Who could have thought that writing an article in The Voice Magazine could result in improvements being made to public policies and procedures? Somehow that is what seems to have happened after connecting with policing stakeholders regarding the extortion letters in B.C. that were being sent to South Asian business owners. As the extortion letter issue was developing and getting more attention, an interesting study happened to come out that reported that over 40% of today’s Canadians fell into the early-generation category. And it is precisely these early groups that are most susceptible to exploitation and crimes like extortion, particularly from members within the same ethnic community.
After connecting with policing agencies out in B.C. for the initial article, it was communicated that a nexus between South Asian international gangs operating in B.C. and those operating in other parts of Canada had yet to be established. Then a short while later, a municipal policing service in Ontario followed up to confirm that a link had been established between what was occurring out in Abbotsford and Surrey with what was occurring in Brampton and the Greater Toronto Area.
How the extortion letter issue unfolded only led to more questions. It turns out, the extortion letter issue may be the perfect criminology case study to explore the dynamics of transnational crime elements attempting to extort those recent immigrants into Canada who are still getting acquainted with our country, and the intersection between public policy, the institution of policing, and how public perceptions can further exacerbate complex police investigations.
Balancing culturally sensitive policing with the need to apply an ethno-cultural lens to investigation.
The ethno-cultural lens might be the single-most important investigative element for crimes like extortion that are occurring within specific ethnic communities. Imagine a situation where the perpetrators of a crime have ties to transnational crime groups and choose to target members of their own ethnic community, especially those who might be seen as newcomers to Canada or lack residency status. Obviously attempting to extort someone whose entire family lives in Canada, or who is connected to a city at large, is not the same as attempting to extort someone who does not have their permanent residence status yet, who wants to avoid all police interactions, and who has most of their family living overseas and even more susceptible to acts of violence.
Having someone who can check off all the right boxes and is better positioned to connect with specific victim groups is often the difference between whether a victim decides to cooperate with investigators or not. Consider that feelings of distrust towards police personnel are well documented and well warranted among Indigenous and racialized communities—largely the result of interactions with street-level police officers—and how it has resulted in calls for more culturally sensitive policing. At the same time, it is crucial to be able to connect to the right groups at the necessary times.
What was being reported in the mainstreams news about the extortion letters sent to business owners within the South Asian community had been reported long before to niche community news channels operating exclusively on social media platforms, and well before it caught the attention of policing agencies. Yet it was unknown to both policing agencies and mainstream media outlets, with some posting timestamps dating more than a month before the issue received national coverage. Scrolling through a social media platform for South Asian Canadian news and reading how South Asian Canadians were discussing the issue of threats and violence plaguing the community should demonstrate the dangers of building walls between the institution of policing and different communities across Canada. But the reasons for those walls can range from fears of police corruption as in their origin countries to police officers that abuse their policing powers in Canada.
What sticks out with the extortion letter incident in B.C., which was being reported as first-of-its-kind on mainstream news outlets, is that those ethno-cultural social media channels were saying that there were other threats too. Even policing agencies at the time of the incident seemed to have been caught off guard. What if all the answers to the questions that policing agencies and the media had could be found on those ethno-cultural social media channels focusing on the challenges plaguing the community? What if some of those personalities who were the first to report on South Asian community matters exclusively over social media were invited by media networks for a special segment on the issue? This is where the power of the ethno-cultural lens lays, a lens that is more important now than ever before. Because nobody can know a community better than those members that are active members within that community.
The Complicated Early-Generation Factor
Investigating transnational criminal activity in Canada that targets early-generation Canadians and newcomers to Canada is extremely complicated. When I inquired about the possibility of if what was transpiring in Surrey and Abbotsford might be occurring in other cities across Canada with a large South Asian community presence, hearing “no” meant that the scope of the investigation was local, not interprovincial. After that, it made sense to inquire about potential victims and whether the call for business owners that may have been affected included owner-operators in delivery services like trucking and towing, or if investigators were focusing solely on brick-and-mortar businesses. What started out as a few “nos” to questions about scope, changed to not being able to comment on an active investigation, which might be another way to say “no” without saying no.
The significance with getting to “no” is that it can sometimes indicate limitations. In this case, the next natural question became, whether the scope of the extortion investigation looks into the possibility of whether South Asian international students, who work part- or full-time while studying in Canada, might also be getting extorted for part of their paycheques? If international gangs were brazening enough to target “more established” business owners then it was just as possible that they would apply the same fear-based tactics to “highly vulnerable” international students. If these international students were getting extorted, then what do existing engagement strategies look like, because these same students might be too busy with school and work to have time to visit Gurdwaras, Mosques, or other ethno-cultural centres?
Another intersecting challenge is that the South Asian community, in both B.C. and Ontario, had been reporting the issue of extortion and harassment to niche community news channels operating exclusively on social media platforms long before it caught the attention of policing agencies or made it on mainstream news. So, to what extent are policing agencies leveraging open-source intelligence (OSINT) to gather information on the threats posed to ethnic communities through these channels that beat everyone to the extortion threat? And if it takes as long as it did for these matters to make their way to policing agencies, how long does it take for public safety stakeholders to establish if there is an interprovincial nexus, and what did that process look like? I also inquired what policing agencies were involved in leading the effort into determining whether a nexus existed, or was it policing bodies and organizations like Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario (CISC), Criminal Intelligence Service Ontario (CISO), Ontario Association of Chiefs of Police (OACP), and Canadian Association of Chiefs of Police (CACP) that led those efforts? These questions seemed to spook the majority of policing agencies that I had been communicating with, and some stopped responding altogether.
Perhaps the takeaway regarding policing in Canada is that it can get quite complicated due to there being jurisdictional complications and different thresholds for what constitutes as a provincial or federal policing matter. Add transnational criminal elements to a police investigation, along with the challenge of getting individuals without permanent residency status to cooperate with the police for fear it may impact their immigration status or because they have seen how corrupt police might be in the “old country”. That is a nightmare recipe for any police investigation, from municipal police services to international policing agencies.
Extortion letters update: Extremely serious and involves international cooperation.
British Columbia’s RCMP, as well as Surrey’s RCMP, were the least apprehensive about speaking on the issue of extortion letters. The key takeaways after engaging with B.C.’s RCMP was that although police investigations were led by the evidence, there was another aspect to investigations that looked at “need” and “ability”. What might need to get investigated might not always be able to get investigated, and what might be able to get investigated might no longer need to be investigated. The explanation was inline with one of the RCMP’s annual reports that cited that it was not uncommon for serious policing investigations to take well over a year. In addition, what complicated the extortion letters were things like establishing linkage and balancing jurisdictions due to the transnational criminal elements.
Abbotsford Police were the first to catch wind of the extortion letter issue and to put out a media release on the matter, followed by Surrey RCMP. Although exact timelines of complaints were unavailable, Surrey RCMP received three similar complaints in October and November, and that there were multiple municipal police services within B.C. that were working together. The victims of the extortion letters were all business owners, but specific business industries were left out for safety purposes. There was no evidence or reports that had come in indicating that international students were being extorted either.
Out of all the police services, Surrey’s RCMP may be the best equipped to contain the harms stemming from the extortion letters and looking deeper into them. The bridge into the South Asian community’s early generation Canadians and newcomers to Canada comes through Surrey RCMP’s Diversity Unit (DU). The DU was created with ethno-cultural principles in mind and is quite involved in educating newcomers to Canada and providing them with the appropriate resources, visiting universities and colleges in the area. Surrey’s RCMP had another tool in their arsenal, the Community Response Unit (CRU), which met with business owners and patrons who had been affected by these incidents. The CRU had visited over 100 businesses to conduct security assessments of the district and to provide recommendations on how to improve security through Crime Prevention Through Environmental Design (CPTED), but also to request feedback from the businesses too. As a result, a business consultative group would be meeting regularly and discussing concerns and resolutions regarding issue that they were experiencing.
In Ontario, it was the Peel Police Service that seemed to be taking the lead by putting together an Extortion Investigative Task Force (EITF) to investigate the extortion issue at a deeper level, and a specific hotline had been set up to report tips. This approach was quite unique to the Peel Police Service, and the service shared that they were cooperating with other policing stakeholders who reached out to them, but that was the extent of the information they could share at this time. It remains to be seen if the EITF will morph into something permanent after matters related to the extortion letters are resolved.
Key ingredients: An ethno-cultural lens and the scope of a police investigation.
One of the conversations that is worth referencing is what the CACP had mentioned about the days of diverse communities being exclusive to big cities as being a thing of the past. Diversity is visible across all of Canada. Without an adequate ethno-cultural lens, there is no ability to detect harms that target the early-generation Canadians and newcomers to Canada. And instead of people reaching out to policing agencies when they are aware of harms being perpetrated on individuals who lack a voice, they are likely to forgo the police in favor of other members of their ethnic communities.
Out of all the crime reporting that makes it to the news, rarely do reporters seem to inquire and report on the scope of an investigation, which tends to determine what leads are and are not pursued. A police investigation’s scope might be the single most important element of an investigation because policing in Canada requires that investigations be led by the evidence. Yes, policing agencies can look into rumours of crimes occurring within the community, but it is not that simple.
Sometimes pursuing rumours and gut feelings can complicate matters, and criminal defence lawyers have been known to argue that police officers who looked into rumors or were driven by gut feelings violated the Charter. A Charter violation almost guarantees that a criminal will get acquitted on all charges, and the time and resources that went into investigating and prosecuting end up being a waste. Perhaps the only thing for certain is that such situations are lose-lose outcomes for policing agencies. A policing agency will get punished by the Courts for pursuing rumors without any evidence, but public perception craters when it comes out that rumors of criminal activity are not investigated by police.
The complexities of transnational crimes that victimize individuals who are in Canada without permanent residence status, like international students, might make the issue around extortion letters one of the most complicated policing matters in Canada’s policing history. What if policing agencies end up uncovering that South Asian international students have been getting extorted by criminals with ties to international gangs, before these criminals mustered up the courage to go after business owners. Or, if these criminals were exclusively attempting to extort South Asian business owners come to realize that it is far easier to extort international students who are unlikely to turn to police for help. What happens then?