Before the first man was killed, a story took hold in the Somali-Canadian neighbourhoods of Toronto's west end about a young drug dealer who went west and made his fortune selling cocaine in the Alberta oil patch.
The young drug dealer, originally from the East Mall area of Etobicoke, thought he had found paradise, but he needed some help. He went home looking for recruits, and two Somali-Canadians were the first to volunteer.
Soon word spread that there was money to be made out West, where the oil patch has left young people flush with cash. For a Somali community struggling with poverty, it was an attractive proposition.
"Literally dozens of kids left East Mall for Alberta," said one Somali-Canadian leader. "They made a lot of money."
Community leaders say 29 Somali-Canadian men have been killed in the last six years, although only 18 have been confirmed by a Globe and Mail researcher. At least 13 were originally from Ontario, and born or raised in Canada. Many, though not all, were involved in the drug trade.
The most recent slayings came last month in Fort McMurray, the heart of Alberta's oil boom. Their deaths, like those in almost every other case, remain unsolved.
Yesterday, Somali-Canadian leaders met with the Alberta's Justice Minister to demand that a provincial task force be struck to look into the deaths.
"These people have caught up with this business in Ontario, and then they come here [to Alberta]and come in large numbers. So, this is a turf war. And here, when you cross a line, the price is your head," said Mahamad Accord, director of the Somali Community Centre in Edmonton. The image the deaths have left is clear, he said: "Alberta has become a graveyard if you're a Somali-Canadian."
Mr. Accord believes the deaths stem from a lack of resources available to Canadian-born Somalis. "We're not immigrants, and we're not fully integrated Canadians. And there's no resources between those two things," he said. "This is a Canadian issue. It's not a Somalian issue."
In the 18 cases identified by the Globe since 2005, the victims are almost all in their 20s. Fourteen of the cases occurred in the Edmonton area and one in Calgary, leaving Fort McMurray with three, including the double homicide last month.
Driving in an unmarked RCMP car along the streets of Canada's boom city, Fort McMurray drug officer Ali Fayad lists his community's popular vices. In 2008, his colleagues laid three times as many charges of cocaine trafficking (95) as marijuana trafficking (32), Statistics Canada data shows.
"We're almost always coming into contact with cocaine. That's the drug of choice up here. You know, of course there's ecstasy," Constable Fayad said. Local drug users, many of whom work in oil-patch jobs that have onsite drug testing, prefer cocaine because it leaves their systems far more quickly than marijuana, he said.
The Feb. 17 killings of Fort McMurray resident Idiris Abess and Saed Adad, a Toronto native, took place in a third-floor apartment of a building in the city's downtown. The building "has been active since they [the victims]came here," said a security guard standing in a hallway. "Gunshots, things like that."
There have been no arrests, and police have stayed mum on the causes of death. Most of the Somali deaths have been from gunshots, some bearing characteristics of professional killings.
In Edmonton last Friday, police approved extending $40,000 rewards for information in each of the city's nine unsolved cases (totalling 11 victims) involving the Somali-Canadian community.
"We are in a position where we as a police service are saying, 'Yes, there's a pattern here.' We think we know what the pattern may be, but we need the evidence to tell us that, and ultimately we are so short of receiving information that will advance the investigation that we're now appealing to the public," Staff Sergeant Lorne Pubantz, head of the Edmonton homicide section, said yesterday.
He and investigators handling all the cases met three weeks ago to compare notes - something akin to the task force requested by Mr. Accord.
In calling for a provincial look, Mr. Accord questions why "some of the cases have not been solved, even though they happened in broad daylight."
In the meeting yesterday, Alberta Justice Minister Alison Redford didn't make a decision on whether a task force would be struck, her spokesman said later. But Premier Ed Stelmach shot down the idea. "Police forces can certainly manage it," he told reporters.
In Fort McMurray, the drug trade is a touchy issue. "It's pretty easy to come in and find that hot spot, but at the same time you also have some positive things going on," said Mayor Melissa Blake. Asked about the Somali issue, she cites a Somali community association that no longer exists.
In its place sits Taj Cuisine, a recently opened restaurant. Inside,
Mohamed Osman, who has left his wife and four children in Ottawa to work in Alberta, says men who are dying seem to have grown up in unstable family environments, are cut off from their culture, and are easily led astray.
"I think the best thing the government can do is create opportunity for them," Mr. Osman said. "The majority of people who get involved in these stupid things have not seen the problems back home. They don't appreciate what their parents went through. It is the Canadian experience that has actually created this."
With a report from Stephanie Chambers