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‘We feel hopeless’: As Regent Park grapples with death of beloved youth worker, many worry about the generational wounds gunfire inflicts

‘We feel hopeless’: As Regent Park grapples with death of beloved youth worker, many worry about the generational wounds gunfire inflicts
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The boys — young teens, ranging in ages — had been joking around, teasing each other as they gathered around head coach T’ai Simm-Smith. But the mood soon turned sombre, as Simm-Smith asked the boys to raise their hands if they knew Thane Murray, a youth and recreation worker in the neighbourhood.

Several arms shot up. For the unfamiliar, Simm-Smith filled in the gaps. “He worked at the community centre … He was a good guy, a role model, a positive person. He played basketball. He grew up in this neighbourhood, went to school and did all the right things. But he met an unfortunate demise.”

There were questions in the group. Murray, 27, was killed in a shooting the preceding Saturday, and some of the kids wanted to know why. Simm-Smith didn’t have the answers: “It was random,” he told them. One teen chimed in that Murray was a really nice guy; Simm-Smith agreed. “Yeah, he was an awesome, cool guy, and I really felt his loss. I’m sure some of you might feel the same way,” he said.

He reminded the group their coaches were there if they wanted to talk. But for Friday evening, what they’d do was hold a moment of silence before an exhibition game, which anyone in the neighbourhood could join. As they paused, with each teen taking a knee, a stillness washed over the illuminated field.

If any kids were grieving, Simm-Smith wanted them to know they weren’t alone. He was still dealing with the news himself. He told the Star Murray had come to see them play just a week earlier. And in the aftermath of Saturday’s violence, with the death of someone so closely tied to the area’s youngest residents, he’s one of many left worrying about the generational wounds of persistent gunfire.

Regent Park is not the only Toronto neighbourhood grappling with the murder of a beloved mentor, either. Earlier this month, well-known mentor Sam Boakye, 30, was shot dead in the Jane and Finch area. Investigators believe neither man was targeted, but that the attacks may have been on their communities.

Ines Garcia is seeing the immediate ripples in Regent Park. She works in a local school, and, in the days that trailed Murray’s death, was approached by a boy around 13, who said he’d thought of Murray as an older brother. Unsure of what else to do, Garcia asked if she could give the boy a hug; both wept.

“My heart really poured out,” she said. “In these times, we feel hopeless, like we can’t even help.”

It was more than an isolated event, she said. It was the constant thrum of gunfire in Regent Park that she worries is weighing on kids and teenagers in the area. The eastern edge of Regent Park has long been a hot spot for gun violence, between 2004 and 2020 show. Those hot spots include the corner of Oak and River streets, one block from where Murray was killed.

“You see your kids — and community members’ kids — going through this all the time, the trauma after trauma. It never gets fixed. It never gets to heal properly,” Garcia said, noting some youth just stopped talking about it. “It heals a little bit, but then something happens, and the wound is open again.”

Following Murray’s death, one teen who knew him through the community centre — and saw the 27-year-old as a role model — suggested to the Star that such violence was expected in Regent Park. “In this neighbourhood, things like this happen usually,” Adnaan, 14, said. “I was just thinking why.”

Many people who spoke with the Star pointed out how many young people in the community had relationships with Murray, and would likely be affected by his death. “One thing about Thane is that he knew everybody in the neighbourhood — every kid, every teenager, old or young,” Simm-Smith said.

He worries that Saturday’s shooting will shake those kids’ sense of safety and make their home feel like a “lost cause.” “It has to affect you, just growing up and knowing people that are shot and killed.”

Metuge Mtongwe, whose 13-year-old son was on the field for the Friday evening match, said he’d been trying to monitor the young teen’s activities more than usual. “If he’s here, OK, he’s free to be here, but I don’t want him just hanging around, because I don’t know what will happen there,” Mtongwe said.

“I have to — because I don’t want him to be a number. I don’t want my child to be a number.”

Rev. Sky Starr, a Jane and Finch-based therapist and founder of a peer support program aimed at supporting women in communities impacted by the deaths of young Black men, told the Star that her research has found at least 130 people are affected by the death of one young person, though anecdotally she thinks that number can be much higher.

For youth, grief is compounded by the fact that they are at such an important developmental stage, socially and emotionally; research has shown young people affected by the homicide of a friend are especially impacted because the death is violent and unexpected. Starr said what young people need in these situations is support.

“I think they need to know that people care about them. Because a lot of the youth, when people continuously die, they feel that nobody cares — the government doesn’t care, the community doesn’t care, ‘who cares?’ Because it’s consistently happening,” she said. “And we have not adequately done enough to find ways to prevent it. And it is preventable: Violence is preventable.”

Deaths of community members like Murray or Boakye also risk sending a warped message to youth that it’s dangerous to be unarmed, said Zya Brown, founder and executive director of Toronto’s Think 2wice, a group that supports incarcerated youth and victims of gun violence.

In the aftermath of Boakye’s death this month, Brown said she got “so many messages” from fearful young people, saying: “This is why I don’t want to change my life.” Their thinking was that if Boakye had been armed, he might have been able to protect himself, she said.

“Now, in the minds of the youth, nobody is going to want to put down their gun,” Brown said.

She also noted that the high number of shots fired — in Murray’s case, police found more than 50 shell casings — is something she’s never seen before. That level of violence targets an entire neighbourhood, and the impacts spill out, she said. “With that, you’re putting the whole community on guard.”
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