The Nature of Canadian Urban Gangs and their use of Firearms: A Review of the Literature and Police Survey
This section introduces the studies reviewed and includes the definition of urban gangs used in each study. It should be noted that some studies and police departments use the term "street gang" synonymously with "urban gang". These two terms will be used interchangeably throughout this report.
Hebert, Hamel and Savoie (1997) conducted a comprehensive review of Canadian and American literature on six gang-based topics, including the definition of a urban gang, and illustrated six different types of gangs. The three less structured types of gangs are copycat gangs, territorial gangs, and delinquent groups, all of which generally do not engage in violence. The three other organized gang groups include violent gangs with ideological goals, street gangs, and criminal organizations.
Violent gangs with ideological goals tend to have political or religious agendas and engage in violent activities to attain their goals, such as satanic rituals. Skinheads are an example of this type of group. These gangs may have a highly developed hierarchy, and can be part of larger organizations. They identify themselves with specific clothing and through cultural, religious or political biases but are not generally concerned about territorial control. These groups may engage in serious crimes including group violence (e.g., assault or homicide) for the purpose of asserting their beliefs.
Street gangs are usually comprised of adolescents and young adults who commit various forms of criminal acts. The level of organization tends to vary between gangs, and may have links to adult criminal organizations. They tend to be highly territorial, operating for economic reasons and are primarily involved in drug trafficking. Street gangs may also commit high levels of violence.
Criminal organizations tend to be small groups with stable and sophisticated operations, with the goal of financial gain. Interests are usually highly diversified. Some of these groups may have elaborate rules and generally do not seek attention. They are highly concerned with territorial control, they may use intimidation and violence to promote or protect their interests, and they can even go as far as to eliminate competitors through violent acts.
The Greater Vancouver gang study (Gordon & Foley, 1998) was a project designed to serve four purposes: to develop profile data on known gang members; to test the validity of classifications and definitions from earlier studies; to identify reasons for joining and leaving gangs; and to examine characteristics of gangs from the perspectives of gang membersand agents who work with gang members (e.g., probation officers).
Gordon and Foley (1998) defined a typology of groups prior to collecting data. These types were youth movements, youth groups, criminal groups, wannabe groups, street gangs and criminal business organizations. The first two groups (youth movements, youth groups) were not considered gangs and were not the focus of the study.
- Criminal Groups:
- Small clusters of friends who band together, usually for a short period of time (no more than one year) to commit crime primarily for financial gain. They can be composed of young people and/or adults and may be mistakenly, or carelessly, referred to as a gang.
- Wannabe Groups:
- young people who band together in a loosely structured group primarily to engage in spontaneous social activity and exciting, impulsive, criminal activity including collective violence against other groups of youths. A wannabe group will be highly visible and its members will boast about their "gang" involvement because they want to be seen by others as gang members.
- Street Gangs:
- groups of young people and young adults who band together to form a semi-structured organization primarily to engage in planned and profitable criminal behaviour or organized violence against rival street gangs.
- Criminal Business Organizations:
- organized groups that exhibit a formal structure and a high degree of sophistication. These groups are comprised primarily of adults, including older adults. They engage in criminal activity, primarily for economic reasons, and almost invariably maintain a low profile, which is a key characteristic distinguishing them from street gangs (Gordon and Foley, 1998, p. v).
The Astwood Strategy survey was the first research effort in which Canadian police departments were surveyed about the extent and characteristics of youth gang problems in Canada. The term "youth gang" was defined as
[…]a group of youth or young adults in the respondent's jurisdiction, under the age of 21, that the respondent or other responsible persons in their agency or community were willing to identify or classify as a gang. As part of this definition, we asked respondents to exclude motorcycle gangs, hate or ideology groups, prison gangs, and other exclusively adult gangs (Astwood, 2004, p. 1).
Mellor, MacRaw, and Pauls (2005) undertook a study with three objectives: to develop a multidimensional conceptual framework for youth involvement in gangs in the Canadian context; to identify programs and services relevant to youth gangs in Canada; and to categorize program initiatives based on their level of prevention. Information was obtained through literature reviews and key informants in government departments, police departments, and non-governmental organizations. Mellor, MacRaw and Pauls (2005) proposed a multidimensional model of gang activities, gang organization, and motivation to join gangs, as well as recruitment, and exit strategies. The model focused on five different types of gangs/groups:
- Type A Group of Friends:
- These members are not antisocial, and are therefore not included in this report.
- Type B Spontaneous Criminal Activity Group/Gangs:
- these groups can be large and social in nature. Members are generally prosocial, and the criminal activity that does occur is spontaneous or situation-motivated, such as shoplifting, theft, bullying, swarming, and gratuitous violence. Emphasis tends to be on maintaining a highly visible profile and mystique. These groups were reported to be fluid, with no permanent leadership or hierarchy. Individuals could be members of multiple groups/gangs without negative consequences. There was little evidence that they have any connection to organized crime groups. Weapon use appeared to be limited but can include knives, bats, homemade weapons, and handguns. In addition to being a fashion statement, members may join for other reasons: protection from others, belief that gang membership is "normal" , gaining a sense of belonging and recognition, and a lack of legitimate alternative activities or associations. Recruitment is usually based within existing social networks where friends come together, and in other cases protection is offered. Members tend to leave the group/gang as they mature or change their peer group.
- Type C Purposive Group/Gangs:
- these groups/gangs usually form for the main purpose of committing a specific offence. Size is dependent on the purpose of the formation. Crimes include property offences, home invasion, drug trafficking, procurement, extortion, robbery, hate crimes, and vigilante-type assaults. These gangs can emerge for a specific purpose from existing gangs and may disappear after the offence or activity is completed. These gangs tend to be more structured than Type B groups, with a small, male-dominated membership and few if any links to criminal business organizations. Members may join to fulfill survival or emotional needs, engage in thrill-seeking, alleviate boredom, or take part in retribution. Recruitment can be done within existing social groups which tend to be short-lived, but police intervention by arrest or diversion can result in the group dissolving.
- Type D Youth Street Gangs:
- youth street gangs are typically organized to carry out money-making criminal activity or organized violence against other gangs. Members can be identified through gang-specific clothing, tattoos, or jewellery and mark their territory with gang graffiti. Activities tend to be planned and organized. Youth street gangs have been known to commit a wide array of crimes including sexual and non-sexual harassment, vehicle theft, drug trafficking, weapons procurement, prostitution, intimidation, extortion, robbery, assault, and homicide. These gangs usually have a hierarchy and may or may not have connections to organized crime groups. They tend to have moderate levels of leadership and a code of conduct is often imposed. There can also be affiliate members associated with these gangs who are not fully initiated and are not aware of all operations but may receive protection and have access to drugs and weapons. The core members generally have full membership status and offer complete loyalty and devotion to the gang. Because their focus is to further the gang's interests, they usually have significant influence on other members. Some of the motivations for joining this type of gang include money, power, protection, a lack of legitimate alternatives, and social acceptance. Recruitment can be done by friends or family, or by taking in disenfranchised youth. Some members are coerced to join while in prison. Initiations are usually directed by the leaders and may involve committing certain offences, being beaten, or for females, having intercourse with all male members. Some gangs may even require proof of criminality. These gangs are typically the most difficult to leave but members may have the opportunity of being "beaten out" which involves a severe assault. Those who choose to leave usually require multifaceted exit strategies with help from the police, community groups, and family.
- Type E Structured Criminal Organizations:
- these organizations tend to be highly structured and sophisticated business operations that may operate internationally. To maintain a low profile and distance from criminal acts, these groups tend to use street-level groups to carry out many aspects of the business. They have been known to use children under 12 to spy, commit break and enter, act as couriers, and to engage in child pornography. Youth in these organizations generally have a low ranking.
In a more recent undertaking, Kelly and Caputo (2005) surveyed police departments to determine the nature of urban gangs and to examine their links to organized crime groups. Although the Criminal Code defines organized crime, it does not define types of gangs. As a result, definitions of urban gangs vary between jurisdictions. Kelly and Caputo (2005) proposed that in addition to the need for a universal definition of street gangs, Canada also needs to define the linkages between types of organized crime groups. Specifically, how can Canadian police determine whether a street gang is a true "street gang" or a street-level presence of an organized crime group. The researchers also proposed that criminal activity should be understood in the broader social context in which it occurs.
When Kelly and Caputo asked police how they determined whether criminal activity was gang related, most respondents reported these common indicators:
[A] reliable source of information that an individual is a member of a gang; the individual has been observed associating with known gang members; the individual acknowledges gang membership; the individual has been involved in gang-related crime; there is a court ruling that the individual is a gang member; and the individual uses gang markers, such as gang colours, paraphernalia and tattoos. In fact, one of the most common techniques used for identifying activity as being street gang related was the presence of gang colours, tattoos, dress, and graffiti.
(Kelly & Caputo, 2005, p. 23).
Respondents also reported tracking the money from drug sales to determine whether the street gang was retaining it as profit or funnelling it away to another group. Monitoring changes in the criminal activities of known gang members was another indicator. For example, increased violent crimes, increased involvement in drug trafficking, and decreased involvement in other types of crime, such as property offences and suggested that the changing relationship may warrant further inspection.
The research reviewed for the current report included studies that were limited to specific populations, such as youth, adult federal offenders, males, or females. Therefore, the summary of information might not reflect the actual demographic representation of urban gang members.
Three of the studies were specific to males only (Craig et al., 2002; Nafehk, 2002; Nafehk & Stys, 2004), one study had an exclusively female sample (Mackenzie & Johnson, 2003) and the other involved mixed gender samples. Of the mixed gender studies, females made up a small part of the participant group, from 3% (Gordon & Foley, 1998) to 32% (Hamel et al., 1998). According to police respondents in the Astwood survey (2004), the percentage of females in gangs ranged from 0% (Nova Scotia) to 12% (British Columbia), with a national average of 6%.
Several of the publications reviewed included individuals of different ages as part of the nature of the study (i.e., youth gang studies did not include older adults, and federal inmate studies excluded youth). The longitudinal study by Craig et al., (2002) involved 76 boys who became gang members by the age of 13 or 14. Two other studies included older individuals under the definition of "youth" . Hamel et al. (1998) extended the age range in their sample of current and former street gang members, resulting in a mean age of 18 years (age range 14 to 25 years). Respondents from the Astwood (2004) Canadian police survey were asked to estimate the number of youth gang members within five age groups. Results from individual locations varied, yielding a national average of 10% below the age of 16 years; 39% between 16 and 18; 37% between 19 and 21, and 14% over 21. Not specific to youth, the Vancouver study by Gordon and Foley (1998) found that the mean age of the 35 street gang members in the sample was 18 years (age range was not reported).
Nafekh (2002) explored the characteristics of Aboriginal federal inmates who were gang members while Craig et al. (2002) limited their sample boys who spoke French as their first language and had parents who were born in Quebec. Other studies described a variety of ethnic demographics. Thirty-eight percent of the Montreal youth in Hamel et al.'s (1998) study had Canadian-born parents, 19% had a Haitian background, 16% had a Latin American background, and the others were from a variety of backgrounds. In the Vancouver study (Gordon & Foley, 1998), the largest group was comprised of Asian gang members (45%), followed by Caucasian (20%), Aboriginal (14%), Middle Eastern (8%), Indo-Canadian (5%), African Canadian (3%) and Hispanic (2%).
The ethnic variation of gang composition has also been seen on a national level. The Astwood (2004) police survey reported on the composition of gang members across Canada: African-Canadian (25%), First Nations (22%), Caucasian (18%), Asian (12%), East Indian (14%), Latino/Hispanic (6%), and Middle Eastern (3%). British Columbia had the highest proportion of Asian members (37%). Saskatchewan, Alberta and Manitoba had the highest representation of First Nations members (96%, 58%, and 58% respectively). Ontario had the greatest percentage of East Indian members (21%). Ontario also reported a high proportion of African Canadian members (36%) as did Quebec (51%) and Nova Scotia (48%). Nova Scotia had a high proportion of Caucasian members (47%). The respondents also indicated that 36% of the youth gangs had members of two or more ethnic/racial groups, averaging from less than 1% in Nova Scotia to 46% in British Columbia.
Finally, examining ethnic composition in federal inmate gang members, Nafekh and Stys (2004) reported that there were 916 identified urban gang affiliates in prison between 1996 and 2003, of which 37% were African-Canadian, 29% were Caucasian, 20% were Aboriginal, 3% were Asian, and 11% were from other backgrounds.
Several of the studies reviewed suggested reasons why youth join gangs. In their study of Montreal youth gangs, Hamel et al. (1998) found that males and females were recruited differently. Girls were usually recruited in a systematic way by finding a vulnerable girl, offering protection and friendship, and then trapping her. It was less clear if the majority of males joined of their own volition or if they were coerced as well. Several of the studies stated that many gang members came from abusive backgrounds and low socio-economic neighbourhoods. Gang membership can offer these individuals a sense of belonging, with the gang often becoming a surrogate family. For some, gang activities provided the means to acquire material possessions and a sense of power. The lifestyle has also been glamorized, particularly by the entertainment industry.
Several of the studies indicated that urban gang members tend to engage in graffiti or "tagging". The stylized and symbolic images are spray-painted on buildings, bridges, or other structures. It appears that the intent is to announce the gang′s presence, mark territory, and cause fear in the community. Tagging is generally done by relatively newly established gangs and not the more established gangs whose members see it as a guide for police.
Not surprisingly, compared to youth who do not become gang members, those who become involved in gangs generally engage in more delinquent behaviour, with the highest involvement in fighting, stealing, vandalism, and drug use (Craig et al., 2002). Results from Hamel et al.'s (1998) study indicated that 68% of the youth in their sample had already committed some type of delinquent act prior to joining a gang, and 83% felt that their gang committed violent acts. Police respondents in the Astwood (2004) survey ranked criminal activities by degree of youth gang involvement in Canada.
Assault was first (72%), followed by drug trafficking (70%), burglary/break and enter (68%), vandalism/graffiti/tagging (64%), intimidation/extortion (56%) and auto theft/exportation (47%). In their Montreal youth gang study, Hamel et al. (1998) reported that females usually provide an income for the gang through exotic dancing, escorting, or prostitution, and acting as drug couriers.
Including youth and adults from all types of gangs in their gang member probation sample, Gordon and Foley (1998) reported that 38% percent of all gang members had a current conviction for violence (not specified), 35% for property offences, 9% for drug related offences, and 3% for weapons related offences. Furthermore, 34% of the sample had a prior conviction for a violent offence. Offence details for different types of gangs were also combined in two federal inmate studies. In a female sample (Mackenzie & Johnson, 2003), gang members were more likely than a matched sample of non-gang member inmates to have committed assault or robbery, but less likely to have committed murder. In a sample of Aboriginal inmates who were gang members, Nafekh (2002) found that the gang members were more likely to be convicted for robbery, assault, and weapons related offences than a matched sample of non-gang affiliated Aboriginal inmates, but less likely to be convicted of sexual assault. Nafekh and Stys (2004) found in another study of federal inmates that street gang members were most likely to have been convicted of robbery, drug offences, homicide, sexual assault and weapons related offences. Additionally, the street gang members were more likely than other types of gang affiliates to have convictions for violent offences.
In addition to reporting statistics on weapons related offices, two of the studies reviewed included weapons use as a distinct variable. Hamel et al., (1998) reported that the number of weapons used by urban gangs has increased over times as well as the number of deadly weapons. They suggested that previously, gang responses to minor transgressions were limited to fist fights, whereas now, responses can be with weapons. The Astwood (2004) survey respondents reported the frequency of firearm use in the commission of assaultive crimes: 46% responded "not at all" ; 24% responded "rarely" ; 19% responded "sometimes" ; and 11% responded "often" . In the "often" category, the provincial breakdown of responses ranged from 0% (British Columbia and Nova Scotia) to 67% (Alberta).
Hamel et al. (1998) suggested that crime committed by the more organized youth gangs is not very different from that of organized crime groups; however, street gangs appear to engage in different activity across time without a long-term specialization. Police respondents in Kelly and Caputo′s (2005) survey indicated that a major activity of street gangs is to provide distribution networks for the drug trade, control territory, and to collect debts. Other studies reported that much of the violence committed by street gangs is done in relation to the drug business, such as fighting between competitors or raids on the competition, robberies, and property offences to raise capitol to purchase drugs. Although some street gangs run their own independent operations, such as the marijuana grow operations owned and managed by street gangs in British Columbia, or fraud operations (credit and debit cards) and prostitution rings managed by street gangs in Quebec. Many street gangs appear to have ties to organized crime groups. The nature of the ties can vary from temporary contractual relationships, to a permanent integration, with the gang acting as a street level presence of the particular crime group. By using street gangs to achieve their aims, organized crime groups can maintain a distance and be somewhat insulated from direct detection.
According to the Astwood (2004) survey, police in Ontario reported that 38% of gang-related drug trafficking and 15% each of the weapons possession and auto theft/exportation offences were committed in collaboration with organized crime groups. In British Columbia, organized crime was involved in 42% of the drug trafficking, 33% of the intimidation/extortion, and 33% of the prostitution offences committed by youth gang members. In Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba combined, organized crime gangs were involved in 42% of the drug trafficking, 32% of all assaults, and 32% of vandalism/graffiti/tagging offences. Forty-four of the survey respondents indicated that youth gangs in their jurisdictions had established subordinate or affiliate relationships with organized crime groups. The most prevalent of these were Aboriginal/Native Canadian gangs (40%), Asian gangs (22%), and outlaw motorcycle gangs (22%).
Depending on the definition used for "street gang", their activities can range from antisocial although not technically illegal acts, to the most serious of crimes. As youth gang members mature, they tend to either dispense with gang association, or become more entrenched by joining larger or more dangerous gangs. A commonality between all of the studies reviewed, is the propensity for street gangs to be involved with drugs, and the violence that permeates that involvement.
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