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BC's Drug Gangs: 'These Are Humans. They're Kids'

Author Ranj Dhaliwal on how youths get into, and out of, gangs.

Rob Annandale 16 Nov

Rob Annandale is on staff of The Tyee.

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Ranj Dhaliwal: 'Even the gangs are now multicultural.'

A recent spate of killings in B.C.'s Lower Mainland -- most notably the shooting deaths of six people in a Surrey apartment last month -- has brought the issue of gang violence back the top of the agenda for politicians, police and media.

Prime Minister Stephen Harper promised in a recent visit to Vancouver to get tough on crime and pledged stiffer sentences for violent acts. Although the Vancouver Police Department played down media talk of a gang war, it announced a new task force to deal with the violence. And politicians at both the provincial and municipal levels are calling for increased police funding.

To get a perspective that goes beyond law and order, the Tyee spoke with Ranj Dhaliwal, a Surrey author whose 2006 debut novel Daaku stirred controversy for its unglamorous depiction of the life and death of a young Indo-Canadian gangster. Convinced of the importance of positive role models, Dhaliwal also speaks regularly to local youth and parents about the need for communication and alternatives to the gangster lifestyle.

Here's what he had to say about the lure of organized crime, the problem with current solutions and the human face of gangsters.

On life in Surrey in the '80s and early '90s:

For Daaku, I used my experiences when I was growing up as a teen, what I saw around me going to school, in front of my high school, my friends who took part in criminal activity.

When I was growing up in Surrey, it was a lot different than it is now. There weren't many immigrant families here. I'm first generation and I went through quite a bit of racism growing up.

On annoying questions:

I've always been asked straight up, why are you Browns killing each other. And it's like, I'm not. How can I answer that? I can only say it's the drug trade, you know, read the media reports.

On culture shock within families:

There are cultural conflicts any time you have first generation children here. Their parents are immigrants and there's that difference. The immigrant parents come from a different culture obviously and then when they get here, they're working their butts off to try and get a better life for their kids. And the kids are in Canadian society. There are different rules when they step outside of the house. So it's that conflict where at home, it's kind of an old-country setting and when they step outside of the house, it's new country. So they've got that little conflict where they don't talk about what's going on outside inside.

On gangs:

My interest -- wouldn't say interest in gangs -- is in trying to work in the community with everybody, to see if I can help in getting kids on the right path. We've got some experience with the wrong path. We read the news reports. It's not just them getting criminal records or going to jail. It's very dangerous, they're dying at an early age. These kids just graduated high school and haven't even started life yet. We're hoping that as positive role models, we can help these guys get to the right path.

On media coverage of gangs in the Lower Mainland:

I think it's gotten a little bit better. In the '90s, it was absolute glorification.

The thing is everybody's human. They made the wrong choices, they're dead now and we understand that they're the bad guys, they're the gangsters. But what did they do? Did they do any good? What was their life like? I mean, you give more of an example to the youth that are out there. That this person could have taken a different path but he didn't. You know, make it a learning experience. But I understand what media is. News is news. If there's a high profile murder, it's newsworthy and it needs to get out there.

On the roots the problem:

Anytime there's a demand for something, there's going to be a supplier for it. So if you can cut off the demand, there's not going to be a supply for it. If there are no drug users, what's the point in bringing drugs into the country? I know it's easy to say and impossible to do. But, you know, helping addicts recover is probably the best thing to do.

British Columbia's exciting. There are so many people coming here. The more people there are going to be, the more crime, the more drug users there are going to be, the more poverty there's going to be. Houses are going sky-high here. It's a tough city to live in now. So people are looking for the quick buck, for the fast cash.

Kids aren't stupid. They're in Grade 11 or 12 and they're looking at what am I supposed to do with my life? And then they take a look at how much can I make doing this trade or this trade? What is the cost of living in the city now? And I look at them and think, wow, this is kind of overwhelming. Plus they're going to have student loans. I get this.

It's not that they're giving up. They're looking for an easy route to make money. And the easiest route is hey, sell some drugs.

On toughening sentences:

Anytime somebody looks at a tougher sentence, it's a deterrent in some way. But is that going to help with the gang problem or is it going to help them organize better? Is it going to really get the guns off the street if you have a gun-related crime? These guys are gangsters. They carry guns and they shoot each other. So when you're in that business, if your competitor has a gun and you know he's going to kill you, you're going to be trying to gun him. You know, it's survival of the fittest, I guess. So I don't really think that gun-related gang incidents are going to go down at all.

On more police:

Where does that go? I know they're gangsters or associates or whatever but everybody has rights too. Can you be pulled over on every block you drive down? If you go to the gym or a restaurant and the cops come in, is that a form of harassment? This is something that the police need to look into because if gangsters have money, they have lawyers.

On racial profiling:

These gangs are now very multicultural. They're not just Asian, they're not just Caucasian. They're mixed up now. It's kind of amusing but it's kind of nice. We're in Canada, it's a multicultural society. Even the gangs are now multicultural. So I don't think it's racial profiling.

On staying in gangs despite the dangers:

They think, I'll do it better and they think that there's so much money out there, there's so many users out there, there's so much of a demand that everybody can have a piece of this big pie. One of the perceptions they have is the fact that there haven't been many arrests in the gang circles, especially for these homicides and that's the worst crime there is. So they're like, if you can get away with murder, you can get away with anything pretty much. So they think this is a great way to go.

On why the killings are bad for everyone:

It's all a competition, it's a business, it's the business world. And these guys are young and they don't have the business mentality yet. They know how to make a quick buck and they know how to spend it in the clubs and make themselves look flashy and fit that gangster profile. Whereas for the older guys, it's a good business to them. They know that you keep a low profile, that you don't need to kill everybody under the sun. Now it's all over the news, now you're going to start these new task forces. The less funding there is for police, the less chances there are you're going to get busted selling drugs. The more killings there are, the more police, the less chances of you selling drugs. So it has a negative effect on them.

On getting out:

They're youthful, they're still maturing and they need back-up and support from somewhere. And if they can have a friend that's not a police officer -- because they can't really talk to them openly -- if they can have someone they can trust and be open with and talk, then that's even better. You never know, someone who's doing a murder for the first time, I'm sure there's got to be a little bit of peer pressure. You need a couple of guys to go with you or something. A lot of them don't want to do it but what do they do? Who can they talk to? Nobody. If they go to the cops, they're ratting their buddies out. But if they don't want to be a part of it, they should know that they have that choice of walking away from something.

On really fixing the problem:

They're kids that have taken the wrong path. Everybody knows that, OK yeah, they did take the wrong path, now what do you do about it. But the thing is, every year somebody else graduates and becomes a gangster. And these are humans, they're kids. I think the public is looking at them like, you know what, let them kill each other off. And that's just the wrong way to look at it.

There's a lot of backlash from the public like the cops aren't doing anything, why doesn't something get done. We've got way more if you look at the population of drug users versus non-drug users. Even in the city of Vancouver, there's quite a bit more. If everyone was to pitch in a little bit -- whatever anyone can, you know, be a good person, try to help out in some way -- I'm sure there would be a difference.

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