"A lot of Ontario gangsters are moving to Calgary and Edmonton and Vancouver—a sort of ’Go West, Young Man’ movement of gangsters."

Michael Chettleburgh, author of ’Young Thugs,’ talks about the suburbanization of gangsters, what’s really going on in Metro Vancouver and the Harper government’s proposed gang legislation

Q: The body count in B.C. is nearing the double digits. Have we reached a tipping point?
A: There’s still a perception that, as long as gangsters are shooting other gangsters, nobody’s going to give a damn. The majority of what you’ve seen has affected those that have chosen the lifestyle of gangster or drug dealer. For many people there’s this sense that a Darwinian game is being played out on the streets, and that’s fine.

Q: Yet some innocent bystanders have been caught in the fray?
A: Winnipeg had Philippe Haiart. Hobbema had Asia Saddleback. Vancouver had Ed Schellenberg [and Chris Mohan]. In Toronto, Jane Creba was our rallying point. It certainly has crossed over into the general population, so people are very concerned. As a result you get this high degree of activity to mollify an ill-informed population. Vancouver is going through what Toronto did in 2006 and 2007.

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Q: What was that?
A: It crossed over. All of a sudden, all hell broke loose: We saw massive investments in front-line officers, investments in getting officers to work in collaboration with the Crown, gang sweeps, which began to choke the criminal justice system—dozens of gangsters arrested, hundreds and hundreds of charges—money thrown at gang prevention programs. That’s what we’re going to start to see in Vancouver, as the community confronts the size and scope of the problem.

Q: In the last round of violence in Vancouver, two women were shot. Has a line has been crossed?
A: There is a code on the street: it shouldn’t affect women, it shouldn’t affect kids, and it shouldn’t affect people who haven’t chosen the lifestyle. Today’s gangsters are doing things a previous generation would not consider okay. The general level of violence has increased, the level of firearm power on the street has increased, and the stakes are higher, in terms of money from the drug trade. Those lines are being crossed. Not only are more kids going to join, but we’re going to see more violence than we have really considered possible in Canada—that we tend to think of as “American.”

Q: What’s happened in Vancouver over the past two months? Was it a case of reprisal and counter-reprisal that’s dominoed?
A: When there is an increasing competition for a very lucrative drug trade, there are bad dealers or bad deals. If a gang recognizes that a rival gangster’s been very successful, he’s perceived as being a walking ATM—so we have drug rip-offs. For the successful, gang-affiliated drug dealer in Vancouver, his primary threat is not the police: it’s another gang that wants his share of the drug trade and the cash in his pocket. When one gang goes after the other, there’s a reciprocation, back and forth, back and forth, before it gets so hot that even these guys say, “We’ve got to cool our jets.” You get these peaks and valleys. What you’re seeing right now is not the start of a trend: This is just a spike in activity.

Q: Why does Vancouver’s gang problem appear to have exploded in the past two years?
A: Although it’s been very, very lucrative for organized crime, they’ve tended to keep quiet about their business—and made a lot of money as a result. Now, we have more and more street-level gangsters: Those are the ones producing the violence you’re seeing. On top of all that, we’re facing the massive growth and demand for illicit drugs—from which B.C. is the No. 1 starting point.

Q: The perfect storm conditions?
A: You also have trans-border trade in Canadian-made drugs for American guns, and cocaine and heroin from [places] further south, like Mexico and Peru, and the inter-provincial movement of gangsters trying to escape police heat in Montreal and Toronto. Put all that into the mix, what’s going to result? Violence. It’s not just Vancouver. Gang violence in Alberta has gone through the roof in lockstep with the vibrancy of their resource trade. There’s a lot of young guys making a lot of money: They like their girls, they like their booze, and they like their drugs. Because of the perceived richness of the drug trade, a lot of Ontario gangsters are moving to Calgary and Edmonton and Vancouver—a sort of “Go West, Young Man” movement of gangsters.

Q: What’s the difference between street gangs and organized crime?
A: Young gangsters become street gangsters; if they’re good at their business and they don’t get thrown into jail, they become tomorrow’s organized crime members. It’s like a hockey team: you start in Pee Wee, then Midget, Bantam, Junior A, American Hockey League then you make it to the big leagues: the NHL. That’s organized crime.

Q: Did Harper serve notice to B.C.’s gangsters?
A: Gangsters didn’t wake up with a pit in their stomach and say, “Boy, the federal government’s getting tough on crime: I should change my ways.” Those sanctions don’t really enter into the mind of a young gangster who has an exaggerated sense of self, an exaggerated risk-taking profile, and who has gotten a taste of the gang business—a lot of money, drugs, and access to women. You think gangsters are going to be really concerned that if they kill somebody in the commission of a gang crime, that, instead of being a second-degree charge, it’s going to be a first-degree? The other day, I talked to 10 reformed gangsters, including one in witness protection. I asked them what they thought of the law. It’s not going to make a difference, they said. That’s where the disconnect lies.

Q: Was this a purely political response?
A: What we’re seeing in Vancouver, if you really want to get cynical about it, is: “okay, we have to curry favour to people who are concerned about a growing gang problem.” It’s convenient: They’ll say, “This is the product of the soft-on-crime Liberals over the last 20 years.” Our approach to tackling violent crime is not a strategy: it’s a patchwork quilt of policy prescriptions, which aren’t particularly well thought out. They’re modeled on a tough on crime, U.S.-style policy arc that has proven to be very ineffective. Despite a get-tough approach and a $1-trillion investment, they have a gang problem that’s 10 times as large as when they started. What I think we’re dealing with right now is the triumph of rhetoric over reason. [Harper] needs to be seen as doing something really big and tough on crime. As long as the frame of reference for politics is three or four years, they’re not really concerned about effective long-term solutions.

Q: You posit that Canada has a 10-year window before its gang problem becomes a “full-blown epidemic”?
A: If we assume that the next three to five years are going to be very challenging economically in North America, and we know that petty crimes tend to spike in hard times, it’s going to be a very challenging 10 years. I can’t tell you how disturbing it is when I go across the country and I see eight and nine-year-old drug-dealers.

Q: Big city crime appears to have declined since the ‘90’s. Is that perception or reality?
A: We think of the New York miracle: Giuliani, 40,000 plus cops on the street. Did it change the dynamics of the incidence of murders in New York? Yeah, but in other big cities, like San Francisco, where this wasn’t implemented, they had even a larger drop in crime and victimization. Then we started to wonder: Why is Newark, N.J. the murder capital of the U.S.? Because we’re seeing a displacement—a suburbanization of gangsters. I’ve got clients who are in Niagara Falls, St. Catharines, Peterborough—communities that, all of a sudden, have gangsters. It’s not just a Vancouver-Downtown Eastside problem. It is Abbotsford. It is Kelowna.

Q: Whose police force is doing things right?
A: One of the most effective and informed police agencies in the country is the Ottawa Police Service. They’ve identified roughly 600 street gang members, and have the DART team—the “direct action response team”—a militaristic, in-your-face approach to known gangsters, enforcing bail conditions, and the like. We know through some of the chatter, that this has made a big impact—so much so, that the Ledbury-Banff Crips—mostly Ethiopian and Somali kids—got out of dodge.

Q: Where’d they go?
A: Calgary

Q: You advocate a combined program of suppression and prevention to combat street gangs. Suppression involves putting more police on the streets, and engaging in frequent and visible gang sweeps—which, in your book, you say is akin to “ridding your lawn of dandelions by snipping off their heads.” What is prevention?
A: In Toronto, we’d say, the gangsters are here, let’s sweep ‘em all up, and throw them into jail, only to find that, for every one you take off the street, there’s another one that’s more than happy to play that role. I advocate a five-pillar approach: suppression and enforcement at the one end, and prevention, intervention and diversion at the front end. If we want to be effective we have be open rather than take the default position: more cops on the street. It’s not an either-or proposition, but everything’s being set-up to be. When you start talking about prevention and intervention, you’re called a soft-on-crime lefty. That is insulting.

Q: Harper’s proposed legislation would affect criminals after conviction Should we have considered more proactive laws—that would help police make arrests?
A: And all of a sudden, we have a whole new class of law for drive-by shootings; I can count the number of drive-by shootings we had in Canada last year on one hand. We missed the opportunity to bring in some really innovative legislation. In the U.S., 95 per cent of gang crimes feature witness intimidation. If I cooperate, or even talk with a cop, it could result in the loss of my life, or of my child. Why not new laws around witness intimidation? Why not beef-up our contempt of court laws, or obstruction of justice charges—rather than just implementing what Americans did, which was an utter failure. He’s taking the lazy way out. He’s looking at the vote-getting route. I think that’s a lost opportunity.