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

4. Summary

Firearm Use

Some general comparative statements can be 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 is in Regina. As stated above, Halifax police have not seen firearms used in the commission of offences by street gang members.

The type of firearms used by street gangs also varies regionally. In Vancouver, high quality firearms such as semi-automatic pistols seem to be the firearmsof choice. They are easily concealed and have high capacity ammunition magazines. The gang members typically possess these firearms for self protection from other gang members as well as for use in carrying out criminal activities that they are involved in such as robberies, intimidation and extortion. The type of firearm carried can also be viewed as a status symbol. In Saskatchewan and Manitoba, sawed off shot guns and rifles seem to be the firearms of choice. These firearms are readily available and are very difficult to trace as the majority are unregistered.


One of the main issues when looking at gangs and its various synonyms is in relation to the definition. There are multiple terms used when referring to gangs.

While there is no legislated definition for gangs in Canada, section 467.1 the Criminal Code does define a criminal organization as

467.1(1) "criminal organization" means a group, however organized that

  1. is composed of three or more persons in or outside Canada; and
  2. has as one of its main purposes or main activities the facilitation or commission of one or more serious offences that, if committed, would likely result in the direct or indirect receipt of a material benefit, including financial benefit, by the group or any of the persons who constitute the group.

It does not include a group of persons that forms randomly for the immediate commission of a single offence.

Several of the police departments surveyed used a common definition for "gang" that had been drafted in a joint meeting of Police Chiefs in 2005.

Three or more persons, formerly or informally organized, engaged in a pattern of criminal behaviour creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within any community, who may have a common name or identifying sign or symbol which may constitute a criminal organization as defined in the Criminal Code of Canada.

Whereas Halifax Police department used the following similar definition:

A gang is an organized group of three or more individuals, who rely on group intimidation, violence and criminal acts to gain power and recognition and/or control of certain areas of unlawful activity.

The Winnipeg Police used an alternate definition:

A groups of individuals consorting together to engage in unlawful activity.

To determine whether or not an individual is a member of a urban gang, there was near consensus between the Police departments. An individual is deemed to be a gang member or affiliate if a number of the following criteria are met:

  1. There is information from a reliable source (e.g., inside gang member/rival gang member, legitimate community resources, i.e. schools, business, citizen).
  2. Police information is provided as a result of observed association with other known gang members (i.e. surveillance).
  3. The individual admits to gang membership.
  4. There is involvement (direct/indirect) in gang-motivated crime.
  5. Previous court findings identify that person as gang member.
  6. The person has or participates in common and/or symbolic gang identifiers such as gang paraphernalia (tattoos, weapons, poems, clothing) and induction rituals.

Police-based programs

A common finding of all police departments in the survey was the positive response to school and community requests for information and support on gang-related matters. In addition, one of the more typical actions across all cities is that the police hold internal meetings on a fairly regular basis for education, information sharing and strategy considerations. Regional and country-wide conferences with the provincial and national divisions of the Criminal Intelligence Service also provide a forum for input and education. While none of the police departments included in this survey reported programs to deal with gang members specifically, many have special units devoted to gangs, and they do engage with community partners do deal with the problem of gangs. Many have prevention and intervention programs in place. A listing of all these programs is beyond the scope of this report, however certain programs were included here to offer examples of the type of anti-gang work in which police are involved.

Vancouver police were in the process of re-evaluating all facets of their gang-related programs from an empirical "what works" perspective, with quantifiable and comparable results. Regina police have initiated a multi-dimensional, multi-modal model to identify the best strategies to implement in their community. The police in Winnipeg have been reaching out to the community and particularly youth at risk with a comprehensive integrated community format. Toronto police implemented a unique opportunity for youth at risk to provide them with pro-social interactions, reinforce positive values, and give them a chance to earn an income from pro-social work. Montreal police offer parents in at-risk communities information and support in how to deal with their children who are, or who are suspected of being, urban gang members. Finally, Halifax police are currently examining the best methods of program delivery that would meet the needs of their community. While these highlighted programs may not be unique to each city, they represent a sample of police initiatives to prevent and deal with urban gangs.


The research studies detailed in this report use various definitions for urban gangs. There was also variation between the definitions used by the respondents of this survey. All of the various definitions did have two concepts in common: "group" and "crime". Whether a universal definition to allow for direct comparisons is a viable option is beyond the scope of this report but should be considered in future research initiatives.

Both the research presented here and the demographics reported through the surveys illustrated the age ranges, particularly the youthfulness of street gang members. The focus of police prevention/intervention programs on youth was common to all cities.

The research also portrayed the diversity of ethnic group representation in urban gangs across Canada. For cities with over-representations of particular ethnic groups in urban gangs, tailoring anti-gang programs to those specific groups would better meet the needs of these individuals. Programs, such those in Winnipeg where police programs reach out to Aboriginal and other cultures, are crucial to understanding the particular needs of different ethnic groups, and taking steps to develop community-specific interventions.

High rates of drug-related and violent offending were found in many of the studies and these same indices were also reported by the police respondents. Whether importing cocaine or the chemical precursors for illegal drugs, running marijuana grow operations, distributing drugs to dealers, or selling on the street, it is clear that drug activities are a primary focus of street gang activity and much of the violence committed by street gang members is in relation to drug activities. The research indicates that participation in such activities progresses with age and that prevention is the best investment to reduce crime. Many of the street gang members learn early in life, that illegal activity although risky, can be profitable. By providing a supportive opportunity to youth at risk, programs such as the Toronto Police hiring project offer youth pro-social experiences and rewards for pro-social behaviour.

A consistent finding in the research is that gangs often provide a surrogate family for its members. This was also reported by the police who participated in the current survey. As one way of helping families in Montreal, the police have initiated a program to assist families with not only information, but also direct support. By delivering this program in areas of high need, and in a way that adapts to parents' schedules, the police are demonstrating that they are not only law enforcers, but community partners as well.

The published literature and the current survey report little street gang activity in Halifax when compared to other areas of the country. Nonetheless, Halifax police have taken the initiative to research programs in other cities, and are developing their own regionally-specific action.

5. Conclusion

Overall, there are many similarities between the characteristics of urban gangs illustrated in the Canadian research literature, and as reported by the police. However, there appear to be region-specific differentiation across Canada that includes variations in ethnic group representation, type of criminal activity, and use of firearms. Such localization might signal the need for more city-specific research throughout Canada as the only available published literature on urban gangs was found for Vancouver and Montreal.

It would also be beneficial to develop a universal definition of "street gang" or "urban gang", and other types of gangs. The definition should include not only descriptions of the group but also specify the type of activity in which the groups engage, specifically criminal activity. The establishment of such universal definitions would permit direct comparisons between jurisdictions both nationally and internationally, as well as across time, and help to better illustrate the ties between street gangs and organized crime groups. A further consideration to evaluate the effectiveness of programs is the application of quantitative or qualitative outcome measures or similar pre-post evaluations to programs that are implemented. Such a standardization of results could potentially permit the comparison of programs and indicate the most effective investment of resources.

Finally, the dedication and resourcefulness of the police departments in implementing their current programs should be recognized. The police departments surveyed for this report reached beyond the traditional police work of intelligence gathering and enforcement to forge alliances with community partners in combating the community problem of urban gangs.


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