Surge in gang violence in Calgary and Edmonton drives up Alberta's homicide rate

Alberta's rate of gang-related homicides more than tripled last year, with killings in the Calgary and Edmonton areas accounting for the majority of the increase.

Alberta is the most deadly province for non-Indigenous people, Statistics Canada finds

This armed officer was part of a heavy police response to the community of Marlborough in northeast Calgary after a fatal shooting in March. Alberta led all provinces in homicides of non-Indigenous people last year and in gang-related homicides. (Mike Spenrath/CBC)

Alberta's rate of gang-related homicides more than tripled last year, with killings in the Calgary and Edmonton areas accounting for the majority of the increase.

That's according to the latest Statistics Canada data, which breaks down homicide rates by province, by gang involvement and by the Indigenous or non-Indigenous identity of victims.

Indigenous people continue to be far more likely to be killed than non-Indigenous people in Canada, with a homicide rate 6.7 times higher than the non-Indigenous population.

The three prairie provinces led the country in overall homicide rates.

Alberta's rate was the highest — by a substantial margin over second-place British Columbia — when it comes to non-Indigenous victims, specifically.

Click or tap on this interactive graph to see the homicide rate for non-Indigenous people, Indigenous people and the total population, by province, in 2015:

Prince Edward Island held the title for highest non-Indigenous homicide rate in 2014 but that was because there happened to be three killings among of the province's relatively small population of about 150,000.

With just one homicide in 2015, the P.E.I. rate dropped back down, while Alberta's increased by about 25 per cent to reach 2.40 homicides per 100,000 non-Indigenous people.

  That's nearly twice the national rate, but it's not something that should alarm everyday Albertans, according to Kelly Sundberg, a professor in the Department of Economics, Justice, and Policy Studies at Mount Royal University. Many of the recent homicides, particularly in Calgary, have been related to organized crime or occurred "between people that are known to one another," he said, and are not the result of random acts of violence.

Gang-related killings jump 

The crime statistics released this week show Alberta led the country in gang-related homicides last year, with a rate 0.67 killings related to organized crime per 100,000 people.

That marks a 205 per cent increase over 2014, and a 138 per cent increase over Alberta's previous five-year average.

In Calgary, specifically, in 2015 there was an uptick in gang-related crime in general, as turf wars emerged between competing criminal organizations whose members are often linked by family ties.

The Calgary and Edmonton metropolitan areas accounted for two-thirds of the increased number of gang-related homicides in Alberta in 2015, according to Statistics Canada.

Sundberg said it's not unusual for gang violence to rise and fall in cycles, with clusters of violence interspersed by periods of relative calm.

"We see a clustering of events, the police respond, then we see mass incarceration and arrests," he said.

"They all go to jail, cases are solved, they get out jail, and then sometimes we see turf wars redevelop, and it goes up and down. So we'll see this clustering a few years apart, and it's very normal to see that within gang-related offences, including homicide."

The height of Alberta's gang-related killings came in 2008, and there was another, smaller spike in 2011.

This interactive graph depicts the gang-related homicide rate (killings per 100,000 people) in Alberta and Canada since 1999:

In Calgary, a high-profile triple murder at Bolsa Restaurant on New Year's Day in 2009 marked the crescendo of an eight-year gang war between two rival criminal organizations in the city, the FOB and FK.

Gang-related violence was relatively quiet after that, before bubbling up again in 2015.

Police in Edmonton reported an escalation in the firepower of weapons being used in gang battles last year and the city saw a total of 16 homicides in the first 16 weeks of 2016, many of them believed to be gang-related.

In Calgary, two larger organized crime groups involved in disputes over drugs and territory were responsible for numerous homicides in the city last year, said acting Insp. Greg Cooper with the Calgary Police Service's major crimes unit.

Acting Insp. Greg Cooper with the Calgary Police Service's major crimes unit says police are constantly working to suppress organized crime in the city. (CBC)

Police responded with two major operations targeting those groups, putting many members behind bars.

"We had a lot of success but we don't want to rest on our laurels," Cooper said.

"We don't want to be naive. We know that organized crime is in Calgary. We're constantly investigating and involving our members in suppression as well as enforcement."

Last year there were 39 homicides in the Calgary metropolitan area, 12 of which were deemed to be gang-related, according to Statistics Canada.

Police said there have been 25 homicides in Calgary so far this year, but it's not yet clear how many are related to organized crime.

With files from Colleen Underwood