After spending 32 years in prison, former gang member Richard Atkinson has now devoted his life to steering youth away from a life in gangs.
Atkinson told Global News on Monday he grew up in Alexandra Park and that he was a young teenager when he held his first gun.
“I was running around this neighbourhood shooting at people when I was 14 years old,” he said, “And there was no solution for me then.”
“[It’s] what happens when you have someone in society who is suicidal and homicidal and that’s what you are if you shoot at someone … If I shoot, I’m going to spend the rest of my life in prison and I don’t care.”
Atkinson joined the Dirty Tricks gang in Toronto in his adolescence. While part of the gang, he found himself committing several robberies around the city, which eventually landed him in the federal prison system.
Atkinson, who is now on parole, wrote a memoir called, The Life Crimes and Hard Times of Ricky Atkinson, recounting his life in gangs.
In the book, he speaks about his former gang life, and how he has now transitioned into spending his days as a boxing instructor and teaching pottery classes to youth.
Atkinson said his goal is to mentor young people in the hopes to draw them away from the gang life he once lived.
WATCH: Toronto grappling with rising gun violence
“I wanted to be Al Capone,” Atkinson said. “I wanted to be a gangster, so it would have had to take someone like Al Capone to say ‘Hey, what are you thinking?’”
“I say to guys, ‘your dream is an illusion. When you get to the top and you’re the king of your gang-banging crew, it’s not a sweet life. You have to worry about your friends and you always have to worry about [police] and the guys around you are dubious and treacherous.’”
As a solution to curbing the increase in violence Toronto has seen in the last several months, Atkinson said more resources need to be made available to youth.
“Utilising all the resources in society, including all the gang-bangers who want to turn their life around,” he said.
“[With] extreme thinkers, like I was, and we council those extreme thinkers and redirect them down another path. I think that is the solution because it would have worked for me.”
Police presence in neighbourhoods with at-risk youth can also help decrease gang culture, Atkinson added.
“There are certain cops who see the validity to shaking hands and talking to people and talking kids and asking people how they feel,” he said.
“If a kid is on the fringes of delinquency, you take a guy like me, you take a cop and you take a neighbourhood community guy and you say ‘hey kid, you’re on the wrong path.’”