OTTAWA - CANADA'S government on Thursday unveiled stiffer penalties for gangland crimes, to stem an outbreak of bloody gang violence in Canadian cities, including Vancouver, host city of the 2010 Winter Olympics.
'No part of our society is immune to the menace of organized crime activities,' Justice Minister Rob Nicholson told a press conference after presenting a criminal code amendment to Parliament.
'We will not tolerate such violent criminal activity that attempts to flourish at the expense of law-abiding Canadians,' he said. 'Our streets are not war zones and no place for shootings.'
Prime Minister Stephen Harper, meanwhile, pledged to quell the surge in violence in time for the 2010 Winter Olympic Games, saying visitors to host city Vancouver will put on 'the safest, most secure Games ever.' There are an estimated 900 organized criminal groups operating in Canada, accounting for 20 per cent of homicides in the country, according to the Justice Department, which said the number of slayings is on the rise.
The latest bloodshed, over turf and the illicit drug trade, started in 2005 with hundreds of shootings in Toronto provoking high level talks between Canadian and US officials to try to stem the flow of guns into Canada. In December of that year, the death of a 15-year-old girl caught in a shootout on a packed downtown Toronto street provoked public outrage and fear.
Dozens of alleged gang members have been arrested over the past year in police sweeps in Toronto and Montreal, including members of the Mara Salvatrucha (also known as the MS-13), the Hells Angels and other groups, in a stepped-up effort to quell the violence.
But the savagery has persisted. Last week, hitmen fatally shot a young mother driving a car in Vancouver, while her four-year-old son screamed in the back seat. So far this month, there have been two shootouts outside busy supermarkets and numerous street shootings in the western Canadian metropolis. One man also died in suspicious circumstances in Vancouver earlier this month, after falling from the apartment balcony of another man whom police have linked to gangs.
Police also freed an 18-year-old Chinese student from kidnappers who had demanded a ransom payment from his family in China. Five people were arrested in the kidnapping case, according to authorities.
Most of the killings have been 'targeted' police said, but some victims simply were in the wrong place at the wrong time - like one man who was gunned down in 2007 after being mistaken for a local gang member who had been driving the same model of truck. City officials and outraged citizens have called for more prosecutors, tougher gun laws, and a crackdown on gun smuggling.
Many people also are pressing for life sentences for murder when linked to organised crime, a minimum four-year sentence for drive-by shootings, and 10 years or longer in jail for assaulting a policeman or intimidating a judge or prosecutor.