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Recent shootings in the Greater Toronto Area have started a national discussion on gun violence. (Mark Blinch / Reuters)

The optics of gun violence in Canada

Commentary/Opinion by

Living in Canada, I’ve never thought of guns as a particularly divisive issue. As far back as I can remember having an opinion, my politics on the subject have mostly aligned with those of most of my country’s citizens, and I’ve always been thankful for this. But lately, I’ve been wondering about the optics of it all: About our ability as Canadians to see ourselves clearly. The onslaught of gun related tragedy we’ve experienced in the past few months has left me questioning the narratives surrounding gun violence that I’ve long taken for granted.

Canadians have a habit of being self-righteous. Canada is often portrayed as a civilized and peaceful place, especially when compared to our neighbours to the south. The devastating magnitude of gun violence that the United States has experienced in the past few decades has left us counting our blessings. Things are not perfect here, but they could be so much worse. When we experience violence, it’s considered an anomaly, whereas when the United States experiences it, it’s seen as a byproduct of their culture.

In the summer of 2017, however, I spent some time working in Northern Saskatchewan, a place with a thriving gun culture. It was a strange experience for a native Torontonian to live in a place where people have a casual relationship with firearms. It was not uncommon, for example, to climb into the passenger seat of a truck and to have to toss a hunting rifle behind you before you could sit down. For someone who is afraid of guns, I’ve handled a few of them.  

For many of my co-workers, guns were an integral part of how they made their living, woven into the fabric of everyday life. An argument I often heard was that the media has blown the issue out of proportion — the media is too selective in the stories it chooses to report, and, as a result, most people have no perspective on the situation. In some ways I agree: We live in a country that denies the fact that, for many, guns are a part of life. As a result, we have a shockingly narrow perception of the nature of our own violence.

As the largest city in Canada, Toronto—my hometown—occupies a lot of space in the national media. At the international level, we often serve as a kind of proxy for the rest of the country. According to a recent Maclean’s article, the most dangerous place in Canada is a town I’d never heard of in Saskatchewan called North Battleford.   Despite having extremely low crime rates relative to the rest of Canada, Toronto’s is the violence that is making headlines, not that of rural communities who are hit the hardest.  This context is integral to understanding gun violence in Canada.

Toronto is the fourth-safest city in the world. Knowing what I now know, I wonder how I ever got it into my head to associate gun violence and crime with the big bad city. Probably because I watch too much TV.  

My fear of guns was amusing to my friends in Saskatchewan, many of whom had grown up around them. And indeed, sometimes my fear of being shot seems a little irrational to me too, both because I live in one of the safest cities in the world, and because there is absolutely no logical reason why anyone would want to shoot me.

Arguably, the scariest thing about the past couple of shootings in Toronto is the sense of chaos and confusion they inspired. People are getting shot in broad daylight by complete strangers in busy, commercial neighborhoods. It makes no sense, and it’s frightening because things are starting to feel out of control. But. just because violence feels random, doesn’t mean it isn’t systemic. It’s easy to say that my politics put me on the right side of history, but there’s some privilege to being here.

I believe that as Torontonians, we are entitled to our fear and our grief—after all, we don’t experience statistics the same way we experience tragedy. Nonetheless,  to perpetuate a culture of fear and distrust is not constructive—our gun violence doesn’t happen in a vacuum. It can be traced back to larger issues of socio-economic inequality, gang violence, and the fact that, contrary to national narratives, guns remain deceivingly accessible. I hope Canadians never become accustomed to gun violence, but I hope we can expand the scope of our understanding.

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