If you haven't heard, it's "shots fired" season in Surrey, BC.
Easter Sunday marked the latest pop of broad-daylight gun violence in a Metro Vancouver region known for gang activity. But police and experts say the recent rash of over a dozen drive-by shootings around Surrey borders does not signal the beginnings of a deadly gang war—it's more likely just the street-level drug beefs of some recent high school graduates. Corporal Bert Paquet of the Surrey RCMP confirmed via email the majority of the shootings "have been linked to low-level drug trafficking."
To understand why Surrey RCMP aren't calling six shootings in two days "gang related," I called up local filmmaker and public speaker Mani Amar.
His 2009 documentary A Warrior's Religion explored the lives of gangland's major players in the 1990s and beyond. "I would say many of these are youths that want to be gangsters," Amar suggests of the five-week shooting spree that has so far caused injuries but no known deaths. "If they were actual targeted shootings by high-end guys, there would be more bodies."
Amar adds BC's most notorious gangs tend to favour automatic and semi-automatic weapons rather than the handguns used in these recent drive-bys. "It's just a couple shots—pop, pop—and they drive off," he says, adding only a few blocks separate the rapid tit-for-tat incidents. Amar contrasts these "bravado" attacks with the deadly events of Metro Vancouver's gang war in early 2009 (his take: a totally different kettle of criminals).
Yet the shooters' low position in BC's gang food chain does not make their violent spats any less dangerous to the middle-class neighbourhoods they inhabit. Doug Elford of the Newton Community Association says the frequent sound of gunshots have left residents confused and frightened. (About a third of the drive-by shootings have gone down in Newton alone). Elford's calling on communities, law enforcement and local government to work together to bring the criminals responsible to justice. So far city officials have stayed silent.
A rare public notice released by Surrey RCMP identifies five 20 and 21-year-old locals the city's top cop believes are connected with four drive-by incidents in March. So far no charges have been laid. "For those involved in these shootings or people who know them—I ask you to think about the safety of your family, friends and the general public," wrote Surrey RCMP officer-in-charge chief superintendent Bill Fordy in a March 12 statement. "The manner that you have chosen to resolve this dispute is careless and unacceptable."
Abbotsford police followed suit the next week with a public safety notice identifying three more men who pose a significant risk. "We believe it is in the public's best interest that the identities of these men are known so people associating with or in close physical proximity to them understand their safety could be in danger," said Abbotsford Sergeant Casey Vinet in a news release. "Efforts to curtail growing tensions between these individuals are being made but we are very concerned that violence could occur in public settings."
Longtime BC gang reporter Kim Bolan notes how unusual it is for police to name without charges—a practice questioned by privacy advocates. Vancouver police officer Kal Dosanjh tells me the tactic puts pressure on extended friends and families to turn information over to police. "If you take a look, we're dealing with primarily Southeast Asian communities of immigrants and first generation Canadians," he tells me. "We live in extended families, not nuclear families, and it's about protecting your own."
"The community is tight-knit—I know some of these fools," Amar adds. "Releasing names ostracizes them in the community—shows their extended families, classmates, college teachers and whoever might know them what they're up to."
Dosanjh is hoping to steer these attitudes toward more dialogue with law enforcement. In response to the spike in gun crime, he assembled a youth forum on gang violence for a recent Sunday in late March. Dosanjh brought together religious leaders, RCMP, ex-gang members and education leaders to participate in a dialogue with at-risk youth in the Southeast Asian community.
Amar also applauds the two police forces for outing the eight young men. He says tight-lipped families are still common, but attitudes are slowly changing as the community learns from past mistakes. He tells me a province-wide police force would assist in quicker response to violence that spills over municipal borders.
As for the young, low-level drug hawkers likely behind Surrey's shooting spike, Amar offers his own lesson: "If you're going to be in this lifestyle, people are going to suffer," he deadpans. "It's death or jail—those are your options."
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