THE TOWNLINE HILL CONFLICT: Raising questions about racial stereotyping

Satwinder Bains from the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies addresses the concerns

Satwinder Bains is the director of the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at University of the Fraser Valley.

Satwinder Bains is the director of the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at University of the Fraser Valley.

This is one of three articles published in Wednesday’s Abbotsford News on this issue. See also: Guns, gangs, grudges and Working to stop gang violence before it begins

The Townline Hill area is a neighbourhood that is predominantly South Asian, as are the combatants. The violence, the bullets and the bloodshed have brought public attention upon the Indo-Canadian community, raising questions about racial stereotyping and culturally inclusive responses to the situation.

by Laura Rodgers, Abbotsford News

The escalating violence amid the Townline Hill neighbourhood has left residents reeling, police stonewalled, and the city worried about what might come next.

For the area’s populous South Asian community, the challenges are numerous: many fear both for their safety and for the negative stereotyping the rest of the city may rush to.

Satwinder Bains, the director of the Centre for Indo-Canadian Studies at the University of the Fraser Valley, has a unique perspective on the situation and its effect on all South Asian Abbotsfordians. She’s not a resident of the Townline area herself, but her decades of experience in academia and community development have made her an expert in cross-cultural issues, especially those relating to Punjabi and South Asian communities.

She stresses that the Townline conflict is being caused by a small number of youth and young adults, but worries about how far its ripples have spread outward. While relatively few are directly involved in the clashes, she worries that their cultural background will cause others in Abbotsford to make unfair assumptions about the rest of the city’s large and diverse South Asian population

“You can put people in a box,” she said. “You can say these are Indo-Canadians, they’re immigrant families, they’ve come in a certain period of time, they live in a specific region. I wonder if that’s the connotation, even without intentionally doing that.”

The South Asian community, especially those who live in west Abbotsford, are also the people bearing the brunt of this conflict’s negative consequences. Any feelings of cultural or linguistic divide between the South Asian community and others in Abbotsford can both exacerbate these consequences and make police investigation more difficult. She worries that it can be too easy for people to use culture as an explanation for negative behaviour, when many other interconnected factors are likely at play as well.

When groups like the UN Gang and Red Scorpions were the dominant criminal organizations in the city, she notes, culture wasn’t used to explain the complex reasons why people joined these gangs and committed violent crimes. “We’re putting a high standard on those families,” she said, questioning whether the same standards were being applied to the parents of the notorious Bacon brothers.

“Why weren’t they complying?”

The people directly involved in the Townline Hill conflict, she notes, aren’t typical gang recruits: they’re often affluent and surrounded by a strong cultural network, with plenty of friends and family ties.

“These kids don’t fit the norm,” she said. “They have good structure, they belong to community networks, they have wealth.”

She would like to see police and community groups look deeper into what attracts these people into a life of crime.

The explanation in this case here isn’t as simple as poor kids seeking a life of luxury, or isolated loners seeking a gang’s tight social bonds.

She’d also like to see more ongoing dialogue between law enforcement and the community. There have been starts, like the two public forums held this year, but she’d like to see this grow into more communication. Throughout the conflict, police investigations have been stalled by an apparent lack of information from neighbours, family and friends of those involved. Bains sees this as a situation that could be alleviated — but only if the conversation runs both ways.

“It’s the first time, [police] said, that the parents are also non-cooperative,” she said. “How could you fault the police for wanting to help?…Young people are getting into trouble, 15-year-olds are in trouble. You can understand the anxiety levels in that.”

Police investigations in this dispute have been hampered by a lack of information from parents, neighbours and friends about the people involved in the conflict. Bains notes many reasons people don’t get involved aren’t directly tied to culture.

There’s the “bystander effect,” the common situation where someone witnessing a crime is less likely to report it if they think other witnesses already have. There is a common tendency for parents to think the best of their children, and to shield them from negative consequences. And there’s fear, common when organized crime is involved, that someone reporting an incident could be somehow found out and targeted for revenge.

“People say ‘Somebody else will call’ or ‘It’s not my [conflict]; it’s not me,” Bains said. “[They] impose this idea that South Asian parents are this homogenous group. But there are anomalies everywhere. We’re a million strong in Canada. You’re going to have one of everything here.”

As like nearly all other cultures in existence, there are occasionally long-running feuds and disputes within Punjabi communities — and they can play out in culturally idiosyncratic ways. Bains urges the police tasked with getting to the bottom of this conflict to make sure they’re taking culture into account.

She continued, “The services being offered to these families — are they appropriate; are they culturally responsive; do they know what they’re doing, are they getting the help they need? I don’t think so.”

As with any complex problem, the situation in Townline Hill won’t be solved overnight. But with communication, collaboration and cultural understanding, Bains is confident there is progress to be made.

“If we keep saying, ‘It’s our problem,’ the police are going to keep saying, ‘Well, you didn’t fix it.’

“We’re not going to hide. This is an issue we’re all facing. There is work we need to do. If we bury our heads in the sand, we’re no better than anyone else. But at the same time, this is a community issue.”


Guns, gangs, grudges

Working to stop gang violence before it begins