The Nature of Canadian Urban Gangs and their use of Firearms: A Review of the Literature and Police Survey


This report could not have been possible without the help of law enforcement personnel who took the time to complete the surveys and participate in telephone interviews. I am most grateful to the following individuals who shared their time and expertise: Micheline Bourret, Paul Brien, Martin Bruce, Bill Carver, John Dehass, Bill Dombowsky, John Dyck, Tamie Fennig, Bruce Foster, Patrick Gascon, Mario Giardini, Rob Harding, Ron Johansson, Doug Kuan, rank Skubic, Wendy Stone, arvey Williams, Pamela Winters. I would also like to thank Nicole Crutcher and Kim Burnett of the Department of Justice Canada for their assistance and support.

Executive Summary

The issue of firearm violence in major urban centers, particularly Toronto, has received considerable public and media attention in recent months due to several high-profile cases. There is speculation that much of the Toronto violence may be related to urban gangs. Although research literature on the nature of urban gangs exists, there is a need to synthesize the body of literature and examine the issue from a Canadian perspective. The purpose of this project is threefold; to bring together all available studies on Canadian urban gangs, both qualitative and quantitative; to produce a police-based profile of Canadian urban gangs with particular attention paid to firearm use in six Canadian cities (Toronto, Montreal, Vancouver, Winnipeg, Regina and Halifax) and to describe a sample of police-initiated or police-implemented programs that deal with urban gang members and their use of guns.

Questions pertaining to the nature of urban gangs and police initiated programs were drafted into a survey format and sent to police officials in the six cities. Responses to the police survey and information from published research sources, were combined for the content of this report.

Canadian Studies Involving Urban Gangs

Each of the studies reviewed for this project remarked on the paucity of research on Canadian urban gangs. However, there were sufficient studies to provide information in this area. The studies reviewed pointed to the lack of consensus on the definitions for different types of gangs and each study employed a slightly different definition for street or urban gang, but contained a central theme involving multiple individuals and criminal activity. Most studies called for a universal definition for the different types of gangs.

Gang Member Demographics

Males were over-represented in urban gangs and females are either absent or marginally represented and this seems to hold true across the country. The police survey respondents confirmed this finding.

The bulk of the research suggests urban gangs are made up of young adults and adolescents. The police survey responses confirmed that the majority of urban gang members tend to be relatively young, with average ages of approximately 18, and an age range from 11 to 50 years.

In terms of ethnicity, the research and the survey responses suggest that ethnicity may not be as great a contributing factor to urban gang membership as is neighbourhood. However, it appears that various ethnic groups are over-represented in some neighbourhoods and this might contribute to specific ethnic representation of some gangs.


The research suggests that over one half of the gang members engaged in some type of antisocial activity such as fighting, stealing, vandalism, or drug use before joining a gang, and that nearly all members commit criminal offences after joining. Property offences; particularly break and enter, and auto theft were common offences and most studies cited heavy involvement in violent crimes such as assault, robbery, and home invasion.

Collectively, the most prominent offences were drug-related offences, such as production, importation or trafficking of illegal drugs. The survey respondents reported similar gang activities but also included fraud operations and homicide.

Both the research and the survey results indicated that some of the urban gangs appeared to operate independently, some seemed to work within short or long term contractual relationships with organized crime groups or criminal biker gangs, and others were described as a street level presence of organized crime groups. The principal relationships between the urban gangs and crime groups seemed centered on the distribution and sale of drugs, the protection of territory, and enforcement.

The research proposed that by using urban gangs to achieve their aims, organized crime groups can maintain a distance and be somewhat insulated from direct detection.

Use of firearms

One of the studies reported on the regional differences in urban gang use of firearms in assaultive crimes. More than half of the jurisdictions surveyed in the study reported that the use of firearms by gang members in assaultive crimes was non-existent or very rare. Approximately one in ten jurisdictions reported that firearm use in these types of offences was frequent, with the highest frequency in Alberta.

Based on survey responses, some general comparative statements were made about the firearms confiscated by the police in relation to gang activity. Firearms-related violence in Vancouver and the lower mainland of British Columbia is comparable to that of any other major centre in Canada including the greater Toronto area. Of the Western provinces, the lowest incidence of illegal firearms use was in Regina. Halifax police reported that they had not seen firearms used in the commission of offences by urban gang members.

Police Programs

Research has indicated that the most effective method of countering urban gang activity is in prevention programs, and all cities surveyed were responding to that need. Each of the six jurisdictions surveyed were active in police operations to deal with urban gangs. Five of these were also active in establishing programs designed to prevent youth from joining gangs by providing education and alternative action services, and one city was in the process of initiating such programs.

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