Geographic leaps not unusual for gangs, says expert

An University of Toronto professor and gang expert says the movement of gangs within Canada is an "understudied phenomenon" worthy of more attention.

Thunder Bay police say gangs are moving north from Ottawa and Toronto

Scot Wortley is a professor at the centre for criminology and sociolegal studies at the University of Toronto. (

An University of Toronto professor and gang expert says the movement of gangs within Canada is an "understudied phenomenon" worthy of more attention. 

Established gangs have been known to make large geographic leaps in pursuit of profit, said Scot Wortley, a professor of criminology and sociolegal studies at the University of Toronto. 

"There is evidence that gangs do move and migrate for a variety of different reasons," he said. "Well established gangs who have established a niche market in a particular territory, much like any other business, may seek to expand."

In Thunder Bay, police say that over the past year, gangs from Ottawa and Toronto have been moving into the northwestern Ontario city, to exploit a lucrative drug trade.

It makes sense that some gangs might want to expand north, Wortley said, especially if the market in their home community has become saturated. 

"If you wanted to start a Starbucks franchise in downtown Toronto, there's not very many locations where that's going to work right now, so as a business person you might try to find a location that doesn't have a Starbucks and move there."

When it comes to gangs, the same business principles apply, he said. 

"It's an economic reasoning that certain locations like Thunder Bay ... might be viewed as an open market."  

"There's also a decade of studies ... that suggest that rates of illicit drug use are actually higher in rural areas and small towns than they are in big cities like Ottawa and Toronto," he said.

Wortley said in some cases, upstart gangs will also move to new territory because they're having difficulty breaking into the market at home. A third reason for moving might be increased police pressure, or territorial disputes in their base location. 

While people might think of gangs as highly organized entities, Wortley said that based on his research, which focuses on Toronto, that's often not the case. 

"My research would highlight that most gang involvement is at a rather informal level. A loose group of individuals, usually between five and 10 who come together for relatively short periods to try to make some money in a particular location." 

When it comes to combatting gangs, Wortley said that enforcement is important, but crime prevention initiatives are also critical.