Tackling the gang issue will take a multi-layered approach and should involve the entire community, said several speakers at an anti-gang rally held Wednesday in Abbotsford.
The rally was hosted at Matsqui Centennial Auditorium by Wake Up Abbotsford and Wake Up Surrey, a pair of citizens’ groups formed in response to the gang issues in the two communities.
The forum, aimed primarily at the South Asian community, attracted more than 200 people and included about a dozen speakers who discussed the underlying causes of gang involvement and plans for addressing the problem.
Among the speakers was Kulwinder Singh Malhi, the father of 19-year-old Jagvir Malhi, who was fatally shot on Nov. 12 at Ross and Simpson roads.
Police have said Jagvir was not involved in gangs or criminal activity, but he knew people who were.
His dad, who spoke briefly, encouraged the audience to support Wake Up Surrey and Wake Up Abbotsford with their initiatives and think about how they can help.
“Our child has left us. We must make it so that no other child leaves us,” Kulwinder said in Punjabi.
Mayor Henry Braun said the level of violence in Abbotsford is unacceptable and must stop. He called for plans that are “measurable and achievable” to help conquer the issues.
Braun said this includes addressing problems with the criminal justice system, including a cumbersome process that makes it difficult for police to obtain search warrants and for charges to stand up in court.
He is also critical of the fact that Crown counsel, and not police, determine whether charges should be laid against an individual.
Braun also said people in the community, especially parents, need to speak up when they see signs of criminal activity.
“Remaining in a cone of silence is unacceptable … Many of the young men who are being sucked into gang life are living with their parents, and I find it difficult to believe that the parents don’t know what’s happening,” he said.
Abbotsford Police Chief Mike Serr encouraged families to reach out to the police department – particularly the gang crime unit – for help or support when they are facing issues with their children.
“There are too many people in this community that are too concerned about shaming the family or coming out to say there’s a problem in their family. We have to work together if we’re going to make a difference,” he said.
Serr said the Abbotsford Police Department is addressing the gang problem with several initiatives, including early-prevention programs in the schools, a mentoring program for at-risk youth, and investigations and charges against known gangsters.
Other speakers discussed the underlying issues that lead to gang involvement, including the yearning for a connection and a sense of belonging.
Shenan Charania, now a transformational and leadership coach, spoke about his involvement with gangs 20 years ago.
He said he moved to Canada from Kenya at age 11 and began skipping school when he was bullied. He began connecting with kids who were going through similar experiences, and he felt like he belonged.
Charania said that by age 13, he was stealing cars and by age 14 was using cocaine. He was selling drugs by the age of 17, which, because of the risk, led to him carrying a gun and wearing a bullet-proof vest.
A few years later, he was doing home invasions – “because that’s where the money was” – and was transporting guns from the U.S. to sell in Canada.
One night when he was “drugged out and drunk” at a nightclub, his brother called to say their house had been shot at.
“I had to either make a choice to continue, retaliate — prove that I’m a gangster – or start getting the hell out of this life,” Charania said.
Jag Khosa of the Combine Forces Special Enforcement Unit – the province’s anti-gang agency – agreed that kids join gangs because they are looking for a connection.
He urged parents to become more involved with their kids and ask questions when they see signs of gang involvement such as carrying more than one cellphone, driving rental cars, and carrying cash that they say they earned, for example, by working at a warehouse.
Khosa said if parents see such signs, they should ask for support to help their child change direction.
“I’m sick and tired of breaking the news, when we go into someone’s house at 2 a.m., ‘Hey, your kid’s dead because he was shot.’ It stays with us, too, as police officers. Trust me, I take that home,” he said.
Other speakers at the rally included representatives from the two Wake Up groups, the South Asian Community Resource Office, the Women on the Rise group, and the Fraser Valley Indo-Canadian Business Association.
Sukhi Sandhu, an organizer of Wake Up Surrey, said initiatives planned in Abbotsford for the new year include youth and parent outreach programs at the Sikh temples, parent workshops at local schools, after-school programs for kids and a Punjabi helpline.
He also said the citizens’ groups will be developing a collective strategy – with specific initiatives – which will be presented to the school district, police and the City of Abbotsford.
Women on the Rise said its plans include starting community patrols, translating existing resources into Punjabi and Hindi, and creating an awareness video.