The Roots Of Gang Warfare (B.C. Sikhs Must Look Hard At Themselves)

December 23, 2002: The Roots Of Gang Warfare (B.C. Sikhs Must Look Hard At Themselves)

December 23, 2002


B.C.'s Sikhs must look hard at themselves


HE LEFT THE nightclub in his usual fashion — the envy of the room, a beautiful woman on his arm. As he hailed a cab for the short ride to his posh condo in downtown Vancouver, a man with his history had to know he was pegged. “It all happened so fast,” the cabbie would say as his fare lay bleeding, riddled with bullets on the road. Robbie Kandola. To youngsters and hangers-on, he was a name they knew and feared. To police investigators, he was a toe tagged No. 54.

In the past 10 years in Greater Vancouver, Kandola had been the 54th young man killed in an Indo-Canadian gang war over drugs, money and women. The showdown of bravado has claimed victims execution-style on city streets. Suspects have forced victims to swallow gasoline before lighting a match. Some have been shot at close range at nightclubs. Others have just vanished without a trace.

While the mode of attack varies, victim profiles are interchangeable. Their obituaries describe men in their early 20s. Eulogies honour “nice” boys from good families. Most discernable of all, the victims are predominantly Sikhs whose background, by birth or by family, is in India's Punjab region. No other Indian sub-community in the nation has lost so many young men to murder. Even with large Hindu and Muslim populations in Canada, this bloody gang war is unique to B.C.'s primarily Sikh community.

With 50-plus murder files — most unsolved — and the threat of more looming, police investigators are scratching their heads. For years they've searched for answers, ever hesitant to ask a controversial question finally posed publicly by B.C. Supreme Court Justice Wally Oppal: “Why has the Indo-Canadian community raised a disproportionate number of killers?”

Some people may cringe at the “stereotype,” or gasp that such a discussion dare take place in an age when Canada has sworn in its first Indo-Canadian premier. But Justice Oppal is himself a Sikh. The truth is, the majority of the Punjabi community has contemplated the question, but chosen to quash it. Fear of legitimizing media coverage maybe? Or harming an already fractured community image? Not likely. This is a community that protects itself through denial.

There's really no dodging this bullet. A Punjabi boy's aggression and contempt of the law can be traced to misguided religious beliefs and his family's traditional practices. Most of the 50-plus victims come from this same complex culture.

From the moment a Punjabi boy opens his eyes, his parents hand him the keys to the Porsche of life. From now on, his mother will ride in the back seat, literally and figuratively, putting her son ahead of the world. Her boy will have the privilege of eating a warm meal, without the chore of clearing the dishes alongside his sister. In a fit of childhood rage, he will kick and punch his mother, as his father and grandmother look on, taking great pride in their boy's supposed courage.

It is the same cycle in most Punjabi households. All Indos, as we tend to call ourselves, have witnessed parents, grandparents and relatives mourn the birth of a girl, even today, while celebrating news that an heir to the throne is born. As Indos, we know too many sisters who were raised under a microscope of discipline and fear, burdened with the terror of defying their parents or shaming the family. All the while, their male counterparts are heralded as the Kings of the Castle, allowed free rein. “That's my boy,” Dad will say, as the little guy steals a sip of his Johnny Walker Red Label.

Vancouver police Insp. Kash Heed knows the Punjabi culture well. He grew up in a Sikh family. Heed, now Vancouver's top drug cop, says he's embarrassed by the stigma facing his community. ” 'That's my boy, that's my boy' has gone out of control,” Heed says. “You have fathers and mothers praising their sons when these boys are involved in illegal activity — drug trafficking and murders. But these parents are still going 'that's my boy' based on that old family principle.”

Heed agrees Punjabi boys grow up in a testosterone-fuelled environment run by an iron-fisted patriarch. In too many cases, violence is the tool with which the head of household settles disputes with his wife, as well as other members of the family. RCMP in the Vancouver suburb of Surrey, where many Sikhs live, say a disproportionate number of the domestic disputes their officers attend involve Sikh couples, and the disputes are almost always sparked by alcohol.

Eventually, a young boy will become a young man and step into a community that thrives on bravado — a world where everything is a grudge match, a fight to the finish. From Sunday sermons at Sikh temples to Friday nights at bars, police files show that disagreements among Punjabi men are regularly settled with the use of force. The difference is, youngsters have replaced the holy Sikh sword with machine guns.

Five centuries ago, Guru Nanak founded Sikhism, a religion designed to promote equality among people. Although it evolved into a warrior religion, it was intended to uphold bravery in the face of evil. But the very essence of Sikhism, its spiritual struggle for human rights, has been perverted by misguided men bent on gaining power and exacting revenge. The Sikh teaching, “When all else fails, only then raise your sword,” no longer applies to defending the defenceless. It is an excuse to use violence to settle the score.

This is especially true in Greater Vancouver, where interpretations of Sikh principles have led to terrible bloodshed. Three orthodox Sikhs are currently awaiting trial in the 1985 Air India bombings that killed 331 people. Authorities believe the bombing was a Sikh separatist message for India's dominant Hindu government.

Heed says there are numerous high-profile examples in Vancouver of Sikhs using delusional personal readings of religion to settle disputes. People, he says, need to look no further than temple “leaders” in B.C. whose battles for political power have been captured repeatedly on video for the six o'clock news. “Once, an item on TV showed a religious Sikh leader taking a big sword and slashing someone in the stomach,” Heed says. “That happened at a temple. The image played over and over on TV.”

Violence is even part of Punjabi pop culture. Songs that play on local radio stations encourage Sikhs to be proud of their identity at all costs. Some lyrics go as far as encouraging youngsters to pick up pistols and rifles to fight for “justice.”

Bravado, Heed says, is part of the male species in general, but among Punjabis there are dangerous contributing factors. “Couple bravado with Sikh religion, couple it with the Punjabi culture and attitudes, and a lack of positive role models — look what you have.”

What you have are young men who lack discipline and direction, young men who find adventure in earning fast money in the drug trade. Young men primed for violence.

The catalyst for many teenage Sikhs may have come in 1994. Two young men gained notoriety far beyond the Sikh community when they used the evening news to exchange blatant threats. Weeks later, one of them was gunned down on a busy street in broad daylight. Television images showed paramedics working feverishly to save him from the gunshot wounds. The man charged but acquitted in his murder, Bindy Johal, emerged a hero among young men. “All of a sudden this behaviour was glorified,” Heed recalls. “If kids wanted to make a name for themselves and settle schoolyard fights, they saw this as the way to do it.”

Those schoolyard fights have evolved into hunting season on Vancouver's streets. These days, gangsters are dying at the rate of one per month; Johal himself was later gunned down. It's a harsh reality, yet the Sikh community refuses to hear the wake-up call. Justice Oppal calls it willful blindness. “You tell me why a parent with an unemployed 23-year-old son driving a BMW doesn't think there's something wrong with that picture,” he says. “Our sons are getting slaughtered but parents and the community are in a state of denial.”

Even after their sons are murdered in drug-related shootings, parents have often spoken on record to reinforce their sons' “innocence.” Police officers have also described incidents where parents have slammed doors in their faces when they try to deliver news of the murder.

Characteristics of Vancouver's gang problem are now emerging in Britain and the U.S. Authorities in northern California say only 25 per cent of their Indo-American community is Sikh, yet violent Indo gangs are made up almost entirely of Sikh youngsters. California parents are also caught in the cycle of denial. They say their sons are not part of gangs, they're just “boys being boys.”

Over the years, Oppal has seen a drastic increase in the number of young Indo men caught up in B.C.'s justice system. “The community can blame the police, they can blame the courts, they can blame society at large. But it's time we started looking inward.” Oppal says the community and police need to work together to stop the killing spree, but he admits that ignorance in Vancouver's police department has contributed to the problem. “Police have never taken the time to get to know the Indo-Canadian community. This is what happened in the United States in inner cities where police are seen as the invading army. Police have no respect there.”

Heed agrees. He questions why police officers show up at the annual Indian Diwali festival wearing uniforms and stern faces. “When police go to other communities' events, they go in a community-policing role to meet and greet people,” he says. “Why is it that at Indian events, they show up in a strictly enforcement role?”

That may be changing. In Vancouver, an important first step between police and the community took place on June 15. Police officers faced off with members of the Indo community at a forum designed to build trust and help solve the city's gang problem. During the session, the split between police and the community was clear. Homicide officers expressed concern about the “conspiracy of silence” Sikhs use to protect their sons at the expense of solving murder investigations. Members of the community responded with accusations of racism. Why isolate “Indo” violence and host a forum, they asked.

The statistics, however, won the day. Nearly 60 victims. Hundreds more gang members involved in the drug trade — many of them “targeted” for murder, police say. That drove a strong debate against the aggression that has become an integral part of Sikh culture, religion and family values. Indo teachers, social workers, police officers and politicians called for community reforms to stop further bloodshed.

At this stage, Oppal admits, some youngsters cannot be saved. “We just have to write them off,” he says. Heed says police may have trouble keeping up with the deadly war. “The killings show no sign of slowing down,” he says. “Eventually murder suspects become victims.”

Since Robbie Kandola's death in June, four more Indo men have made it onto the list of victims, one a university student who was only 18. Another was clinging to life last week after five men were shot in a Surrey parking lot. The sad reality is, none of these young men ever had a fair shot at life. That chalk outline on the sidewalk is the final page of the religious and cultural blueprint that was used to raise them.

Renu Bakshi, who comes from a Punjabi background, is a reporter with CTV in Vancouver.

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