Gang murders bucking trend toward a less violent Canada, summit told

Long-term, Canada is becoming a less violent society. But one subset of killings is stubbornly bucking the trend, delegates heard today at a national summit on gun violence hosted by the federal government: gun homicides involving members and associates of criminal gangs.

Fewer Canadians are shooting each other than a generation ago — but gang life is as violent as ever

OPP officers prepare to bag a firearm after Ontario Provincial Police host a news conference in Vaughan, Ont., on Thursday, February 23, 2017. (Chris Young/Canadian Press)

Long-term, Canada is becoming a less violent society. But one subset of killings is stubbornly bucking the trend, delegates heard today at a national summit on gun violence hosted by the federal government: gun homicides involving members and associates of criminal gangs.

Both the rate of homicides, and of gun homicides specifically, have fallen by half since they reached their historic high points in the years 1975 to 1992.

There have been spikes since, most notably in the mid-2000s. In Toronto, the year 2006 is still remembered as the "summer of the gun" because of a spate of 52 shooting deaths. 2008 was the peak year for gang homicides in Canada, with a rate of 0.42 per 100,000, followed by a fairly steep decline up to the year 2013.

But while the big picture sees the rate of violent crime holding steady or declining, the subset of gang-related homicides has been ticking upwards again.

The ongoing and expanding opioid crisis is, of course, making this problem even worse.- Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale

The rates of both fatal shootings and gang-related murders are now essentially back where they were 10 years ago, after an encouraging decline stalled and then reversed itself starting in 2013.

It reflects the stubborn persistence of an increasingly violent subculture within an increasingly non-violent broader culture: the drug-dealing street gang.

Why gang murders are different

Most gang murders — over three-quarters of them — are carried out with firearms, compared to only 20 per cent of non-gang-related murders.

The killings typically aren't random. But as the city of Ottawa — which is hosting Wednesday's summit — can attest, that's little consolation in the neighbourhoods where the gunplay is concentrated.

Ottawa saw its annual number of shootings more than double between 2013 and 2017. The shootings sometimes involved two parties blasting multiple rounds at each other on public streets, striking homes and cars.

Justice Parliamentary Secretary Bill Blair on efforts to stem the tide of illicit guns entering Canada from the U.S. as gang violence spikes in Canada. 8:08

Gang killings are also harder to solve, partly because they involve groups retaliating against other groups, and victims who had many potential enemies. Although only a quarter of Canadian homicides in 2016 involved gangs, those gang-related killings accounted for 61 per cent of the nation's unsolved killings.

Ottawa police typically find that when victims survive shootings, they are unwilling to co-operate with investigators. Instead, gang members seek to retaliate themselves, triggering further cycles of retribution.

The recent growth in gang-related homicides appears to be driving down the overall rate of solved homicides in Canada. Homicide clearance rates were in the 90 per cent range in the 1960s, but have fallen steadily and are now particularly low for gun murders linked to gangs. Toronto Police were able to issue warrants for only 25 of the 61 homicides they recorded last year.

Drug trade drives gang profits

Public Safety Minister Ralph Goodale told the conference today that "it's the drug trade, in particular, that is an intrinsic part of gang culture and gang-related violence and arguably causes the most harm in our communities.

"The ongoing and expanding opioid crisis is, of course, making this problem even worse."

Goodale said the search for new drug markets has been driving gangs into rural and indigenous communities. "In my home province of Saskatchewan, gang-related homicides accounted for a quarter of all homicides in 2016, and of those, more than half occurred outside the two largest cities of Saskatoon and Regina."

Minister of Public Safety and Emergency Preparedness Ralph Goodale says gun-related violence linked to the drug trade, and the "ongoing and expanding opioid crisis is, of course, making this problem even worse." (Justin Tang/Canadian Press)

Saskatchewan last year posted the highest homicide rate of any Canadian province: 4.7 per 100,000. That murder rate would place Saskatchewan somewhere close to the middle of the pack in a comparison with U.S. states. (If Canada as a whole were a U.S. state, it would have been one of the safest in 2016, after Maine and New Hampshire.)

It's a peculiarly Canadian phenomenon that homicide rates increase as one travels north. Thunder Bay, Edmonton and Regina are the most violent of Canada's larger centres.

Canada's highest homicide rates are typically found in the territories — especially Nunavut. For most of the past decade, Nunavut has posted a higher homicide rate than Louisiana, consistently the most violent U.S. state. (The last two years, though, have seen an encouraging drop in killings in the territory.)

The new gangs: less rigid, more mobile

Dr. Catherine Proust spoke to the summit about the "new-age" gangs that have emerged in the past 15 years — typically looser networks of "players" who eschew the use of colours and emblems, and in some cases even gang names.

"They come together for a specific purpose, after which they diffuse back into the street gang leader's vast network of personal associates," she said.

She cited the example of two gang networks that fought a bloody six-year turf war in her home city of Calgary: the FOB ("Fresh off the Boat") gang and its rivals, the "FKs" or "FOB Killers." Those names were attached to the gangs by outsiders who wanted convenient labels to describe them, said Proust — not by the gang members themselves.

Other speakers described how beefs between gang members now increasingly take place on social media, where they can be seen by police and social workers.

That sometimes gives authorities an opportunity to intervene with the people involved before they try to kill each other. The conference heard about programs in Philadelphia and Boston that take advantage of the fact police usually know who the players in a social media dispute are, and employ "violence interrupters" to speak to the participants to try to break cycles of retaliation.

Criminologist Martin Bouchard of Simon Fraser University said the mapping of social networks, including social media, is a tool that hasn't been exploited enough.

"These networks can help us predict who's going to become a gang member, who can get a gun more easily, but also who's going to get shot next," said Bouchard. Research has shown consistently that the people getting shot in gang disputes, and the people doing the shooting, tend to be the same individuals.

Anthropologist Kathleen Buddle of the University of Winnipeg spoke about another aspect of modern gangs: mobility. She said in her own province of Manitoba, gangs have pushed into new territory far from urban centres to take part in human trafficking.

"More and more young women are being shipped or transported to Winnipeg, where they are forced to work the streets to pay off debts they incurred on reserve," she said.

"Dealers may typically allow the debts to build in northern communities, then demand payment in full. Young women must migrate to cities to pay off their debts, but are only able to make partial payments while supporting their habits, which leads to a kind of sex slavery."

Statistics Canada has reported a 300 per cent increase in human trafficking offences since 2013, a trend experts say is closely linked to the same street gangs that control the drug trade.

About the Author

Evan Dyer

Senior Reporter

Evan Dyer has been a journalist with CBC for 18 years, after an early career as a freelancer in Argentina. He works in the Parliamentary Bureau and can be reached at evan.dyer@cbc.ca.

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