Jane-Finch anti-violence BBQ marks 10th anniversary amid city-wide spike in shootings

With Toronto in the grips of one of the city’s most violent years in history, a long-running community event in Jane and Finch has taken on some added significance as it marks its 10th anniversary.

Toronto is on pace to set a new annual record for shootings and shooting victims

Event founder Andrea Tabnor said gun violence has become a city-wide issue since she started the Unity BBQ 10 years ago. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

With Toronto in the grips of one of the city's most violent years in history, a long-running community event in Jane and Finch has taken on some added significance as it marks its 10th anniversary.

"It's mostly for us a healing day," explained Andrea Tabnor, the founder of the Jane Finch Unity BBQ.

Tabnor started the event to promote peace and unity in a community that's been historically stricken by discrimination, poverty and gun violence.

"We all go through the grief together, so we heal together," she said outside the Oakdale Community Centre, which will host the event Sunday from 1 p.m. to 11 p.m.

In addition to food, kids' activities and music, today's event will also include a moment of silence to honour victims of gun violence.

Tabnor specifically mentioned O'She Doyles-Whyte,16, and Kwame Duodo, 15, who were fatally shot just blocks away from the community centre in August 2013.

While the Unity BBQ is billed as primarily a joyous and celebratory event, this year's edition also comes amidst an alarming spike in shootings around Toronto.

So far this year, there have been 274 shootings and 412 shooting victims in the city. Both numbers would be records, according to Toronto police data, which dates to 2004.

The previous high for shootings was 428, which was set last year.

Under the right circumstances, those numbers will start trending down, Tabnor said. She points to the Unity BBQ as proof.

"Jane and Finch should be looked at as a place that we can come together without violence," Tabnor added. "We've done it for 10 years."

Shafeina Hussain volunteers at the annual event. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

A different side of Jane and Finch

While shootings are on the rise across the city, people involved in the Unity BBQ say their community has made meaningful progress over the past 10 years, though those gains are often overlooked.

"A lot of good things have been happening in our community but I feel like a lot of the time it's easier for people to read all the bad things," said Shafeina Hussain, a Unity BBQ volunteer who grew up in Jane and Finch.

"It's getting better, I can see that there's so many changes," added the 23-year-old, though she also said employment opportunities and better funding are needed.

Hussain points to events like the BBQ, and a host of other community-run programs and festivals that are helping to bring people together and keep young people away from street gangs and guns.

"This is what we're really about, we're unity. Throw your guns in the fire, throw your ammunition down, get together, live your life, smile," said Jason Patrick, who's marking his third year cooking and serving food at the event.

"It was a great view to me ... how the community could get together and be one."

Patrick previously served time in jail after getting caught up in the crime and violence that still attract many young people in his community.

'It’s a good look ... it should happen in other communities too,' James Patrick says. (Nick Boisvert/CBC)

Working with police

Community officers from Toronto police 31 Division are also expected to attend the event, where they'll be serving food and attempting to improve their relationship with the community..

"It's very important to me because the police is a very important part of our community. They're here to serve and protect … so they should be promoting against gun violence," Tabnor explained.

Officers have attended past editions. Hussain said their presence is difficult for some, though she agreed with Tabnor that the force's participation is ultimately necessary.

"I definitely think there will be a lot of nervous people, but at the end of the day we do still need to get together and that involves the police officers too," she said.

Patrick also encouraged people to overcome those apprehensions and join the mission towards unity.

"Everybody needs to come out now, put our hands toward this to help us to rise," he said. "That's what … we're asking for right now."