Breaking the cycle of gang violence: A Toronto program aimed at intervening with youth involved in gang activity is showing results

Maribel Gonzales Conventional Weapons

Maribel Gonzales

The Ploughshares Monitor Volume 33 Issue 3

In 2011 Toronto, Canada’s largest city (population c. 2.7 million), recorded its lowest murder count in 30 years—33. Then, this summer the city was rocked by brazen shootings that turned the Eaton Centre mall and a street block party into shooting galleries, leaving four dead and 28 injured. Gangs figure in both shootings. The alleged Eaton Centre shooter and two of the victims were affiliated with gangs while, according to the police, the block party shooting is connected to a leadership struggle in a gang.

The Toronto police track roughly 2,100 gang-involved or gang-associated individuals. Of these 500–600 are considered “really violent” (Mills 2012). Gangs have always existed in Toronto; the difference now is that gang violence more likely involves disenfranchised youth, occurs in public spaces, and uses high-powered guns.

The shootings sparked calls to curtail youth gang violence. Proposals spanned the political spectrum. Toronto Mayor Ford declared a “war on thugs,” echoing the federal government’s tough-on-crime policies by calling for more cops and longer prison terms, and ridiculing “hug-a-thug” community programs. In contrast, city councillors called for social programs in identified “priority” neighbourhoods, some of which are scheduled to lose their funding in 2013. Ontario Premier Dalton McGuinty cautioned against resorting to “simplistic” solutions (Grant & Robinson 2012).

No quick fix will curb gang-related gun violence. The problem is complex and each situation has its own underlying risk factors and dynamics. In Toronto, as in cities worldwide, most victims and perpetrators of gun violence are young males between the ages of 15 and 30 years. Indeed, responding to the problem of gangs and youth at risk of armed violence, especially in urban areas, has been identified as a global development programming gap (OECD 2009). However, we lack knowledge about the outcomes and impacts of programs to combat youth violence. It is difficult to determine the effectiveness of interventions. What works? What needs to be changed?

In 2010 Project Ploughshares and Peacebuild conducted research on two programs—the Peace Management Initiative in Jamaica and the Breaking the Cycle (BTC) program in Toronto—aimed at intervening with youth who were involved or associated with gang activity.1 Ironically, a victim in the Eaton Centre shooting was trying to leave his gang past behind. Only a few months earlier he had signed up with BTC.

The BTC gang exit strategy
BTC, which is a federally funded program run by the Canadian Training Institute (CTI), operates in two “priority” areas in Toronto known for gang activity. BTC’s goal is to keep persons at risk out of gangs and to help those already in gangs leave. CTI found that the youth—most visible minorities and/or recent immigrants—faced multiple barriers to success. Most came from single or no-parent households; experienced home/community violence, guns, and racism; were not in school; abused drugs or alcohol; had arrest records; and had few employment opportunities.

  BTC’s premise is that youth can leave a violent lifestyle if individual circumstances that lead to antisocial, aggressive behaviours are addressed and barriers to education and employment are removed. It targets young men and women between the ages of 15 and 30 years, who are currently not in school, are unemployed, and have links with gangs, but who are committed to participating in BTC and accept cooperative group norms and agreements. The justice system, the police, social service agencies, schools, BTC graduates, and local parents refer participants to BTC.

Until recently, a BTC program cycle lasted 28 weeks and served 20–25 participants (see further details below). Participants are paid a stipend equal to the Ontario minimum wage (currently $10.25 per hour) per 35-hour week. The provision of a stipend helps attract and keep participants, who learn money management skills and don’t feel the need to turn to criminal activity for money.

In the past, BTC’s program had four principal components, starting with six–eight hours of assessment to determine suitability and identify cognitive/behavioural and other issues that may need attention. Next came a two-week (70 hours) intensive personal development program to build trust; address violent behaviour, sexism, homophobia, and racism; and learn life skills that would allow the participants to build healthy relationships. Each participant charted an individual plan, including goals and activities to achieve them. (Because they have different needs, men and women have separate training curricula.) They then received a week of case management where progress was reviewed, and individual supportive guidance provided on concerns such as housing, bank accounts, probation and court matters, and connecting to school and job opportunities. An additional 5 – 10 hours of miscellaneous support was provided per participant.

Participants then proceeded in one of three streams: 1) the Youth Ambassador Leadership Program, if they were deemed suitable, 2) discharge, or 3) referral to other agencies, such as an educational institution or a housing agency.  

In the Youth Ambassador Leadership & Employment Program, participants received 25 weeks (875 hours) of further job readiness and personal development training, honed leadership skills, pursued community outreach activities, and made community presentations about BTC.

Since 2003 BTC has helped approximately 350 clients. Eighty-eight per cent of participants have successfully graduated from BTC. Sixty-seven per cent of graduates are employed or are in school and not participating in gangs (Armstrong 2012).

In 2008 the cost of BTC per participant was roughly $19,200 for approximately 1,000 hours of program intervention (Chettleburgh 2008). While this is a significant investment, keeping an inmate incarcerated in a federal prison costs substantially more: $110,786 for males and $211,093 for females per year (2009-10 figures from Public Safety Canada 2011).

Most gang-involved youth are exposed to violence from childhood and may view violence as normal until they learn otherwise. Involving BTC graduates and Youth Ambassadors strengthens BTC’s ability to reach out and involve neighbourhood youth and provides other youth with positive peer role models. When BTC participants return to school, get jobs, and participate in positive community activities, the cycle of gang violence is broken. This is especially important as many BTC participants are themselves parents.

A low attrition rate and generally positive outcomes can be traced to intensive individualized “treatment” tailored to the unique needs of participants. BTC successfully engages with its difficult cohort.

However, BTC is faced with unstable and inconsistent funding. Funds have to be raised for each program cycle, so BTC cannot consistently offer its services. Because of recent funding cuts only 14 rather than 25 clients can be served per cycle and for only 23 rather than 28 weeks. More critically, the program components have been significantly altered. Individual personal development has been reduced to five weeks in favour of placement in internships. Case management and support have also been reduced. The push is to get participants employed.

No complete evaluation of BTC has been done, despite a recommendation in a 2008 report (Chettleburgh 2008) commissioned by the federal government. So it is not clear why funds were cut and changes made to the BTC intervention strategy, which has been regarded as among the promising approaches in gang intervention (Totten 2008).

When pressed for an explanation in a CBC interview (2012) CTI Executive Director John Sawdon stated:

There is more and more pressure on not serving this group of people [gang-involved youth]…. The law and order agenda and tough-on-crime [perspective] was to say that those who have been gang-involved and engaging in criminal behaviour should be going to jail and we shouldn’t be spending our money on them. The other piece is that if there were going to be programs, those programs should be linked to the workforce and not focused on personal development. The problem is the multiple barriers that you have prevent people from entering the workforce to begin with and if you don’t address those barriers they don’t hold jobs.

These programming changes in BTC underscore the crucial need to invest in generating data and analysis so that policy and decision-making are based on solid evidence about the outcomes, impacts, and effectiveness of programs.


1. This article is based in part on the findings from that research; see Chadwick-Parkes 2012.


Armstrong, James. 2012. Eaton Centre shooting victim wanted to leave gang past behind, says Toronto activist, Global News, June 4. 2012. Gang exit program cut. Ontario Today, June 5.

Chadwick-Parkes, Sandra. 2012. Youth Armed Violence Interventions: The Caribbean and its Toronto Diaspora. Project Ploughshares and Peacebuild.

Chettleburgh, Michael. 2008. Evaluability Assessment Final Report: Breaking the Cycle Youth Gang Exit and Ambassador Leadership Program. Report submitted to the National Crime Prevention Centre of Public Safety Canada.

Grant, Kelly & Matthew Robinson. 2012. Toronto 2012: more guns, fewer resources. The Globe and Mail, July 20.  

Mills, Carys. 2012. Police alone can’t stop gangs, Toronto Chief Bill Blair says. The Globe and Mail. August 1.

OECD. 2009. Policy Paper: Armed Violence Reduction Enabling Development. Paris.

Public Safety Canada. 2011. Corrections and Conditional Release Statistical Overview: Annual Report 2011.

Totten, Mark. 2008. Promising Practices for Addressing Youth Involvement in Gangs.

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