They aren’t quite the most celebrated Indians in North America. Not all of them are even alive. They have names like Johal, Sanghera, Buttar, Durhe. And while the community has taken pride in its members figuring in rarified lists of entrepreneurs, these are entrepreneurs of a different breed, the kinds that figure on the police blotter. They are the Dons of Vancouver.
Since the early 1990s, Indo-Canadians have entered the territorial and often violent drug trade in the region. At its centre is the BC Bud, or cannabis from British Columbia, that is profitably exported to the United States. Indo-Canadians have been part of the distribution trade, usually at an intermediary level, leading to violent outcomes.
The violence that brought with it a mounting body count, has gradually lessened since its peak in the mid-2000s, but is yet to be stamped out fully.
“It’s still a concern,” said Sergeant Shinder Kirk of British Columbia’s Combined Forces Special Enforcement Unit — Gang Task Force. The task force achieved significant success in recent years, as the accounts of gun- and gang-related violence, in the Indo-Canadian community, have fallen. Kirk said that “there were over a hundred murders over the last 15 years” connected to this trade.
Professor Robert Gordon, director of the School of Criminology at the Simon Fraser University in British Columbia, said, “This reflected the cultural and ethnic mosaic of metro Vancouver.” He said, “Indo-Canadian factions were involved significantly in the distribution of drugs, especially marijuana or BC Bud.” Much of the
violence surrounding the trade was generally because of “competition over market share, about who would dominate the distribution market,” he said.
The history of Indo-Canadian groups can be traced to the early 1990s with the emergence of Bindy Johal, the first major Mafioso from the community. Johal, who warred with the area’s Chinese Triads, was gunned down on the orders of one of his lieutenants.
But that didn’t create a vacuum. Other groups, drawn largely from the Punjabi immigrant community, emerged. The Sanghera and Buttar factions were among the most notorious. In 2009, the patriarch of the former group, Udham Singh Sanghera was arrested. The Sanghera gang had been engaged in turf warfare with the Buttar group. By 2010, the police had “crippled” the latter as well, with the arrest of its leader Manny Buttar, along with several associates. Others like the three Duhre brothers, once associated with Bindy Johal, are considered the principal drug trafficking group in the Fraser Valley region of British Columbia.
There has been pushback from the community against the gangs as well as efforts to educate Indo-Canadian children early to prevent lifestyle choices of this kind. Among those at the forefront of this activism is Vancouver-based psychologist Balwant Singh Sanghera, who heads a coalition of non-profits and academics taking on “youth violence.”
Sanghera says about 300 Indo-Canadian youth, mostly in their 20s, remain enmeshed in gang culture, and their “average lifespan is two-and-a-half years from the time of joining.”
This culture is also being reflected on celluloid. Vancouver-based director Manmord Sidhu released his feature film, Canadian Dream, earlier this year. The core theme of the film is that of an immigrant Indo-Canadian and his immersion in organised crime. “This is a very important subject for our community. The message is that they come to Canada from India and circumstances change. In this case, you can make tonnes of money, but your life is very, very short.” Sidhu said that the film is based on “a true story”.
Ujjal Dosanjh, the Indo-Canadian former premier of British Columbia, says: “Fortunately, the crime has been down a bit, not completely gone.”
The Dons of Vancouver may be facing the dusk of their careers, but it’s not yet time to turn the lights out.