Those who came to Canada were overwhelmingly directed to Toronto’s social-housing projects, places like Regent Park and Jane and Finch, where residents are in frequent conflict with police. And as the children of the first wave of refugees grew up, many of them faced a double stigmatization as Muslims who are black – a situation some Somalis say was acutely reinforced after the 2001 terrorist attacks in New York.
Many of the rivalries that play out in Alberta are in fact nurtured in Toronto, where an estimated 80,000 Somali-Canadians live.
“Whatever’s going on over in Toronto, it comes over here,” M.J. said. “Everybody wants to make his money, so they’re going to shoot each other.”
The deadly pull westward among Toronto’s Somali community, according to one community source, began with one young man from the East Mall neighbourhood who got involved in Alberta’s lucrative oil-sands spinoff through a friend who was working there. When the man returned home to Toronto, he drove a flashy car, bought drinks for his friends and was rich enough to leave expensive items behind at bars and nightclubs.
The siren song of easy money was attractive to some of the young men he grew up with, many of whom were struggling to find work in Toronto. A few left to join him. Soon after, others followed.
“He really recruited a lot of people into that stuff,” said the source, a respected member of the community who spoke on condition of anonymity. “It seems like there was a chain migration. One guy left and the others followed him.”
Looking to the U.S.
When Canadian law-enforcement officials attempted to better understand this phenomenon last year, one of the places they looked was Minnesota. The state is home to an estimated 32,000 Somali-Americans, the largest concentration in the U.S. There, as in Alberta, many young Somalis have sought prosperity in the Bakken oil fields of North Dakota, a 10-hour drive west of Minneapolis.
The heart of Minneapolis’s Somali community is Cedar-Riverside, an enclave often referred to as Little Mogadishu. The towers of Riverside Plaza – a social-housing complex that’s long been a haven for previous waves of refugees – are now home to thousands of Somali-Americans.
Police officer Jeanine Brudenell, who was invited to share her experiences with Canadian officials, began tracking street gangs in the city’s Somali community in 2005. Gradually, she said, her role shifted to providing programs aimed at teaching Somali-Americans about their legal rights and encouraging them to report criminal activity.
Minnesota police have long been frustrated with how difficult it is to solve crimes in the Somali community: of roughly eight gang-related homicides in Minneapolis in recent years, only one has been solved, a problem Ms. Brudenell attributes to distrust of police and the possibility of retaliation. “They don’t want to be testifying or be a witness because they fear they’re going to be in danger,” she said, adding, “It’s a fair fear.”
In recent years, the force has hired two Somali-speaking beat officers who work nights in the neighbourhood, which most people say has improved safety and helped reduce conflicts with police.
“Police are usually suspicious of [a group of] black kids who are maybe up to no good walking around,” said Saeed Fahia, a community leader. “It’s possible that they’re doing nothing. So someone who knows the culture could tell you if they are up to no good or not. An ordinary police officer cannot do that.”
They also hired a civilian liaison to work with the Somali community and opened a “safety centre” at the base of one of the public-housing towers, aimed at encouraging residents to report crime.
Ms. Brudenell said that, as the department does a better job of tracking and catching gangsters, some of the most serious criminals are turning up in other cities instead. “We get calls, ‘Oh my God, we have all your people here,’ ” she said.
The Minnesota experience may not translate exactly in Fort McMurray, where the young men getting into trouble are hundreds or thousands of kilometres away from family. But law-enforcement officials share a common frustration in getting Somali community members to talk to investigators.