Recent news out of British Columbia (B.C.) reported how, in cities like Surrey and Abbottsford, business owners from the South Asian community were having to deal with extortion attempts, with some payment demands being as high as two million dollars. They were backed with threats of gun violence if these business owners refused to pay or if they went to the police. In decades past, many newcomer Canadians who opened up small businesses shortly after arriving have had to deal with extortion attempts, often from criminals from within their own ethnic communities. However, what makes these cases of extortion different is that they are occurring in a digital world where everyone is more interconnected than ever before—because these criminals are being reported as having ties with gangs in India, and one was reported to have killed Indian rapper, Sidhu Moose Wala, who came to Canada as an international student and lived in Brampton while he travelled across India.
What initially started out as a printed letter demanding payment now seems to have escalated to shots being fired at some of the homes of these South Asian business owners. Some of them have gone to the media, but a majority of those interviewed wanted anonymity; they were afraid for their safety and the safety of their family and friends.
After the home of a South Asian business owner was shot at because they had refused to pay, the RCMP and Abbotsford Police Department issued a statement regarding the extortion demands and gun violence. It was serious enough that Minister of Public Safety and Solicitor General, Mike Farnworth, also issued a press release calling those behind extortion threats and gun violence organized criminals, how B.C. was all in on combating organized crime, and that there was a comprehensive approach to reducing the harm caused by organized crime and gang violence, described as a shared responsibility across all levels of government.
Even though a crime like extortion should be on its way out because of the presence of audio and video recording devices everywhere, and, given how everything people do leaves a digital footprint, there seems to be a revival of this brazen crime. Today’s perpetrators also seem to be following up on their threats of gun violence, whereas in the past they might just damage a person’s property a few times before leaving the business owner alone fearing they might go to the police.
Extortion is not a threat exclusive to Canada’s South Asian community nor is it exclusive to B.C..
During the 1980s and 1990s, some of today’s Serbian- and Croatian-Canadians, who were newcomers back then, opened up businesses shortly after arriving to Canada and had to deal with extortion too. Those threats also originated from within our ethnic community but were perpetrated by individuals who had been in Canada for a longer time. Many of those business owners, with the businesses ranging from bakeries and diners to construction and the trades, would get told that they had to pay a percentage of their earnings, or they would be threatened with physical harm, their families and young children would be threatened, and sometimes the threats would involve getting their businesses shut down. There were even threats of deportation. While it can be hard to gauge the legitimacy of these threats, consider that many newcomers are aware that their early years in Canada are probation years that will determine whether they get permanent residency status or Canadian Citizenship, so getting involved with the police because of criminal matters is a nightmare scenario; paying the money was a better alternative.
Despite that being the victim of a crime does not disqualify any aspiring Canadians from getting official status in Canada, remember almost all of these Serbian- and Croatian-Canadians emigrated from a communist-esque policing system that made them terrified of interacting with the police. It did not matter that this was Canada and not the old country; these newcomers were trying to acclimate to Canadian society and their desire to make this dream country their forever home, by any means necessary, meant that they were susceptible to exploitation.
Of the newcomers that emigrated to Canada after civil war erupted across the former Yugoslavia in 1990s, almost all were quite impoverished, and few spoke English, but some who had young daughters would have their daughters get groomed and coerced into sex work, unbeknownst to the parents. Sadly, many families were powerless to stop it, and it is one of those experiences that only early generation Canadians might be privy to, given the dynamic nature of the conditions and the power imbalances that existed, but these are still relevant threats that today’s newcomer Canadian families may also end up facing.
Although I could share quite a few stories of exploitation of newcomer Canadians, specifically of Serbian- and Croatian-Canadians in Ottawa and the Greater Toronto Area, perhaps the most ridiculous case of extortion that I can recall dates back to when I was a child in the late 1990s. Back then, a Serbian singer was doing a tour across cities in Canada, and they were performing in Ottawa at a small-sized hall. Another Serbian newcomer family, a dad and mom with daughters, saw the dad bring a bunch of cassette tapes of famous singers from the old country, which was his side hustle to make some extra money and he would price them quite cheaply. All of the children would hang out in the lobby, running around, with there being one room over, which was the hall, but the lobby area was also where that dad set up a table and displayed all the cassettes he had for sale.
Not long after the dad had set everything up, two- to three younger guys who were not from Ottawa showed up with their own cassette tapes and they went over to the dad and got in some sort of dispute. It was not a very animated dispute, but they escorted the dad outside to the parking lot and he went with them inside their car, and they all drove away. The dad would not return by the end of the event, and the police would end up getting called. Some time later, members of our ethnic community would end up learning that the dad was kidnapped and taken somewhere where he was tied to a chair and badly beaten. He had been held hostage and tormented until his captors were sure he would not cooperate with the police. The dad who had escaped the war experience with his family was brutalized by thugs who also threatened to kill him and who were members of our ethnic community, but who were not from Ottawa.
Unsurprisingly, the dad would not cooperate with the police for fear of retaliation, and when we saw that family the next few times at church on Sunday or at other ethno-community events, it was obvious that they were traumatized from the ordeal. Members of our ethnic community worked with the family to help them overcome the trauma of that experience, which I remember being quite visible. Sadly, the father ended up struggling with heart health, having survived the war experience and brutalizing beating, he recently passed away from a heart-related condition.
A new version of “identity politics”, where the focus is on inclusion and not division.
Just imagine, a dad was brutalized and almost killed, with an experience that was all too similar to what can occur during the war experience, that his wife and daughters could have lost their father over something as stupid as cassette tapes. But these types of occurrences are not as rare as most Canadians might think, and other forms of exploitive situations are likely be occurring in other ethnic communities across Canada, including the South Asian community. That reason is why all Canadians need to approach these distinct challenges with humility and with an understanding for Canadians who might look different or who might worship differently—to understand that there are Canadians still in the early generation phase which makes them more susceptible to being exploited.
Consider that Canada aspires to double in population over the next few decades, and that some think tanks have suggested that Canada could someday have 600 million residents across its provinces and territories. The only real solution to these threats and challenges in our society is that, when different communities across Canada are impacted, we look to our shared values and embrace a shared identity with those who might be different from us at first glance. Whether the threats are against the South Asian community, the Jewish community, the Muslim community, the LGBTQ community, the Anglophone or Francophone community, the Indigenous community, racialized communities, or any other community that calls Canada home, we all need to become that and more in order to solve these challenges. We need to do this so that we do not forget that every person has the right to life, liberty and the pursuit of happiness.