Keep your head down in Vancouver these days

By Paul Sullivan: Wednesday, June 26, 2002  Print Edition, Page A15

For the past decade, Vancouver has been caught in the grip of a gangland war that reads like the script for one of the Godfather movies or The Untouchables.

More than 50 gangsters have been murdered, most of them gunned down by assassins who don't seem particularly scrupulous about time or location. One was shot dead in rush-hour traffic, another at his friend's wedding. The groom was injured too: collateral damage. Another was killed in plain view of 300 people on the floor of a crowded nightclub. No witnesses. One man was killed in an ambush while walking a dog; he was a victim of mistaken identity.

The parallels to the Godfather movies don't end there. The dead have been from second-generation immigrant families, the first hopeful generation born in the New World. But they're not Sicilians who grew up in devout Roman Catholic families and confessed their crimes to the family priest. They're Punjabis who grew up in devout Sikh households, and the gang war has been the dark accompaniment of a success story that reached its peak in this new century when Ujjal Dosanjh became the first Indo-Canadian premier in our history.

If this were New York or Chicago or the City of Angels, this story would have long ago achieved international notoriety. This has been a war waged in public with automatic weapons, yet few arrests and even fewer convictions have been made. Police have been stymied by what has been called "a wall of silence" around the close-knit community. Gang members who talk end up dead, and law-abiding community members are now just beginning to deal with the underlying questions: Why this generation? Why now?

Most Canadians are only familiar with the trial of gang leader Bindy Johal and his confederates for one reason -- it featured the world's most notorious juror -- Gillian Guess -- who was smitten with co-defendant Peter Gill. Their affair made a mockery of a $2-million effort to bring the warriors to justice -- Bindy, Peter and the boys went free, and the longest criminal trial in Canadian history was a bust.

Who remembered or even knew that it was the direct consequence of the outrage expressed when innocent bystander Glen Olson was mistaken for Bindy Johal as he walked his landlord's dog? Or that it was one of the few times the police seemed truly motivated to stop this movable slaughter?

It has not been a good decade for the local cops. Charged with inattention and ineptitude over the serial murders of as many as 54 women, perhaps because they were "only" prostitutes and drug addicts, they seem to have thrown up their hands in the wake of the Bindy Johal fiasco. No Eliot Ness has come forward to round up the gangsters, but police have tried a uniquely Canadian approach -- two weekends ago, they joined forces with the community to sponsor a forum at Simon Fraser University's Wosk Centre for Dialogue.

It was a worthy attempt to find the underlying causes for a war that since last August alone has seen 13 men murdered. According to those who attended, the forum brought into the open a volatile ethos that fuses patriarchal family values and an admiration for material success, driving some young men to look for easy money in drugs and prostitution. It was praised as a success -- and in the 10 days since it was held, at least two more men have been shot.

The latest victim, Robert Kandola, was murdered early Sunday morning as he stepped out of a cab and into a hail of bullets in front of an upscale Coal Harbour high-rise apartment building, on the edge of downtown. Only 31, he had been known to police since he was a juvenile, and the life expectancy of these guys is short.

Still, somebody loved him. On the curb where he lay dead, there is a gaudy pile of flowers and candles. A couple of nights ago, the TV cameras were out to record a memorial vigil. When the cameras refused to back off, one of the mourners urinated on a reporter's shoe, a non-lethal assault at least. But unless the police find some way to stop the whirlwind of vengeance, Robbie Kandola's killer can expect rougher justice. Soon.

In a back alley. In morning rush-hour traffic. In Stanley Park. At the community centre. In a driveway or front yard. In the barber shop. At his wedding. In a bar or nightclub. Stepping out of his car or a cab. In the river, under a bridge.

And the rest of us?

Well, if the last 50 murders are any indication, we can just duck.