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

1. Introduction

The issue of firearm violence in major urban centers, particularly Toronto, has received considerable public and media attention recently due to several high-profile cases. There is speculation by some that much of the Toronto violence is gang-related. As a result of events in Toronto and concerns from other Canadian cities, it was determined that a literature review examining gangs in Canadian cities would be appropriate. While there is literature examining the use of weapons, and specifically firearms, within gangs, there is a need to synthesize the body of literature and examine the issue from a Canadian perspective. As such, the following literature review focuses on the nature of urban gangs and their use of weapons, with a particular focus on firearms.

1.1 Purpose

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 police-initiated or police-implemented programs that deal with urban gang members and their use of guns.

1.2 Research Methods

Information used in this report was gathered from published research sources, responses to a survey designed for police, and telephone interviews with police personnel in the six cities. The Internet literature search accessed various search engines using the search words and terms urban gangs, street gangs, youth gangs, and combinations of these words with weapons, guns, police programmes (programs) and control . Variations of these terms were also entered with Vancouver, Regina, Winnipeg, Toronto, Montreal, and Halifax. Pertinent references were recorded, and the materials were obtained through university and government libraries and by request through police departments.

Questions pertaining to the nature of urban gangs and police-initiated programs were drafted into a survey format (see appendix A). An introduction was added to explain the purpose of the project and to supply the respondent with contact information for the researcher and Department of Justice personnel. The introduction also informed respondents that the survey could be completed by fax, email, or by telephone.

For each of the six cities, the telephone number for the office of the Chief of Police was obtained through the Internet or directory assistance. The researcher spoke with the assistants to the Chief, explained the purpose of the project, and obtained contact email addresses. An email outlining the project was sent to each office with the survey attached.

For each city, survey results were analyzed and summarized. A draft was sent back to the appropriate police contact for verification of facts. Once verified, the results were incorporated into the report.

1.3 Limitations

Each of the studies reviewed for this project remarked on the paucity of research on Canadian urban gangs. While importing American theory and experience with gangs to the Canadian context may seem logical, it is inadvisable for several reasons. The Astwood (2004) report points out that Canada's population in 2002 was 11% of that of the United States and that the proportion of individuals involved in gangs in Canada is less than 1% of those involved in gangs in the United States. Thus, the data from two countries are not comparable samples.

Moreover, Mackenzie and Johnson (2003) noted that bulk of American gang research focuses on certain groups, specifically African Americans and Latino/Hispanic populations, while little research examines Aboriginal gangs. But in Canada, particularly in the Prairie provinces, Aboriginals comprise a large proportion of urban gang membership (Criminal Intelligence Service Canada, 2004).

Furthermore, Canadian laws and criminal court processes are different from those in the United States, and these legal differences could affect the applicability of American models. However, Kelly and Caputo (2005) pose that Canada is experiencing a phenomena similar to that of the American gang situation, suggesting there are issues with gang migration, gang violence, trans-national gangs, and recruitment of gangs within the prison system. Nonetheless, there are clear differences between the two countries.

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