.

It also struck at the heart of Canadians.

Creba, a pretty young teenager who loved green apples and was a gifted athlete, could have been anyone's daughter, or sister, or friend.

And voters took notice.

The 2006 federal election was at its midway point when she was killed.

Darrell Bricker, CEO of Ipsos Reid Global Public Affairs, says he watched popular support shift to the Conservatives in the days that followed.

"It was one of those lightning bolts," said Bricker. "It did have an effect. I tracked it."

By campaign's end, the Conservatives were propelled into government with a small but still victorious minority, in large part on promises to get tough on guns, gangs, and drugs.

Bricker said when it comes to the more emotional reactions to such a crime and the fear that it could happen to you, Conservative crime policies win.

"The Tories are better positioned," he said. "They have a harder position on crime. You can have a rational discussion on crime outside of high-profile cases."

But how will it play in 2011, particularly in Toronto, an area deemed critical for the Conservatives' coveted majority and the Liberals' longtime fortress?

Curiously, Creba's death and the fear of crime moved voters to the Conservatives, but not into seats where the shooting actually occurred. The Liberals won 20 of 23 seats and the NDP the other three in Toronto proper, and 15 of 18 in the suburban 905 zone.

The Conservatives have added to their count in the 905 belt since, winning seven in 2008. An eighth came last fall in Vaughan, when former Ontario Provincial Police head Julian Fantino stole what had long been a Liberal stronghold.

Bricker said the Conservatives have a better chance in 905, in part because that's where the Fantino-type hard-line anti-crime message resonates the most.

In denser, more urban areas, residents often understand that battling crime isn't as simple as making tougher penalties, Bricker said. He believes people who think their cities are unsafe are fleeing to the suburbs.

It means that a tough-on-crime agenda, focused on jail sentences over community prevention, tends to play better with voters where there isn't actually a lot of crime.

"That's the funny thing, really, that the harder opinions about crime are in rural areas where there are low crime rates," said Bricker.

Places like Vaughan, a wealthy, fast-growing suburb of big-box malls and new housing developments north of Toronto.

Crime exists in Vaughan -- vandalism, theft, and assaults. In January, a 27-year-old man was shot and killed at one of the area's many banquet halls.

But the crime rate is about half that of both the city of Toronto and the national crime rate. The number of violent offences is small.

In November, voters here bought in to Fantino and his Conservative tough-on-crime message.

Fantino, who avoided mainstream media and all-candidates debates in last fall's byelection, refused an interview request for this story.

Last fall, one of his more memorable statements including blaming the Charter of Rights and Freedoms for benefiting common criminals and motorcycle gangs the most. Fantino proudly said he refused to run for the Liberals when asked, and called it the "hug-a-thug" party.

Much of the Conservative agenda in the last five years has been dominated by crime bills destined to put more people in prison, for longer periods of time. At least two bills introduced in 2006 had roots in the Creba shooting -- mandatory minimums for gun crimes and making it harder for those accused of gun crimes to get bail.

The Liberals and NDP have supported some of the Conservative bills but have criticized the government for spending billions on new prison beds and barely anything to address the root causes of crime -- poverty, addiction, lack of access to education, mental illness and homelessness among them.

Those policies tend to be more palatable in areas where crime is a bigger problem, said Bricker. In urban areas of Toronto south of Vaughan, such as Jane-Finch -- where housing projects and gangs are numerous and shootings a regular occurrence -- Liberal and NDP MPs say crime isn't really driving anyone right now.

Liberal Judy Sgro, whose York Centre riding includes Jane-Finch, says that in week one, she's hearing about issues such as accountability and democracy from people on the street.

"So far I'm not hearing a thing about crime," said Sgro.

NDP candidate Peggy Nash, trying to win back Parkdale-High Park from the Liberals, noted a horrific string of crimes in the riding recently in which five mentally ill residents were attacked in about two months. The fifth victim died following an assault in mid-March. A huge community meeting was held after his death by residents fearful of further violence.

But a few weeks later, it's not what they want Nash to address, she says.

"I have to say I have not heard it a lot on the doorstep," said Nash.

 

Conservative Senator Don Meredith, however, says just wait. It will come.

Meredith released a statement calling for a national strategy against violence Wednesday, in the wake of Toronto's 17th and 18th homicides. Both involved black men killed by guns -- one at a sports bar, the other outside a residential complex in eastern Toronto.

Half the killings this year have involved firearms. In 2005, when Creba was killed, 52 of the 80 homicides were shootings, leading to it being called the Year of the Gun.

"I think it is still at the top of the agenda for a lot of folks," said Meredith. "People want safe streets, safe neighbourhoods."

Kemi Omololu-Olunloyo says that is what people want but too often the people affected most by crime don't vote, so politicians don't have to listen to them.

Omololu-Olunloyo, a controversial and outspoken character who helps black families whose children have been killed get attention from police and the media, said it is critical to start going after the guns and giving young people real chances at good jobs. Otherwise, the criminal life pays more than the dead-end jobs they might qualify for, she said.

She is all for toughening up the sentences for youth criminals, but also for making it possible for them to get a second chance once they've served their sentence.

Omololu-Olunloyo spent Boxing Day last December at the Footlocker where Creba was killed. She held up Creba's photo and that of 11-year-old Ephraim Brown. He was killed in the crossfire of a gang shooting in 2007. Those arrested ended up being acquitted.

Boxing Day shoppers hurried past her, barely even blinking in her direction. When the staff at the Footlocker asked patrons in the store to stop and remember what had happened, someone shouted "That's old news."

"It was like crickets (in the background)," said Omololu-Olunloyo. "Nobody cared."

She is disappointed none of the federal campaigns has talked about crime yet, not even when the three leaders made their way through Toronto last week.

"If nobody speaks up, nothing will happen," she said.

Liberal MP Bob Rae, speaking at a Vaughan Liberal fundraiser Thursday, told the Winnipeg Free Press he thinks in Toronto, people understand fighting crime is about more than building bigger jails.

"I do believe that the public, one of the concerns they have, is security. But I don't believe the Tory agenda is overwhelmingly popular (in Toronto)," Rae said. "I think more people realize it is accompanied by this whole super-prison, super-costs, and that there is very little being done on crime prevention, very little being done on the causes of crime, very little being done on mental health and addictions issues."

Bricker said it may be that urban voters are more motivated right now by things such as the environment, the economy.

But if there is a major violent incident in the next few weeks, it will play well for Harper and the Conservatives, said Bricker.

mia.rabson@freepress.mb.ca

Republished from the Winnipeg Free Press print edition April 2, 2011 A6

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