Thunder Bay

Guns, drugs and gangs: Police in Thunder Bay, Ont., concerned over rise in violent street crime

Thunder Bay police are concerned over the safety of the public and its own officers amid a rise in incidents involving gangs and guns. One crime expert links more violent street incidents to the fact the northwestern Ontario city borders the U.S., and attracts organized crime groups. 

Expert on what's behind organized crime believes city's border status with U.S. attracts gangs

Det.-Insp. John Fennell of the Thunder Bay Police Service says they've seen a steady increase in seized illegal firearms over the last few years. An expert says the northwestern Ontario city attracts organized crime groups due to its location near the U.S.-Canada border. (Kris Ketonen/CBC)

The Thunder Bay Police Service is concerned over the safety of the public and its own officers amid more incidents involving gangs and guns, with one expert linking the rise in violent street crimes to the northwestern Ontario city bordering the U.S., an attraction for organized crime groups. 

Det.-Insp. John Fennell said the police service has seen a steady increase in seized illegal firearms over the last few years.

The number of guns seized by police went from zero In 2018 to six the next year; in 2020, 15 illegal firearms, directly resulting from drug-related search warrants, were seized (a total of 39 guns were seized in 2020, but Fennell said that includes minor infractions such as improper storage).

Already this year, as of Monday, 15 guns have been seized as part of drug warrants.

"Firearms-related [crimes are] becoming a huge concern," Fennell said. "We treat it extremely seriously."

Since 2018, there have been eight attempted homicides, with three of them involving guns in Thunder Bay, Fennell said.

In the most recent shooting reported by police, on Saturday night on May Street South, a male from Ontario's Niagara region was taken to hospital with non-life-threatening injuries. As of Wednesday, no arrests have been reported.

Police say gang and drug activity is also on the rise. As of Monday, police had executed "well over" 100 drug-related search warrants, Fennell said, and arrested 221 people; 138 of the total arrested are from outside Thunder Bay.

As well, there have been 830 charges laid in relation to drug investigations and 38 home takeover investigations.

So far this year, police have seized large amounts of various illicit drugs, including:

  • 7.8 kilograms of cocaine.
  • 3.3 kilograms of crack cocaine.
  • 535 grams of crystal meth.
  • 1.3 kilograms of fentanyl.

As of the end of September, Fennell said, there had been 282 overdoses (74 of them fatal) in Thunder Bay.

Border 'facilitates rackets,' expert says

Thunder Bay's rising gun, drug and gang activity is no coincidence, said former police officer Stephen Metelsky, who teaches criminal psychology at Mohawk College and lectures on organized crime at Queen's University.

The city attracts organized crime groups due to its location near the U.S.-Canada border, he said

"It facilitates their rackets. The majority of that, their top two over the years, have been drugs, gambling. And then you're seeing things like gun and human trafficking really spiking as well.

"That's because a lot of this is facilitated with cross-border smuggling and transactions."

He said other Canadian cities close to the U.S. border — such as Hamilton, Windsor and Niagara Falls in Ontario — are also hot spots for organized crime.

In Thunder Bay's case, its role as a northwestern Ontario hub provides access to smaller communities, and rural areas, in the region.

"A lot of these groups really like the rural aspect," he said, adding organized crime groups have, in the past, stored drugs and the like at farms. "It's not as much heat as there would be [in southern Ontario]."

Metelsky says concerns over illegal firearms can also be linked to gang activity.

"It's them protecting their turf, their racket, whether they're holding on to gambling debts, whether they're collecting drug debts, whether they're holding drugs," he said. "It's almost become the norm that if you're holding onto those criminal assets, or you have to go proactively and collect these assets, these criminals are going to be armed."

Need for more police resources, expert says

While Metelsky said there's regular co-operation between organized crime groups, Thunder Bay police say competition between individual gangs is fuelling the rise in drug and gun activity on the streets.

"With more and more individuals coming from southern Ontario, it creates competition," said Det.-Sgt. Dan Irwin. "Everybody wants their ...product out front, whether it be fentanyl, crack cocaine, and it's killing people, it's hurting people.

"It's making people scared, uncomfortable to come forward to the police. The investigations are very time consuming, labour intensive ... while on the other side, they have no rules. They do what they want. They intimidate."

Metelsky said Canadian police services need more resources to work toward reducing violent crime.

Organized groups have access to "so much money, so much technology, whether it be weaponry, whether it be setting up ways to sort of launder money internationally or servers in a different country for gambling," he noted.

Canada really needs to use the criminal organization legislation in the Criminal Code a lot more. It hasn't been taken for a really good test- Stephen Metelsky, teacher, lecturer on organized crime

Metelsky said infiltrating organized crime groups commonly involves the use of a "police agent" who agrees to act as an informant for whatever police service they're working with, such as the RCMP.

"These projects run for anywhere from one to four years, and require a massive amount of human resources and money. More money has to be put into these budgets to fund these massive projects, because you're not going to tackle a massive Mafia organization with a peripheral informant.

"It's very difficult to get in these groups with undercover operators, because ... they do more stringent background checks than legitimate government agencies," Metelsky said. "So you really have to look at alternative methods, and all of those are federal and big money."

In addition, "the laws [in Canada], compared to the United States, are a little more lackadaisical," he said.

"Canada really needs to use the criminal organization legislation in the Criminal Code a lot more," he said. "It hasn't been taken for a really good test."

But there's still the issue of numbers.

Often when, for example, Thunder Bay police announce a drug trafficking-related arrest on social media, the post is met with comments pointing out another gang member will quickly arrive in Thunder Bay to fill the void left by the arrest of the accused.

Metelsky agrees that's the case.

"They're very structured, almost like a corporate, military-like structure," he said. "I always use the analogy of a great white shark.

"After a great white shark has attacked another mammal or anything, they typically will lose a couple of their front lower teeth, and as soon as those teeth are knocked out, the row behind it moves up and those two gaps are instantaneously filled."