VANCOUVER—They’re tough guys bent on making big bucks in the drug trade, ready to stick a gun to anyone’s head for messing with their turf.
Cities like Vancouver and Toronto have been rocked by a wave of gang violence in recent years, and although the dynamics between the cities are markedly different, there is one common denominator: young men with macho bravado eager to make big money in illegal drugs.
Montreal, Calgary, Edmonton and Winnipeg also have their share of gang trouble and are beefing up police resources to deal with so-called gangbangers.
But an American-style law-order approach may not always be the best way to go, says a Toronto criminologist who would rather see the root causes of the violence addressed.
Almost 100 men in rival Indo-Canadian gangs in Vancouver have been murdered since 1994, often execution-style, over drug deals gone bad.
“Most of them have been killed by guns and most have been killed in public,” said Vancouver police Insp. Kash Heed of the death toll in and around the city.
The problem among Indo-Canadian gangsters is multi-layered, steeped in cultural issues and fuelled by British Columbia’s lucrative marijuana trade that is increasingly seeing the drug being trucked across the U.S. border.
Toronto’s gang violence, often involving gun-wielding young black men, has escalated to the point that a coalition of African-Canadians recently called on Prime Minister Paul Martin to declare the issue a national crisis.
Of the more than 70 murders in the Toronto area so far this year, a large portion of them have involved gang members—as many as 30 in the black community and many others among Asian, Latino and Tamil gangs, said Tony Warr, Toronto’s deputy police chief.
The brazen nature of the violence was highlighted recently when an 18-year-old black man was shot at church while attending the funeral of a teen killed by apparently gang-related gunfire.
Scot Wortley, a criminologist at the University of Toronto, said Toronto’s black gangs have consolidated within the last few years into two major camps: the Bloods and the Crips, although they may not be derivatives of the founding American gangs.
“It’s a very unique situation in Toronto with respect to black gangs because there is the American influence of the Bloods and the Crips but they’ve also kind of merged with the traditional Jamaican posses,” Wortley said.
Much of the city’s gang activity among black youth involves those living in housing projects such as those in the notorious Jane and Finch area in the city’s northwest reaches, he said.
“A very high proportion of the gang members in our studies have come from poor backgrounds and single-parent backgrounds, particularly where the father is completely absent.”
Heed said there’s no typical profile of an Indo-Canadian gangster who may find himself in over his head and, too often, dead.
“Some are recent immigrants, some are fourth generation (Canadians),” he said, adding that while some gang members aren’t so well off and have little education, others are university-educated and from affluent families.
All young gang members, however, have a few things in common—starting with machismo.
“There have been instances where because someone bumped into you at a bar or looked at you the wrong way, the dispute’s carried on and people have been murdered because of it,” Heed says.
In Vancouver, Heed says the turning point for some young boys who would later become gangsters came in 1994, after the high-profile murders of Ron and Jimmy Dosanjh.
The brothers were killed in a street war between rival gangs in the illicit drug trade.
Young, impressionable boys were also drawn to notorious gang leader Bindy Johal, who, along with five other men, was acquitted in the Dosanjh murders after a seven-month trial.
Boys idolized Johal, turning him into a symbol of power and wealth. Some still revere the man who was gunned down in 1998 as he danced in a crowded nightclub.
Like many of the other murders, Johal’s killing remains unsolved.
Heed sees no end to the death toll resulting from a lifestyle that is attracting Indo-Canadian males to a world of flash, cash and women.
“I definitely do not see it stopping,” he said. “I see it carrying on and I see us trying to do the best we can to either suppress it or control it.”
Heed’s concern is that the violence is continuing to spill onto the streets and endangering the lives of innocent people.
They include a woman who was shot in the head recently as she lay on her couch watching TV during a gun battle between Indo-Canadian men outside her Port Moody, B.C., condo complex.
Almost two years ago, Heed brought together various factions of the Sikh community to discuss the violence that appeared to have no end.
“It was the first time since 1965, I think, that they were all in one room, whether they were fundamentalist or moderate (Sikhs), to talk about this particular problem.”
The group eventually pressured the Liberal government to re-establish the RCMP’s B.C. Task Force on Gang Violence to address the issue.
Vancouver police are now trying a new tactic that involves telling gang members’ families about their sons’ activities.
Most of the men, some in their late 20s, still live at home with their parents.
“We are going to the families early on and we’re telling them exactly what their sons are involved in and that we expect them to take action because I don’t want to be telling them that their son is in jail or on a slab in a hospital morgue,” Heed said.
Harbans Kandola, who heads a group called VIRSA (meaning heritage in Punjabi) said the first priority in tackling gang violence among youth is to educate parents on instilling discipline, particularly among boys.
Kandola’s group has developed an eight-week parenting program to help Indo-Canadian parents learn about the differences between their upbringing in India and the pressures their Canadian-born kids are up against.
“Cultural conflict is a huge issue, a huge issue,” he said.
The tendency toward favouring boys in the culture has produced what Kandola calls Generation S—for Generation Spoiled.
“When a 19-year-old has a $50,000 car you’re asking for a death warrant,” he said. “Our research tells us that 70 per cent of the boys who are killed are either the only son or the first son.”
People who arrive in Canada with nothing often focus on providing a home for their children through hard work that can mean being away from their kids to the point that they’re neglected, Kandola said.
Much of the poverty experienced by black gang members in Toronto is a direct result of former Ontario premier Mike Harris’s social cutbacks from 1995 to 2003 that saw the decimation of education and recreation programs, Wortley says.
“Many criminologists would forecast that by doing that you’re going to create the conditions to produce crime among the poorer segments of society. So rather than preventing crime, you are going to spend your money to deal with the criminals once they’re produced,” he said.
“What we’re seeing, particularly in some of the interviews we’re conducting now, is a profound sense of social alienation, a feeling that ‘because of my social circumstances, Canadian society does not care anything about me, I am not part of the mainstream society, I do not have legitimate educational opportunities, I do not have the opportunity to make it in the legitimate world.”’
Some young people kicked out of school starting five years ago, when Ontario’s zero-tolerance Safe Schools Act was brought in, have drifted into crime by joining gangs where they may get a sense of belonging, he said.
“They say they will not work at minimum-wage jobs flipping burgers so they choose to engage in the glamourous world of crime and gangs so they can keep their dignity and respect among their peers and at least have the chance to get wealthy selling drugs.”
While various groups are currently developing programs to combat crime in the Toronto area, what young people need most is hope—from a minimum standard of living, a quality education, recreation, and intervention strategies that start as early as pre-school, Wortley said.
“Once young people lose hope, and believe me, a lot of youth lose hope by the time they’re 14, 15 years old . . . once they feel no stake in conformity and once they feel their future in legitimate Canadian society can’t be found, that’s the first step towards losing them to crime.”
Some violent street gangs in major Canadian cities:
Vancouver area: Independent Solidiers—primarily Indo-Canadian members; UN Gang—mostly Indo-Canadians, Asians, Persians.
Toronto: Some black gangs derived from Bloods and Crips in the United States but may not be derivatives of the founding American gangs. Asian, Latino and Tamil gangs also prevalent in the city.
Montreal: Some Haitian and Jamaican gangs:
The Reds—for Bloods; the Blues—for Crips.
Calgary and Edmonton: Self-named Asian gangs FOB (Fresh off the Boat, although many members born in Canada); FK (Fresh off the Boat Killers); Crazy Dragons, Crazy Dragon Killers.
Winnipeg: African street gang Mad Cowz; aboriginal gang Indian Posse.
TORONTO, Ontario—Canadian officials, seeking to make sense of another fatal shooting in what has been a record year for gun-related deaths, said Tuesday that along with a host of social ills, part of the problem stemmed from what they said was the United States exporting its violence.
Canadian Prime Minister Paul Martin and Toronto Mayor David Miller warned that Canada could become like the United States after gunfire erupted Monday on a busy street filled with holiday shoppers, killing a 15-year-old girl and wounding six bystanders—the latest victims in a record surge in gun violence in Toronto.
While many Canadians take pride in Canadian cities being less violent than their American counterparts, Toronto has seen 78 murders this year, including a record 52 gun-related deaths—almost twice as many as last year.
“What happened yesterday was appalling. You just don’t expect it in a Canadian city,” the mayor said.
“It’s a sign that the lack of gun laws in the U.S. is allowing guns to flood across the border that are literally being used to kill people in the streets of Toronto,” Miller said.
Miller said Toronto, a city of nearly three million, is still very safe compared to most American cities, but the illegal flow of weapons from the United States is causing the noticeable rise in gun violence.
“The U.S. is exporting its problem of violence to the streets of Toronto,” he said.
“There are neighborhoods in Toronto where young people face barriers of poverty, discrimination and don’t have real hope and opportunity. The kind of programs that we once took for granted in Canada that would reach out to young people have systematically disappeared over the past decade and I think that gun violence is a symptom of a much bigger problem,” Miller said.