He has walked alone through some of the most unsafe neighbourhoods in Calgary in hopes he'd be stopped by gang bangers wanting to know what he was doing on their turf.
That's when the unassuming Hieu Ngo would go to work. He would tell them his story, how he went from being a Vietnamese refugee tempted by street life to a University of Calgary associate professor whose research on gangs and their behaviour has produced a pivotal study entitled The Unravelling of Identities and Belonging: Criminal Gang Involvement of Youth from Immigrant Families.
It's a unique report driven by Prof. Ngo's life experiences. He conducted interviews with more than 30 gangsters or former gangsters; some of whom were born abroad, others who were first-generation Canadians. Prof. Ngo chose this demographic as his subject matter because their numbers are increasing nationally and because not enough research has been done on what pulls these youth into gangs.
"It's about the unravelling of who they are," Prof. Ngo said. "In extreme cases, young people I talked to had people chasing them with a baseball bat. And for a 12-year-old who just came from a refugee camp, had traumatic experiences in Burundi where people were being killed, then comes to Canada thinking we have a safe place and he gets chased by other teenagers because he's a black kid? That takes away their sense of identity and a chance to be a Canadian."
The youth in that story ended up joining a gang for safety. Prof. Ngo's approach is based on preventative action. He wants immigrant youth to stay clear of gangs and to choose other options. He arrived in Calgary at the age of 18 after being sponsored by a local church. He attended high school, learned to skate and cleaned downtown office buildings to make money. It not only helped him assimilate to Canadian culture, it kept him off the streets where his vulnerability and stature – he's five-foot-six, 125 pounds – would have attracted gang recruiters.
With that in mind, Prof. Ngo's study of immigrant youth outlined "the pathways towards criminal gang involvement" and what could be done to "support high-risk and gang-involved youth." Thirty-two representatives from social service, education, health, justice and Citizen Immigration Canada took part in the process. The federal government was impressed enough by the information to ask Prof. Ngo to expand his research so it can be used in other cities. The request came with a $5.3-million grant to cover a five-year investigation.
Alberta, with its diverse population and booming economy, has had its share of gang violence. Statistics from the Canadian Centre for Justice show that in 1999, Quebec had the most gang-related homicides in the country with 30; Alberta had four. In 2000, Quebec again topped the list with 38 deaths, while Alberta had five. But by 2008, Alberta was No. 1 with 35 deaths. (That number has since come down.)
Calgary was the battleground for the intense and bloody feud between FOB (originally known as Fresh Off the Boat, now stands for Forever Our Brothers) and FK (FOB Killers). The two sides, which both had Asian and Caucasian members, were part of the same gang until 2002 when the FK faction broke off and began fighting for control of the drug scene.
Police have estimated that in the past 12 years at least 25 people have been killed in gang skirmishes. To understand what they were up against, law officials decided not to prosecute FOB member Hans Eastgaard for three murders and two attempted murders in exchange for information on how gangs operated and who was leading them. Armed with that knowledge, police arrested FOB boss Nick Chan and stepped up their anti-gang measures.
"You're trying to put best practices in place," said Calgary Constable Sean Lynn, who pointed to the various programs police have established, from the Guns and Gangs unit to call-in emergency phone lines to GRIP – Gang-Related Intervention and Prevention.
"Some of those kids are struggling with poverty," Constable Lynn added. "They come from families with a single parent or both [parents] are hard-working. So these young men are scooped up by their peers. There will never be a complete stop to it. But if we lessen the effects then we're doing something."
Some critics say whatever police are doing isn't enough. The national crime rate continues to fall; Statistics Canada reported in July that the Crime Severity Index dropped by 9 per cent in 2013, making it the tenth year in a row that crime numbers have decreased. (The index combines the number of crimes and their severity as a rating tool.) Gang-related violence, however, is still on the rise.
"The serious gang problem exists because of the drug laws," said Ehor Boyanowsky, a criminology professor at Simon Fraser University. He believes the decriminalization of marijuana would take a bite out of the gangs' primary business, drug trafficking.
"The smart kids have taken advantage of the opportunity. Most of them have turned to the drug trade," Prof. Boyanowsky said. "They know there are risks, but the rewards for the undereducated, underprivileged and just plain lazy are too tempting. … Gang members call it The Life – it's cars, guns and girls."
Prof. Ngo's interviews with current and former gang members revealed some wretched upbringings. One told how his older sister was attacked by their dad, who stuck a live wire into his daughter's eye to electrocute her. The father followed that by beating his wife, breaking her nose and cheekbone. The five-year-old future gangster, who had watched his dad's carnage, responded the next day by killing a kitten.
Then there was the story of a teenager who was not in a gang at that time, but was a high-risk to join one. Prof. Ngo tried to teach him the value of hard work. One day it sunk in and he phoned Prof. Ngo to say how much he appreciated all his work. Weeks later in Vancouver, the 17-year-old was shot and killed while sitting in a parked car.
"He had said to me, 'The program is over and I don't want it to be over.' And I said, 'It doesn't have to be over officially,'" Prof. Ngo recalled. "I still think about him."
The Ngo study lists a series of recommendations on how best to prevent kids from joining a gang. It's a multipronged pitch that includes families, schools and communities and asks each to provide positive social programs, opportunities and role models for support. There are similar guidelines for those who leave gangs and return to normal life. Exiting can put a former gang member and his family in harm's way.
Criminology professor Boyanowsky has studied gangs and their tactics and isn't sure the Ngo report will be effective.
"The leaders don't want to get out; the majority don't want to leave," Prof. Boyanowsky said. "Where else can they make $200 an hour?"
Undaunted, Prof. Ngo is preparing for his expanded look at immigrant youth across the country. He understands he can't save them all, but one, two or however many would be enough to keep him going back to those rough-edged neighbourhoods to tell his story, to offer hope.