Canadian Defence Minister Urges B.C. Youth To Choose Military Over Gangs

28 April 2016

Canada’s Defence Minister, who saw combat as a soldier and investigated gangs as a Vancouver police officer, is urging youth tempted to join gangs linked to a wave of shootings in B.C.’s second-largest city to sign up with the military instead.

Harjit Singh Sajjan, who has previously talked about how he avoided straying down a troubled path as a youth, made the pitch on Wednesday during a visit to Surrey. The city, southeast of Vancouver, has been shaken by 34 shootings since Jan. 1 that have left 10 people wounded and one dead. Police have linked the incidents to young drug dealers recklessly settling their differences with firearms in public places and expressed concerns about an innocent bystander being caught in the crossfire.

Mr. Sajjan spent much of a breakfast forum speech talking about the federal Liberal government’s agenda, but said he also had to take a moment to focus on Surrey’s gang situation – a problem that has drawn the attention of Premier Christy Clark and the B.C. government – calling the military a “great opportunity” for youth that is better than gangs.

“You want to be part of a team and do something good? We have the military.” He also suggested the police force.

Surrey has one of the largest youth populations in British Columbia and is growing at a rate of about 1,000 new residents a month.

At a subsequent news conference, Mr. Sajjan said gangs draw youth who feel insignificant. “We need to promote some of the wonderful organizations we have like the military, where you have a team together, you train together and, more importantly, you get the Canadian values instilled within you.”

The minister’s comments echo his own biography. Born in India, he immigrated to Canada in 1976 and grew up Vancouver. The Vancouver South MP, first elected last year, said that as a teenager, he drifted onto a troubled path – one schoolmate was Bindy Johal, who became a notorious gangster gunned down on the dance floor of a crowded Vancouver nightclub in 1998, at the age of 27.

During a CBC interview in Vancouver later on Wednesday, Mr. Sajjan said that as an adult, he realized he was saved from trouble in his youth by good mentors who “kind of tapped me on the shoulder there and [said], ‘Maybe this wouldn’t be the right group of kids that you’re hanging with.’”

Mr. Sajjan told a Vancouver newspaper in 2012 that he embraced his Sikh faith and was particularly interested in its warrior component. He joined the Canadian Armed Forces, serving three tours in Afghanistan and a further tour in Bosnia.

The Defence Minister also had a long run in policing. He served with the Vancouver Police Department for 11 years, finishing his career as a detective constable with the force’s gang crime unit. Without providing details, Mr. Sajjan said that, as a gang-unit member, he did a lot of work in Surrey.

Mr. Sajjan, who said it’s best to use varied tools employed by government, police and parents to deal with gang violence, pointedly rejected the proposition that the gang situation is a particular issue for the South Asian community. “As a former police officer, I have seen this first-hand, that this is not one community’s problem.”

Later on Wednesday, at another news conference, Mr. Sajjan elaborated. “If any community has a concern with crime, it’s a Canadian problem and we should be very careful not to isolate any group because, ultimately, it’s all our responsibility, all levels of government, all communities.”

Surrey Mayor Linda Hepner, appearing with the minister at his news conference, said Mr. Sajjan‘s suggestion about joining the military was a good one because youth need to know there are more positive options than gangs. “I think Minister Sajjan speaking to what those options may be within a military environment is one arena that is worth looking at for young people.”

B.C. gang issues, including the situation in Surrey, recently prompted the Premier to visit the city to announce a $23-million boost to the provincial strategy for dealing with gangs and illegal guns, including more money for enforcement, prosecution and community safety.

The RCMP in Surrey have launched an ongoing anti-gang campaign that includes increased access to traffic cameras to help investigations, the secondment of Mounties from across the region to Surrey, increased air support and bolstered programs to make the case to youth against gang activity.

Ms. Hepner said there has been a recent lull in gang activity, but the situation remains the focus of an active RCMP investigation – a file she discusses daily with the Mounties because work on the situation needs to continue in “a very aggressive way.”


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