Harpo Mander: It's Time To Ask New Questions When Analysing Metro Vancouver Gang Violence

For an issue that is as complex and multidimensional as this, the solutions must, too, be as complex and multidimensional

Harpo Mander
May 18, 2021 | 5 min. read | Opinion

We are back at it in the Lower Mainland. 

There’s been a steady increase in deadly gang-affiliated shootings since December of 2020 and once again, we are seeing Metro Vancouver residents, journalists, politicians, and community leaders add their commentary. 

Everyone wants to know, how do we solve the issue of gangs in British Columbia? What should be done with the $8 million set aside by the provincial government to tackle gang violence? And more importantly, how do we protect our youth from entering a world of gangs and shootings?

What I am most concerned with is how we can openly discuss and talk about the disproportionately large number of South Asian men, particularly Punjabi men, being increasingly more involved with gang-affiliated activity - without suggesting that all gangsters are brown or that gangs are inherently a brown people problem. How can we as a community begin to ask newer questions?

A new possibility that I would like for us to all interrogate is exploring the multidimensionality of the Lower Mainland’s gang issue. 

I would like for us to see the rise in gang-affiliated activity among mostly young brown men in the Lower Mainland as an intersectional issue and consider the ways in which gender, race, class, socioeconomic status, and particularly immigrant status all play a part. 

I would like for us to posit it as a feminist issue and give space to exploring the phenomenon’s gendered nature. 

I would like for us to consider the entire pipeline, which starts at home, in the schools, and in the community, all the way up to the gunshot wounds in dead bodies in public spaces.

I suggest looking especially at the ways in which all the intersections of their identity hold significance in their involvement in gang-affiliated activity because it is an important piece to the puzzle. In interrogating the push and pull factors for their involvement in gang-affiliated activity, the ways in which young brown men successfully or unsuccessfully form their identities are crucial.

In interrogating gender, I would like for us to consider the ways in which young brown men experience sexism in a patriarchal society. How do we teach our boys to fear femininity and internalize their emotions? In doing so, how does this prevent our boys from practicing vulnerability and accessing support, and instead give way to harmful, violent forms of expression? How do notions of male bravado, especially as it pertains to the Punjabi diaspora create a culture of hypermasculinity that favours violence, aggression, and affluence? 

In interrogating race and immigrant status, I would like for us to interrogate the specific challenges experienced by racialized second-generation Canadians in the multicultural mosaic that is Canada. How do these young men navigate their hybrid, bicultural identities as hyphenated individuals? While their parents experience barriers as first-generation immigrants in a predominantly white supremacist state, what are the specific set of barriers these second-generation immigrants experience? What kind of cross-cultural conflict do they experience from being the cultural bridges that they are for their families and the rest of Canadian society? And lastly, what is the process of translating and reproducing certain identities while existing in two places at once or in between two identities? 

Within this multicultural mosaic that is Canada, what can be done for the better integration of racialized, immigrant communities? What efforts are being made to integrate not just the individuals shortly after they immigrate to Canada, but beyond that? How are their children being supported in the long run? How are their specific cultural needs being addressed? 

Interrogating the socioeconomic status of these young brown men is also incredibly important. With most of them coming from middle-class families, we have to wonder what the push and pull factors are for their involvement in gang-affiliated activity. If it is not money that they are chasing, what could the attraction be? Further, seeing their socioeconomic status as an element that intersects with their race and immigrant status may perhaps also reveal a lot.

To reiterate, the parents of many of these young brown men are first-generation immigrants who have moved to Canada with hopes of a better life in the West. They have actively bought into the immigrant dream which tells them that if they work hard and earn good money, not only will they be successful, but so will their entire lineage to come. Most of them work long hours and multiple jobs or are trying to upgrade the skills they acquired in their home country because Canada does not recognize them. 

For most second-generation Canadian immigrants, our parents spend more time working and less time with us. This is because the current system is designed to keep most immigrant parents working in labour-intensive jobs with precarious pay and precarious work. So then, is it fair for an entire state and community to blame the parents of those who do end up involved in gang-affiliated activity when the system does not allow for immigrant parents to spend as much time with their children as they would like?

And in interrogating the physical absence of parents in the lives of second-generation Canadian immigrants, I would like for us to consider what impact might be having emotionally absent parents have on these young brown men? For young men, is it worse having an emotionally and physically absent father than it is having an emotionally and physically unavailable mother? If these young brown men are unable to form meaningful relationships with those in their homes, are they seeking this feeling of family, brotherhood, and comradery outside the home? And if so, how might gangs be stepping in to fill that void? 

Above all, I think it is also high time that as a community, we do two things: speak to the kids and ask them what gaps they’re feeling, and diversify the current support systems offered to them.

As adults, we hold the belief that we know best, but there is so much value to be found in experiential knowledge. It is imperative that we ask the kids who eventually become the men in gangs what gaps they are feeling in their homes, schools, and communities. Second, it is important that we diversify the current support systems offered to them. While it is important to funnel funding and resources into sports and athletics as healthy, safe spaces for young people, it is equally as important to fund and support spaces in the arena of arts, culture, fashion, music, literature, and more.

Likewise, we have to acknowledge that the current responses have repeatedly failed us. It is not enough to keep adding more police officers to schools and it is not productive to consistently debate the pros and cons for a municipal police force over a federal one. It is not enough to use band-aid statements like, “putting more boots on the ground” to catch more gangsters. And as some former police officers believe, we will not get rid of gang violence by collectively avoiding having meals on patios that are full of “gangsters”. 

All this to say that we must go beyond a model of just crime, punishment, and blame. For an issue that is as complex and multidimensional as this, the solutions must, too, be as complex and multidimensional.

As I have already begun to do so here, we must continue to ask newer questions and interrogate new possibilities. 

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Harpo Mander is the founder & host of the online community and podcast, Brown Girl Guilt. She’s also the General Manager for 5X Festival, the essential festival and digital community elevating South Asian youth culture. She loves conversations, creating space, taking space, and cultivating space. You find her on Instagram and Twitter.


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