Ottawa·under the gun

Ottawa's gang violence result of power struggles over drug trade, rivalries

Ottawa police say the huge spike in shootings in Ottawa in 2014 points to a "mini arms race" among street gang members who are arming themselves with guns as they fight over drug territory.

Around 500 gang members and associates in Ottawa appear to be gathering more guns

Under the gun


6 years ago
In part one of our series on gang violence, Judy Trinh investigates the record number of shootings in Ottawa. 6:58

Ottawa police say the huge spike in shootings in Ottawa in 2014 points to a "mini arms race" among street gang members who are arming themselves with guns as they fight over drug territory.

There were 49 shootings in Ottawa in 2014, compared to 30 in 2013 and 32 in 2012. 

Ottawa police say there are about 500 gang members and associates in Ottawa who earn money through the trafficking of illegal drugs, in particular selling crack cocaine.

Acting Staff Sgt. Ken Bryden of the Ottawa police's guns and gangs unit said he doesn't have an estimate on how many illegal firearms there are in the capital, but police are averaging one gun seizure a week.

Acting Staff Sgt. Ken Bryden of the Ottawa police says police seize an average of a gun a week and it seems there are more of them on the city's streets now than in the past. (CBC)

"It would appear more guns are on our streets," Bryden said.

Ballistics expert Sgt. Chris O'Brien, who tracks guns in the province of Ontario for Ottawa police, said guns are now seen as a necessary tool to compete in the drug trade.

"For example, you have a neighbourhood with five drug dealers. If one of them gets a gun, all five of them will have to get a gun," he said.

"If only one gets a gun, he becomes the power broker in the community. He is the person who has the weapon so he is more easily able to protect his turfIn order for everyone else to remain competitive they will have to arm themselves."

Escalating violence

To deal with the growing problem, Ottawa police have staffed the guns and gangs unit with 19 investigators and two sergeants.

Their 18 officers on the Direct Action Response Team (DART) are also aggressively checking up on gang members out on parole or bail, ensuring they abide by their conditions.

They're not afraid of violence. They will carry a firearm, they will carry a knife, they will get into an altercation to prove a point.- Acting Staff Sgt. Ken Bryden, Ottawa police

Ottawa police said they arrested 83 gang members in 2014 and investigators acknowledge the round-up of established players in the drug trade may have left some areas ideal for takeover from rival gangs.

Since January 2014, police said 34 shootings have been determined "gang related."  

Bryden said he considers most of the shootings "acts of intimidation" but there are signs the violence is escalating.

In May, two bullets were fired into a moving vehicle on the Queensway in what was determined to be a case of mistaken identity. 

Shootings usually peak in the summer months, but in 2014 the highest number of shootings was logged in the month of December. 

The nine incidents in December include the Tanger Mall shooting where a single shot was fired during the Boxing Day rush and an incident Dec. 29 on Bank Street, where a known gang member was ambushed and shot from behind

He is still in a medically induced coma. 

Although these gangs are not highly structured, Bryden said some of them do employ so-called gang enforcers or "muscle" who may be responsible for the most brazen shootings. 

"The muscle is those men and women who are known for violence, they're not afraid of violence," Bryden said.

"They will carry a firearm, they will carry a knife. they will get into an altercation to prove a point."

Who are the gangs?

Gang numbers are fluid since members sometimes move between cities, some are arrested while others are released from jail and return to the game.

Police say 15 to 20 street gangs in Ottawa are offshoots of two main groups: the Crips in Ottawa's south and east and the Bloods in the west. 

The members may group themselves according to neighbourhoods, such as the Overbrook Crips, or band together along family and friendship ties.

Joe Addelman, a criminal lawyer who has represented many gang members, said the clients he represented first became gang members while they were in high school. 

In an interview with CBC's Ottawa Morning last month, Addelman said he believes retaliation is a motive behind some of the shootings.

"In disputes going on over the drug trade, one of these acts of violence is committed against one individual, then his brothers, his cousins and his friends are looking to retaliate," he said.

"It starts to move away from controlling a particular housing project."

A closer look at the statistics of gang related shootings in 2014 shows gunfire is erupting where gang members live and where their customers reside.

Many of the shootings took place in low-income neighbourhoods, apartment towers that rent to drug addicted tenants on welfare or community housing projects with high immigrant populations, single moms and youth. 

Despite escalating violence and the increasing focus on gang activity by police, Addelman said many young men will continue to be drawn into the life.

"As long as the crack cocaine business is as lucrative as it is, you will have young men willing to take the risk," he said.

"It's relatively easy work, it's cash money that's not taxable. It's an easy way for a 20-year-old to make $10,000 to $20,000 a week."

Is Ottawa more dangerous?

Ottawa has one of the lowest crime rates in Canada and in 2014, despite a record number of shootings, the city only had seven homicides. 

Defense lawyer Solomon Friedman said the capital's homicide rate has been declining for two decades and that the typical person doesn't have to worry about these shootings.

"These shootings are confined to the criminal element, that is people involved in the drug trade or other illegal activity using guns to protect their turf or encroach on someone else's turf," he said.

"In most cases there wasn't even a victim."

Wednesday on Under the Gun: where Ottawa's guns are coming from and why people go though the effort to get one.


Judy Trinh

CBC Reporter

Judy Trinh is a veteran journalist with CBC's The Fifth Estate. She covers a diverse range of stories from breaking crime news to the #MeToo movement to human rights court challenges. Judy aims to be both critical and compassionate in her reporting. Follow her on Twitter @judyatrinh Email: