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Brampton Mayor Patrick Brown, pictured with current Liberal Leader Bonnie Crombie on May 18, 2023, is asking Ottawa to help combat extortionists targeting the South Asian community.Chris Young/The Canadian Press

Mayors are asking the federal government for help in combatting a string of extortions targeting the South Asian community – primarily people of Indian origin – that have plagued six cities across the country in recent months.

Mayor Patrick Brown, of Brampton, Ont., and counterpart Brenda Locke, of Surrey, B.C., want Ottawa to step in and offer help including connecting with police forces in other countries, such as India, so that Canadian investigators can track the source of these extortions.

The pair have written federal Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc asking for him to intervene.

“We implore you to prioritize this issue and engage in a concerted effort with local and provincial authorities, along with necessary federal agencies, to develop a comprehensive strategy to address these extortion threats,” they wrote.

Police in Ontario’s Peel Region, which includes Brampton, have said they are investigating at least 16 cases of extortion. Edmonton Police in early January said they are probing 18 cases. Authorities across B.C.’s Lower Mainland, including West Vancouver, Surrey, Abbotsford and White Rock, are also grappling with a string of similar extortion incidents.

Mr. Brown fears there are more victims too frightened to talk to police.

He said to his knowledge that the extortions target people of Indian origin and that these crimes appear to be co-ordinated from outside Canada.

Victims describe receiving a call over messaging software such as WhatsApp with instructions to pay money or suffer violence. Mr. Brown said the payments demanded range from $100,000 to several million dollars.

“So far, what we’ve seen in the Lower Mainland and B.C. connects back to an entity in India,” the Brampton mayor said, adding that police remain unsure which entity is responsible.

He said Ottawa needs to signal that it’s ready to take on the matter.

“I’ve got a lot of residents who are terrified by this,” Mr. Brown said. “And I worry that there is a much larger number who don’t come forward to the police or complain to their mayor.”

He said he’s concerned that successful extortions will breed more. “If this continues to be a revenue tool for organized crime, it’s only going to grow and be replicated.”

“We want the minister to understand it’s become a national issue,” Ms. Locke said in an interview.

Relations between India and Canada have deteriorated since September when Prime Minister Justin Trudeau publicly accused New Delhi of being behind the June, 2023, gangland-style slaying of Canadian Hardeep Singh Nijjar. India had accused Mr. Nijjar of being a terrorist during his campaign for a Sikh homeland in the northern Indian state of Punjab that Sikh separatists refer to as Khalistan.

In response, India unilaterally stripped 41 Canadian diplomats of their diplomatic status in the South Asian country, forcing them to leave ahead of a deadline for losing this protection.

Mr. Brown said he realizes relations remain strained, but people in Brampton and other cities who are targeted for extortion need to know Mr. LeBlanc is on the case.

“I think if we heard from the minister himself that they’re taking this seriously, at least I know, my community members would feel that they’re not isolated,” he said.

He said the federal government must take steps to ensure that there is strong co-operation from foreign law enforcement, although, he added: “I know that can be more complicated given some of the recent dynamics in India.”

Asked for comment, the Public Safety Minister’s office said the RCMP is working on the file and recommended people seek help from their local police department.

“These threats of extortion are deeply concerning. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police are engaged with their local policing partners on this issue. If Canadians suspect they are the target of an extortion attempt, they should report it immediately to their local police force,” said Jean-Sébastien Comeau, a spokesperson for Mr. LeBlanc.

India High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Varma said New Delhi would co-operate with Canadian police and urged them to provide evidence of any links to criminal gangs operating in his country.

”It is deplorable to see some Canadian nationals of Indian origin receiving extortion calls from criminals and gangsters operating out of Canada and elsewhere. Such acts of intimidation have no place in civilized societies,” he told The Globe and Mail.

“If specific and relevant evidence – not merely unsubstantiated allegations – points to their links with criminal actors in India, there are existing channels of communication between the two governments, to seek assistance,” he added.

RCMP Sergeant Kim Chamberland said the Mounties take “threats to the security of individuals living in Canada very seriously” and are not averse to working with Indian law enforcement.

”The RCMP is committed to working in partnership with both domestic and foreign agencies to keep Canadians safe and secure and to protect Canadian interests at home and abroad,” she said.

A leaked bulletin from police in Abbotsford, B.C., suggests at least some extortion attempts in Abbotsford may be linked to an Indian gangster named Lawrence Bishnoi, a man the Indian government calls a terrorist.

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