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In a small town in Canada, Indian community rallies against gang violence

Indo-Canadians in Surrey are banding together to create a coalition to combat the menace of gangs that has afflicted this part of Canada for more than two decades

world Updated: Jun 29, 2018 10:10 IST
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Anirudh Bhattacharyya
Hindustan Times, Canada
Indian community,Canada,Indo-Canadian community
Photos of the two teenaged victims of gangland-style killing that has shocked the large Indo-Canadian community in Surrey. (Courtesy IHIT)

Horrified over the gangland-style killing of two teenagers earlier this month, the large Indo-Canadian community in Surrey, a suburban town in British Columbia, is banding together to create a coalition to combat the menace of gangs that has afflicted this part of Canada for more than two decades.

On the night of June 4, the Surrey unit of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police (RCMP) received a report of two bodies being found by the roadside in a neighbourhood. They were “unresponsive” and had “gunshot wounds”. Both were declared dead at the spot.

But what jolted the community was their identity - 16-year-old Jaskarn Singh Jhutty and 17-year-old Jaskaran Singh Bhangal, both residents of Surrey.

“Things have come to a head, the community is very riled up about it,” Balwant Sanghera, a retired school psychologist, said.

Sanghera has been associated with the South Asian Community Coalition against Youth Violence since 2002 but this incident was a shock. He pointed out that violence related to Indo-Canadian gangs has pervaded the area for more than 20 years but the victims were often gangsters, and mostly in their late 20s and early 30s.

“This has created a different dynamic,” he said, as neither teen was known to have gang affiliations. “We’re all baffled, suddenly they were targeted.”

Sanghera said the incident was a “flashpoint” for the community. Days later, a group of concerned citizens held a “Wake Up Surrey” rally at the City Hall, attended by more than 2,500 members of the community. Among its main organisers was Gurpreet Singh Sahota, editor of a pair of Punjabi periodicals popular in the area.

“I have been covering these stories for 20 years, but nothing like this happened before, kids of 16 and 17 killed brutally in gang violence,” he said of the motivation behind the new movement. “This was a wake up call.”

Earlier there was a “code of silence” within the community on gangs that were prevalent and even recruiting children from high schools, he said. The community often evaded the issue because of the “stigma” attached.

All that has changed. Wake Up Surrey, which is apolitical in nature, has formed a working group and is interfacing with stakeholders, including parents, schools, law enforcement, the justice system and the community to tackle the problem head on.

The mayor of Surrey has formed a task force, and Sanghera, who is a member, said it will deliver a comprehensive report on July 3.

The multi-agency Integrated Homicide Investigation Team is in charge of the case but the perpetrators are yet to be traced.

“We certainly understand peoples’ concern following the shooting incidents and the recent homicides, it is within reason for the public to be concerned. We share their concerns and are committed to finding those responsible and bringing them to justice,” Surrey RCMP spokesperson Elenore Sturko noted.

She said gang violence is a “complex issue” that is dealt with through multiple strategies including “daily overt enforcement” and “outreach and prevention”.

She added, “Surrey RCMP’s long-term strategy in addressing the issue of youth getting involved in gangs and the drug trade is to promote positive choices for kids at a young age and to provide accessible support and guidance to parents.”

Surrey is the second-largest urban area in British Columbia and the heart of the Indo-Canadian community in the province. Over a quarter of its population is of Indian-origin. But, as Sanghera explained, with nearby Vancouver turning into a “drug centre”, gang activity has afflicted the region.

Among the problems is that gun culture can get glamourised in Punjabi urban music. Sahota said their group was asking radio stations to bar playing such songs, and also taking them off the playlist of banquet halls and events. The group has asked the Canadian government to deny visas to artists who promote guns and drugs.

The execution of the two youngsters has united the community in the realisation that not acting now to repel this threat could leave many more vulnerable.

First Published: Jun 29, 2018 09:53 IST