Non-Violence in the Jane Finch Corridor

By Len Desroches | 1992-07-01 12:00:00

Recently, as dramatized by the police shooting of a Black man suspected of drug dealing, followed by rioting and looting, Toronto has been faced with aspects of its unattended and festering darker side: racism, unemployment amidst relentless consumerism, homelessness and a deepening drug culture. The "Jane-Finch area" is one of those Toronto neighbourhoods that has long had a reputation for violence, drugs and racial tensions. It is a mainly high-rise neighbourhood of 75,000 people, mostly new immigrants from over 100 different national backgrounds. A group of residents there took a positive step towards tacking these deep-seated problems when they got together on a one week retreat, out of the city, and explored the meaning of power, anger and fear in the context of nonviolence.

The week was the first ever grassroots training organized by the Black Creek Anti-Drug Focus Coalition, more simply referred to by the residents as "Focus." Its general purpose was to help people gain the concrete skills needed in organizing. The community members themselves were directly involved in developing the retreat: at three planning meetings they gave their input on both the content and arrangements for things such as food, transportation and the children's program.

There were twenty-two adults (including the six organizers) and an equal number of children and young people. Three quarters of the participants were single parents. Without special funding raised by Focus, many would not have been able to take part.

Of the 16 adult participants, 12 were women, 4 were men, 11 were nonwhite, and 5 were white. About 10 were immigrants, six were Canadian born. All but two were from the immediate community.

I co-facilitated the week's adult program with Ruth Morris, the coordinator of Focus. Ruth has about 20 years of experience in community organizing and conflict resolution. For about 15 years I have been exploring the practice and spirituality of active nonviolence with farmers, people working in the "Third World", teachers, students, strikers. I have been a resource person for trainings in active nonviolent resistance related to native issues and to Canadian militarism.


Mornings focussed mainly on motivation, afternoons on how to do it: first the spirituality and then the practice. When I say spirituality I think of the summer after the "Oka crisis," when some members of Peace Brigades International and myself spent an intense week in Kanesatake and Kahnawake. As we explored the possibilities of active nonviolence with members of the Mohawk community, "respect" was a word I often heard mentioned especially by Mohawk elders. Respect is something spiritual rather than physical and yet without it, any physical structures we set up will eventually unravel: a mighty Berlin Wall or an Iron Curtain, a sophisticated Apartheid legal structure, or an extension of an already large golf course over a Mohawk cemetery!

Let's put it in the context of nonviolence: if a group is trained for years in the physical tactics of nonviolence but never takes seriously spiritual realities such as respect, could the members possibly act effectively together? Respect, trust, truthfulness and generosity directly affect any and all physical structures we set up -whether between lovers or between nations. This is the sense of "spirituality" with which I then offered some explorations of power, anger and fear over the course of the week.


First we explored power in our individual lives. We looked at what I call simply the "first power "in nonviolence: dignity. From genuine dignity can come genuine justice. As the "first power," dignity challenges me to no longer cooperate with an abusive relationship.

When we explored the contributions that especially feminists have made in naming non-violent power as "power with" not "power over," that the group had a dramatic AHA! experience. One woman committed herself to making t-shirts that will say "POWER WITH, NOT POWER OVER." Another woman said: "Power with involves a whole re-arranging of our lives."

From individual power, we went on to explore collective power, such as the powerful collective dignity of 5,000 farmers in Le Chambon, France, as they successfully resisted the Nazis and took in over 5,000 Jews; the powerful collective dignity of the people of El Salvador when in May of 1944 they staged a civic strike that forced the resignation of the violent dictator Maximiliano Hernandez Martinez; the powerful collective dignity of masses of women suffragists staging hunger strikes and risking jail for the basic human right to participate in democracy; the powerful collective dignity of black (and some white) individuals refusing to cooperate with slavery in the abolition movement; the powerful collective dignity of mainly "Chicano" U.S. crop laborers as they organized into the United Farm Workers and inspired international solidarity in their struggle against destructive agribusiness; the powerful collective dignity of the Filipino people as they learned together the tools of active nonviolence and overthrew the Marcos dictatorship; the powerful collective dignity of the Russian people as they risked their lives to confront the tanks of an attempted coup.

Next we confronted anger. And there was much understandable anger in people's lives. We explored anger as a dangerous, but sacred energy. Sacred because it can bring us to finally decide between destructive hatred and revenge, or the justice, revolutionary forgiveness, and community building of a Martin Luther King. If not suppressed, but responded to with radical nonviolent discipline, anger can lead to what I call "new imagination"-new ways of seeing and acting-out of the fire of rage and pain. A breaking of the cycle of violence.

In the afternoon we looked at practical ways of resolving conflicts. Again we did some very successful role-playing.

Finally we confronted fear, possibly the root of all violence. We scrutinized what passes too easily for "security," especially the Gun. We looked at Malcolm X and Martin Luther King, two men who loved their people and loved justice. Malcolm was 'protected' by the Gun. He is as dead as Martin Luther King. Neither the gun nor nonviolent resistance can ever guarantee our safety. In the end the only real security is strong community. We looked at the "illusion of control" that is at the heart of the fear in addictive behaviour. Finally, yes, we looked at the ultimate fear, death. But not just physical death. We named death as part of life and then went on to explore the importance of being in touch with naming the death that we have to face in order to free ourselves from the debilitating clutches of almighty Fear. For one woman, it was the fear of being alone. It was different for each person.

Throughout the whole week the participants constantly risked being vulnerable and shared their feelings of powerlessness, of anger and of fear. This shared vulnerability deepened the learning and strengthened the group.


According to my co-facilitator Ruth, the youth program: "was especially well-run by a woman with a strong commitment to black history and pride, who extended the program to include this for other cultural and racial groups." A highlight for Ruth was the multicultural talent night that the youth leader organized for us all: 'The whole evening was an affirmation of the community we had become."


One night, two of us took the children outside in order to free up the other adults to work out an important tension around meals. Under the moon's light we built a "pretend-house" out of dead branches lying in "the forest"

Concerning our living arrangements, Ruth said in her retreat report: " living is hard at the best of times in the best organized and most opulently staffed and funded conferences: when you have a group who has never run up against it, the inevitable rough edges and bumps are more numerous just because of the lack of experience. In spite of this, the group's desire to cooperate was wonderful, and the many minor glitches were not disasters because everyone was so determined to try to cooperate and give as well as take... [the week] has been a strange mixture of mud, noise, and too many people in too small a space with the most glorious sense of community, love and empowerment which still shines in the lives of all who partook of it No words can convey the life-changing power of that week..."


Maybe words can't convey the power of the week but I would like to conclude by letting the participants speak for themselves. The comments were taken down verbatim by both Ruth and I. "I am determined to work together on our problems, and build on the discovery that we share the same issues across our cultural differences."

"I cannot express what the warmth and understanding of every one of you meant to me. When I just needed to be alone, you let me. I went on walks at night, unwinding. I didn't need to hide my real self. It felt so good to be wanted, and have people understand your feelings. We were all scared to open our hearts and say 'We are survivors."'

"Changing things doesn't necessarily mean hurting other people to get it. I learned how to listen and open myself to others. My way is not always the right way. I made real friends for the first time. No one said to me 'You are so strong.' You came to me when I needed you. I can't change 30 years in 5 days, but this week is the first step. You don't have to be violent to others you have to learn to listen to the real needs you and they share."

"I am grateful for the people who are living this. The whole week was a real eye opener. I have learned so much to apply to my own children."

"I learned about myself. I can't write it on paper but I am truly a new person. I'm not a bad person. Every single person has done something to me. Every time you spoke, I gained something. I love a part of everybody here."

"I gained the faith that together we can make some changes. To be different, yet together. We have to commit ourselves to practice this. And to be patient with the world outside who have not shared what we have."

"I gained hope, hope that we can build the kind of world we all want to live in, and a deep sense of new friendship."

"Thank you for understanding my tears. I will take home a dream of a new way of living, and working on ways of making it real."

"lam grateful I didn't have to be strong. I could be myself; It takes a week like this to bring out the inner warmth in everyone."

"Together we can reach our ideal. We cannot give up if we love people. We can understand what all those people Len introduced us to did. Nonviolence is something really hard. We cannot give up justice ever."

"It was like a miracle to have come together. It was a safety net that helped me from falling through the social cracks. It brought me back into reality. We are not all OK-we all hurt I feel I can call on anyone here if I am in a crisis. It was a truly divine experience, beyond words; something to cherish."

"in our daily lives we're so isolated. This group has been a real support"

"Power with involves a whole re-arranging of our lives."


As the last three comments suggest, the participants are in fact continuing to meet as a group to work on the T-shirt project, a book project and a Labour Day Multicultural Fair. A follow-up Grassroots Training is planned for the Fall.

From the first day I met them, I was impressed with the determination that everyone had to build community in their own neighbourhood. We reflected on how one's community is not "better" than someone else's it is simply our community and needs our attention and care. The dismantling of anonymity is possibly the greatest first task in a nonviolent response to neighbourhood violence of any kind. That process was significantly begun in our week together. Ruth spoke of "the way in which each one of us who were there greet each other now on the streets of Jane-Finch as part of special family."

Len Desroches has been doing non-violence trainings for the last 15 years.

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1992

Peace Magazine Jul-Aug 1992, page 16. Some rights reserved.

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