Members of Canada's Somali community met with Public Safety Minister Vic Toews on Friday for a discussion that was expected to include strategies for keeping young men away from gangs and safe from violent crime.
The meeting came less than a week after 24-year-old Ahmed Hassan was shot and killed in Toronto's Eaton Centre when a gunman opened fire in the shopping mall's busy food court. Police have said Mr. Hassan appears to have been a target in the shooting, which also injured six other people.
Mr. Hassan belonged to the same Toronto gang as the man accused in the incident, but police say they believe he was targeted over a personal dispute.
Since 2005, at least 24 young men from Canada's Somali community have been killed – many of them Ontario residents who moved to Alberta's oil sands in search of jobs and quick cash. Nearly all were men in their 20s.
Observers say the toll is among the highest for a single identifiable community in Canada, and local leaders say they want police and politicians to do more to address the problem.
Some of the young men who were killed in recent years appeared to have clear ties to the drug trade or gang activity. Mr. Hassan was charged in 2010 with cocaine trafficking in Alberta, although his friends and family have bristled at the suggestion that he was involved in gang activity.
Speaking shortly after Mr. Hassan's funeral on Tuesday, Said Rageah said community leaders need to be supported in running programs that offer Somali-Canadian youth alternatives to getting involved with drugs and gangs.
"We've got to do something about it," he said, adding, "This is one of the things we're going to address with the Minister of Public Safety."
As Imam at the Abu Huraira Centre in North York, Mr. Rageah runs sports and other engagement programs for young people in Toronto's Somali community.
A spokeswoman for Mr. Toews' office confirmed on Friday that the meeting took place, but declined to say what was discussed. "Periodically, the minister has private meetings with various members of ethnic communities across Canada," Julie Carmichael wrote in an e-mail.
Mr. Rageah said the meeting was arranged before last weekend's fatal shooting.
Ahmed Hussen, president of the Canadian Somali Congress, said that while some of the Somali-Canadians who have been killed in recent years were living a "high-risk" lifestyle, others were simply in the wrong place at the wrong time or victims of mistaken identity.
"I have a very difficult time saying it's all gangs or they're all, you know, good kids," he said. "It's a mix."
Edmonton police have said about 2,000 Somali-Canadians are involved in the drug trade to some extent, with a core group of about 100. More than 37,000 people identified their ethnic origins as Somali in the 2006 census.
Mohamed Gilao, executive director of Dejinta Beesha, a settlement organization in Etobicoke, said he's concerned that the Somali community has been profiled as criminals.
"'Gangs' means people like Mafia, people who kill people, people who are murderers, who have a territory and they cover those territories," he said.
While some community leaders say police have made inroads in building trust and preventing crime, many are still troubled by what they say is a lack of federal funding for grassroots gang-diversion programs.
Speaking before his meeting with Mr. Toews, Mr. Rageah said he's often frustrated that government officials meet with members of the Somali community in Canada, but rarely follow up with the money they need to run local programs for youth. He could not immediately be reached for comment about Friday's meeting.
"Allow us to deal with these young people before it's too late for them," Mr. Rageah said on Tuesday. "Because I guarantee as soon as they're in prison or in jail, he's not going to come out as a better person."