Vol. 76, No. 2Cover stories

Bright lights, small cities

Gangs seek opportunities in smaller centres

Last fall, the Yellowknife RCMP led two successful operations against a local gang that resulted in the seizure of drugs, firearms, cash and 15 arrests. Credit: S/Sgt. Craig Peterson


While most strike out for success in a big city, more and more organized crime groups are making their big breaks in Canada's less populous centres.

Which means places like Yellowknife, Northwest Territories, and mid-size cities in Alberta have to find new, creative ways to combat criminal organizations and the illegal activities they bring to town, while also dealing with the various challenges police face in smaller communities.

Migrating north

Over the last year, a highly organized gang has set up shop in Yellowknife, N.W.T. Their name, the 856 gang, refers to the telephone prefix of the Lower Mainland, B.C., community in which they attended high school.

"They were able to start a multimillion dollar business pretty quick," says S/Sgt. Craig Peterson, the non-commissioned officer in charge of Federal Policing for the Northwest Territories RCMP. "They would actually fly people in, work a shift, and then fly in a new crew."

Peterson says the lure of Yellowknife is the potential profits for drug dealers in the North. In a community where everything costs almost four times what it does down south, crack cocaine is just another commodity.

The biggest challenge the RCMP faced once they'd heard about the gang activity was how to covertly get more information on the gang members and conduct surveillance on them. In a small city like Yellowknife, where everyone knows all the local police and their vehicles, covert surveillance is nearly impossible.

So with traditional methods of investigating out of reach, smaller cities have to rely on different investigative methods and strong relationships they build with the locals through their proactive involvement with the community. Last fall, they led two successful operations that resulted in the seizure of drugs, firearms, cash and 15 arrests.

"Drugs aren't foreign to any community in Canada now," says Peterson. "Dismantling gangs is no easy task because we have to play by the rules but they don't. They can have 20 skaters and five goalies, but we still have to have five skaters and one goalie."

Becoming more efficient

Sometimes police have to change those rules so they can fight crime effectively. In Alberta, the RCMP, along with the various other local policing agencies, created ALERT (Alberta Law Enforcement Response Teams).

Funded provincially, ALERT has five regional teams set up in Alberta's smaller and mid-size cities to combat the province's ever-evolving gang and organized crime problem. Breaking down traditional policing barriers of jurisdiction makes investigating these kinds of criminal activities easier and more efficient.

In Fort McMurray, a hub for oil sands workers, Cpl. Andrew Ashton, from the local ALERT, says the high average household income offers a lot of opportunity for organized crime activities.

In fact, many of their cases have had ties to Ontario, Quebec and British Columbia and the gangs that operate there. However, Ashton says they've noticed that while they're linked to other groups and provinces, they behave very differently in Fort McMurray.

"They've come to the understanding that there's a lot of opportunity and they don't necessarily need to not get along or operate under their typical boundaries like they would in other cities like Toronto," says Ashton.

Evolving together

In Red Deer, which is Alberta's third-largest city after Edmonton and Calgary, and is located directly in the middle of the two urban centres, the Red Deer ALERT faces its own challenges.

"The highway that runs between Calgary and Edmonton is very busy," says Sgt. Gerald Ouellet, the non-commissioned officer in charge of the team. "It provides a lot of opportunities for criminal organizations to move product."

While Ouellet says every community in Alberta is impacted by gang activity, in the smaller to mid-size cities, there seems to be an idea that there's less policing and more opportunities for these groups to get away with their crimes.

Breaking down those traditional policing barriers - especially in the smaller cities where some criminal organizations think they can take advantage of the challenges police face in small towns - is crucial to achieving law enforcement's ultimate goal of disrupting their activities, hopefully for good.

"Organized crime knows no boundaries. And so there's a lot of onus on us to work collaboratively and across borders to ensure the safety of all our communities," says Ouellet. "As they become more proficient and evolve, we have to evolve with them."

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