Two blocks west of Keele and Eglinton avenues, at 33 Gabian Way, teenagers gather to play basketball. Explicit jeers and profanity abound as they dribble the ball across the concrete half-court, towards a basketball hoop with no net.
The camera cuts to an unknown young man who describes seeing dope dealers hang out along the edges of the court, a normal thing.
So goes life in Toronto’s wild west end according to the documentary film G-way, which recently premiered at the Reel World Film Festival.
In 2007, Toronto filmmakers Hart and Yale Massey began focusing their efforts to get youth from Gabian Way involved in an arts-based community reform program. This followed a string of shootings that left two men dead earlier in the year.
“You wouldn’t think it’s a high-risk neighbourhood,” Hart Massey said. “It wasn’t until (we began making) this documentary that we started to understand the deeper issues within the community.”
“I know Toronto well,” his brother, Yale Massey, added. “But every time we went into the (Gabian Way) building it’s like…this is a really big eye opener.”
According to Toronto Police, gang violence and the distribution of illegal drugs are two predominant problems in the area.
Orville Wallace, who has worked with non-profit group JVS Toronto in the Keele-Eglinton district for six years, suggested several factors fuel the violence.
“(These are) youth who face issues of poverty growing up in single parent homes,” he said. “Youth who get involved with the wrong things … get caught in a cycle of violence. And once they’re in, it’s hard to get out.”
Wallace is the manager of a program called Prevention Intervention Toronto (PIT). Its goal is to help youth who have had previous encounters with the law stay out of trouble. PIT offers weekly group sessions and one-on-one mentoring for youth who are 13-24 years old.
“I tell them…there’s nothing you can do with your life if you’re in jail,” he said. “Our main goal is to get them into jobs, career focused and ready.”
PIT is overseen by peer mentors, or case managers, appointed by the National Crime Prevention Centre (which also provides funding for the program).
Each week, case managers spend two hours advising their appointees, who then are required to complete 10 hours of either volunteer or paid work within the community.
“When we give youth access to these funds that help them get reintegrated into (society)…these programs keep them occupied and they can put (their community work) on their resume,” Wallace said.
Wallace added that this support network was essential to teens living in low-income neighbourhoods, including Gabian Way.
“These youth are labelled ‘at risk’ but to me, they’re really at risk of not knowing their potential, of not knowing what they can become. If we give them these options and different programs (as exit strategies to gang involvement)…it gives them a better opportunity to succeed.”
He admitted that he still had a long way to go with helping the youth of Gabian Way reach their goals. They had high dreams, he said, but not enough determination to attain them.
“It’s not easy,” Wallace said. “You can’t speak at them, you have to speak to them. But if you come in with the right approach… they’ll respect and listen to you.”
“It’s positive (though),” he added. “Seeing youth attend group trainings that aren’t mandatory…means they’re getting benefited from the programs.”