Environments and the Toxic Influences that Destroy Lives

Environments and the Toxic Influences that Destroy Lives

Shootings that occur at a cemetery during funeral proceedings are things one might expect to see in a gangster movie, but it recently happened in Ottawa.  There was a funeral taking place for a victim of gun violence, a 24-year-old who was shot to death in a neighborhood not too far from where my family and I lived when we came to Canada.  Police responded to a call of gunfire during his funeral ceremony.  The person who was shot was dropped off at a nearby hospital before first responders arrived at the scene.

The rising trend of gun violence in crowded areas only adds to the dilemma of the laws around gun safety and weapon violence.  But long before a person decides that they want to potentially take another person’s life, a lot has to take place before that thought even crosses their mind.

While these tend to be complicated situations with a multitude of factors at play, the one thing that has always stuck out to me has been this idea of a toxic culture.  This is not your typical conversation about culture, but rather a form of toxicity that people who have never lived in certain environments have no idea about.

Low-Income Communities Have Dangerous Levels of Toxicity

Stating that low-income communities have dangerous levels of toxicity should not be controversial or offensive.  It is stating the obvious, but the obvious does not mean that it is impossible for anything good to come out of these communities.  It is quite the opposite, but it is this “toxicity” that has derailed countless futures that were full of promise.

This “toxicity” can be tied back to the social determinants of health, but I want to focus on its impact on culture, one that is both dynamic and fuzzy.  This culture is the leading contributor for the correlation between people growing up in low-income communities and them embarking on a path on the far side of the law.

If that is the case, then what makes growing up in low-income communities so unique? To start, most children growing up in these areas do not have access to extracurricular activities like organized sports or school supports.  There are studies that have been published on the importance of the first few hours after school and how they impact children.  People living in low-income communities already have limited access to resources, which essentially spills over and impacts child development.  The overall impact of growing up in a household that struggles to make ends meet is that those kids need to look elsewhere for supports, and that might be the point of weakness that experts need to focus on.

The world can be a complicated place, and it can be quite difficult for kids to make sense of it, especially for those from underprivileged households.  What does make sense for these kids is seeing how other kids with similar socio-economic backgrounds experience success.  Although there are many positive stories of individuals that are experiencing success in school and have careers in medicine, tech, and more, these are not the examples that are paraded on much-watched TV networks.  Instead, for kids growing up in low-income communities, the media shows them that there is a flashy life for these kids if they forgo school for sports, music, or crime.  But very few kids make it in sports, and, as a result of toxic influences, it is the latter two that cause the most damage.

If you look at some of the most visible pop-culture personalities or ask youth who they listen to, you should expect to hear the names of rap artists who likely made their name by glorifying crime.  That does not mean that everyone who listens to rap will decide to pursue that life, very few do, but those that do are almost always influenced by larger-than-life characters that “made it out of the struggle.” Some of that impact might be the result of a challenging home environment and not having enough positive influences that can provide valuable advice and much needed guidance.

I recently had the opportunity to attend a community crime prevention event that featured a panel of speakers who were scheduled to speak on the idea of culture in low-income communities.  One of the speakers who stuck out to me had a background in sound therapy and they were pursuing their graduate degree.  They spoke about growing up in a low-income community and how their friend group was influenced by hip-hop and crime movies.  They also pointed out how the arts were an expression of self and how the stories that many of these personalities were telling, it was a form of self-expression, but it was also a way to mask pain and trauma.  However, a message that glorifies a life of crime and a disregard for human life definitely contributes to a toxic vicious cycle.

When I think about the issues around misogyny, homophobia and other challenges that plague society, my first introduction to it all was largely through the early 2000s rap I listened to, which also permeated over to schools and various other places.  Back in the 2000s, rap “normalized” these issues and certain terms or labels were simply laughing matters.

There is an article I remember reading in the newspaper back in 2012 that was a titled as a “special report” which detailed the life and testimony of an Ottawa gangster who was getting deported from Canada due to him operating on the far-side of the law. I consider that special report to be one of the best stories ever written, shining a light on the dark realities of living a life of crime, but also the connection to low-income communities and first-generation Canadian households.  That article touched on how most gang members did not join gangs, but rather grew into them, and the influence that hip-hop culture had on that.  It does a great job to illustrate this concept of “toxicity” which has been responsible for destroying countless lives.

A Heron Gate Tale.  A Cedarwood Story.

There is nothing quite like the thrill that the Heron Gate outdoors could provide.  Kids fighting in low-income communities is as common as seeing empty parks in the suburbs.  Although the fighting might not reach the level of “Kimbo Slice” back yard fighting, it would qualify as a fight event with some kids even fighting multiple times over the span of an hour.  There were a few kids who would fight one fight after the next, and it was not uncommon to see two-on-one, or three-on-one fights.

Depending on who the older kids were interested in watching fight, those fights would start in different ways.  For me, it was a verbal lead up, in a self-praise sort of way, and I would only retaliate physically as a means of self-defence.  You see, I loved watching WWF and WCW, so when someone would tell me that they were “stronger” than me, I would reply by saying, “No! I am stronger than you!” I was a Hulkamaniac, and Hulkamaniacs were the strongest, so I was not going to disappoint the Hulkster.

On one occasion, while we were living in the townhomes on Cedarwood Drive, some kids that went to Charles Hulse Public School arrived from the nearby buildings, and the older kids set up fights.  I was around 10 years old, and these new kids were also around my age, but they were more aggressive and eager to impress the older kids.  The new kids were fighting some of the kids from our street.  Then out of nowhere, one of them jumped on me.  Eventually I would end up pinning him to the ground and clamping him into one of my infamous anaconda-like headlock squeezes.  As fate would have it, a second kid jumped on my back, so I had to let go of my first attacker who was now watery-eyed and who I had been on top of.  I knew this other kid was no bull rider, so I jumped and kicked like the two-horned beast until I had him in the same squeeze.  I did not hold long, but when I let him go, he too was watery-eyed, and I told him I did not want to fight.

When I got home, I turned on my Atomic Purple Gameboy Color® and got to playing.  Not long into my game my doorbell rang.  One of the kids that attacked me came to my doorbell with a little box in his hand and he asked me to come outside again and play.  I did not feel like leaving my home, but he offered to give me some Pokemon cards, so I conceded.

As we walked back to the field and to get the other kids, this kid opened his box and inside were knives.  This kid had gone back home and came back with knives, and he was now telling me to call my childhood bestie Samer, another kid named Alex, and Mathieu, or else.  Samer was the first to come outside, then we went to get Alex, but it was Mathieu who tackled the scrawny little guy armed with a box full of knives.  I remember thinking Mathieu was the “man” for that and I can only describe his takedown as being something true to his Francophone heritage—a GSP-styled double leg takedown.  It would not be a stretch to say that the kid from building had basically taken us hostage and wanted everyone to come back outside, until Matthieu took him out.  The kid ran back to his home and without his knives or his Pokémon cards.  I kept his Squirtle.

Looking back at the series of events that transpired, I am inclined to think that bringing those knives was just a ploy to get us rattled, but I am certain that he did not come to that decision on his own.  He was my age, around 10 years old, and he had older siblings, who with the rest of his family had lived through the war experience in Kuwait.  Someone in his family must have put that toxic idea into his little head, that the “knife approach” was what he needed to do.  Eventually he did come back with someone older who was asking to get the family’s knives back.

In any case, I never took it personally, and I even hung out with that same kid on one occasion once we were in our twenties since we had some mutual friends.  As Connor McGregor has said before, “It’s just business.” That was the lay of the land, although I did come to recognize many years later just how lucky I really was that my family left that environment while I was still in my pre-teens, because over 90% of the kids that I knew from that area did not have lives that turned out well.  It was almost entirely the result of the toxicity of the area and the environment eventually getting the best of them.