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The remnants of a newly built home that burned down and is under an arson investigation in Edmonton on Jan. 5.JASON FRANSON/The Canadian Press

Police forces in at least six cities across Canada are probing extortion cases targeting the South Asian community and in particular people of Indian origin.

Authorities have been reluctant to disclose many details, but a leaked bulletin from one of the investigating police forces suggests at least some extortion attempts in Abbotsford, B.C., may be linked to an Indian gangster named Lawrence Bishnoi, a man the Indian government calls a terrorist and accuses of links to the separatist Khalistani movement.

Police have flagged extortion cases in several cities across B.C.’s Lower Mainland, including Abbotsford, Surrey, West Vancouver and White Rock, as well as in Edmonton and Ontario’s Peel Region.

South Asian business owners in Abbotsford have received letters purporting to be from an “Indian gang” that demand $2-million in “protection money” and threaten violence if no payment is received. The letters, which are full of misspellings and grammatical errors, give targets one month to pay and warn recipients that if they contact the police: “no more letter only bullet.”

At a community meeting in Surrey last Saturday, RCMP Assistant Commissioner Brian Edwards told the crowd the force has confirmed three incidents of extortion in the city. “I am also aware of extortions following the same fact pattern in West Vancouver, in White Rock and in Abbotsford,” he said. “So it’s across the region.”

Surrey mayor Brenda Locke said in an interview that authorities believe some residents are paying the extortionists. “One of the challenges is that people get frightened and they pay.”

She said RCMP have invested thousands of hours of work on the matter, and they are working with Peel Region and other jurisdictions.

Surrey RCMP recently compared the tactics with those used by gangs in India.

“In India, certainly in Punjab, these types of incidents are very common, where people get extorted, and mostly it’s business owners that [are] extorted, and they call it protection money,” RCMP Cpl. Sarbjit Sangha said earlier this month. “I believe that the same element has raised its head in Canada.”

Asked whether the force has talked to Indian authorities, Sgt. Tammy Lobb with Surrey RCMP said the Mounties have “engaged with our liaison officers abroad.”

She said the RCMP in Surrey are talking with the Abbotsford Police Department, the West Vancouver Police Department, Peel Regional Police, the Edmonton Police Service and White Rock’s RCMP detachment.

The Edmonton Police Service said last week they were investigating at least 18 incidents of extortion in the region since October in which suspects targeted South Asian community business owners, using WhatsApp to contact victims and demand large sums of money. In some cases, the force said, suspects appear to have knowledge of the victim’s personal information, such as family members, vehicles and lifestyle patterns.

“Failure to pay the extorted sum results in arson or other property damage to new home builds, show homes and related property,” the Edmonton Police Service said in a statement. “The suspects have also been known to make follow-up demands for higher sums of money, leading to an escalation of violence and drive-by shootings.”

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Gangster Lawrence Bishnoi amid heavy police security while coming out of the Amritsar court complex in Amritsar, India, on Oct. 31, 2022.Hindustan Times/AFP/Getty Images

Police in Ontario’s Peel Region, which includes Brampton, Ont., announced last week they have set up an investigative task force to probe a “disturbing trend of extortion attempts” – 16 in all – primarily targeting business owners of South Asian origin. It urges people not to pay the extortionists. The tactics are similar to those in B.C. and Alberta: “Victims are contacted through a variety of social media platforms and demands for money are made under threats of violence, which have occurred in some incidents,” Peel Regional Police said in a statement.

A leaked Abbotsford Police bulletin late last year – its authenticity was confirmed by Global News – discussed a continuing extortion attempt that involved arson and shootings. It said the suspects are believed to be associated with the “Lawrence Bishnoi gang based in India.”

India’s National Investigative Agency (NIA) last March alleged in a news release that Mr. Bishnoi – who has been jailed for years – and 13 others were “in contact with pro-Khalistani elements based in Canada, Nepal and other countries.” Last September, India’s Hindustan Times newspaper, citing an NIA document, said Mr. Bishnoi, through a deputy, allegedly worked closely with Khalistani groups operating from Canadian soil and sent money to Canada and Thailand.

Khalistani adherents, including some in Canada, seek to carve out a separate country from the current Indian state of Punjab, a jurisdiction that is nearly 60 per cent Sikh. The Indian government vehemently opposes this.

Balpreet Singh with the World Sikh Organization in Canada says it’s “disingenuous and misleading” to describe Mr. Bishnoi as a supporter of Khalistan. “He is a gangster who has been in police custody since 2014. It is difficult to understand how India allows a gangster who has been in custody for almost 10 years to operate a criminal network out of prison and even conduct multiple interviews with the media. Bishnoi has openly declared that he opposes Khalistan.”

He noted Mr. Bishnoi claimed responsibility for the murder of Indian rapper Sidhu Moose Wala, who had studied in Brampton and expressed support for Khalistan. “It lacks credence to suggest that Bishnoi would be a supporter of pro-Khalistan groups.”

Indian High Commissioner Sanjay Kumar Verma said members of the Indo-Canadian community, mainly business owners, had made the government of India aware of the extortion calls but he did not go so far as to link the calls to Khalistani extremism.

“These threats are criminal in intent, with possible gang-related illegal activities. Such intimidation has no place in civilized societies. Most of those receiving such calls have reached out to the respective local law and order authorities for resolution,” he said. “Investigation by the concerned Canadian authorities would conclude as to who are behind these extortion calls.”

Dan Stanton, a former executive manager of operations at CSIS, said India has had a non-stop campaign to portray Canada as a haven for Khalistani terrorists and criminals since Prime Minister Justin Trudeau alleged that India was behind the killing of Hardeep Singh Nijjar. Mr. Nijjar, 45, was leaving a Sikh temple in Surrey on June 18 when he was shot multiple times. But, Mr. Stanton said, in his experience Indian authorities are generally unreliable when it comes to information they have on Canada’s Sikh community and links to extremism.

“It seems fishy that post the Nijjar killing and all the fallout with Canada and India that now all of a sudden we have this wave of what India thinks is Khalistan criminal activity” said Mr. Stanton, now director of the national-security program at the University of Ottawa’s Professional Development Institute. “I just find they have always been kind of unreliable when it comes to terrorism and lack of details and evidence. To me I would treat it with a bit of skepticism.”

With a report from The Canadian Press

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