Once-Safe Toronto Grappling with Surge in Violence

A city that prides itself as one of the safest in North America is bewildered by a surge in violence that has produced a record number of shooting deaths this year, the latest a 15-year-old girl on a street filled with holiday shoppers.

Canada's prime minister and Toronto's mayor blame weapons smuggled in illegally from the United States, but others point to a growing gang problem.

Whatever the cause, Canadians recoiled Tuesday after a gunbattle the previous day in Toronto left the teenage bystander lying dead and six other people wounded in a street near a popular shopping mall.

It was the 52nd death inflicted by a firearm this year in Canada's biggest city, which is nearly twice as many as last year and raised the overall homicide toll to 78 — not far below the record 88 homicides of 1991.

"I think it's a day that Toronto has finally lost its innocence," Detective Sgt. Savas Kyriacou said. "It was a tragic loss and tragic day."

Prime Minister Paul Martin said he was horrified.

"What we saw yesterday is a stark reminder of the challenge that governments, police forces and communities face to ensure that Canadian cities do not descend into the kind of rampant gun violence we have seen elsewhere," Martin said.

By elsewhere, he meant the United States. Martin, other politicians and police contend illegal guns flowing across the border are behind the spike in firearm violence.

Martin vowed earlier this month to ban handguns if his Liberal Party wins re-election in the Jan. 15 parliamentary elections. But ownership of such weapons is already severely restricted, and critics accused him of playing politics with the violence spree.

Even with the jump in killings, this city of 3 million people is relative safe. New York, which has a little over double Toronto's population, has recorded 515 homicides this year.

But many Canadians have long taken comfort in the peacefulness of their communities and are nervous about anything that might indicate they are moving closer to their American counterparts.

"What happened yesterday was appalling. You just don't expect it in a Canadian city," Toronto Mayor David Miller told The Associated Press.

Miller said that while almost every other type of crime is down in Toronto, the supply of guns has increased and half of them come from the United States.

"The U.S. is exporting its problem of violence to the streets of Toronto," he complained.

John Thompson, a security analyst with the Toronto-based Mackenzie Institute, disagreed.

He said that Canada has a gang problem — not a gun problem — and that the country should stop pointing the finger at the United States.

"It's a cop out. It's an easy way of looking at one symptom rather than addressing a whole disease," Thompson said.

Martin and Miller conceded that the smuggled guns aren't the only factor in the increase of violence. The mayor said poverty is an important element.

"There are neighborhoods in Toronto where young people face barriers of poverty, discrimination, and don't have real hope and opportunity," Miller said. "The kind of programs that we once took for granted in Canada, that would reach out to young people, have systematically disappeared over the past decade and I think that gun violence is a symptom of a much bigger problem."

Police said Monday's gunfire erupted during an argument between two groups of youths. As many as 10 to 15 people were involved in the shooting amid crowds of shoppers lining part of Yonge Street in the heart of Toronto's downtown.

The bloodshed was the latest in a string of shootings that have rattled Toronto. In November, an 18-year-old was fatally shot on the steps of a church, while attending the funeral of a friend whose shooting death he may have witnessed a week earlier. Over the summer, a 4-year-old boy hit in the thigh, shin and hip by stray bullets.

"I've seen this city change and I'm not pleased with it. We're doing everything we possibly can but it seems to be not enough," police Staff Sgt. Stan Belza said. "It seems to be so brazen, so little regard for anyone else's safety. I don't understand the boldness of it all."

The jump in killings comes after Canada saw a steady decline in gun-related homicides. The country had a total of 172 homicides in 2004, down from 271 in 1990.

"This is something that Canada hasn't really experienced over the years, but we're certainly seeing an increase," said Jack Ewatski, the police chief in Winnipeg who is president of the Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police.

Wendy Cukier, president of the Coalition for Gun Control and a criminal justice professor at Ryerson University in Toronto, said a broad-based approach is needed to deal with violence.

She advocates a visible presence of officers in communities where guns are a problem, a strong show of partnership between police, religious and community leaders, and a restoration of social and recreational programs lost due to government spending cuts a decade ago.

"Gun violence is like cancer," Cukier said. "There is no one thing"