Fears linger after surge in South Asian extortion cases in Canada

Somya Lohia and Makhabbat Aitekenova
Local Journalism Initiative Reporters
New Canadian Media

This article was produced as part of an Inclusive Journalism Microcredential offered by New Canadian Media and Seneca Polytechnic. Learn more here.

For some in the South Asian community who call Canada home, each ring of the phone brings a chilling reminder of the dangers that lurk just beyond their doorstep. A disturbing number of extortion attempts has swept through the community, leaving individuals and businesses on edge.

According to Statistics Canada, extortion cases in all communities more than doubled from before the COVID-19 pandemic to after it ended. Comparing data from 2019 to 2022, the number of cases surged from 4,234 to 9,717, marking a staggering 129 percent increase.

In response to extortion and violence targeting South Asian business owners, the Royal Canadian Mounted Police National Coordination and Support Team (NCST) has recently been established to work with police departments in British Columbia, Alberta, Ontario and outside of Canada to tackle the issue.

At least 34 extortion cases have been reported in Brampton, Ontario, where more than half of the population is South Asian. Peel Regional Police suspect that the problem is worse, with more cases going unreported.

To tackle the issue, the regional police have launched an Extortion Investigative Task Force (EITF) which has arrested some eight people so far. A team of about 29 people is working in EITF to investigate these crimes, says Peel Regional Police deputy chief Marc Andrews.

Andrews also shed light on the harrowing impact of these crimes and the relentless pursuit of justice in a community gripped by anxiety.

“We are fully aware of the fact that the community has been frightened by what they hear. And it is not just the victims who are being impacted but also the people around them,” Andrews said in an interview with New Canadian Media. “When a business gets shut down, the victims get shattered and also the neighbors. The other businesses in the plaza or the people connected to the victim are also impacted by these crimes.”.

Andrews said police are focused on solving these cases and that they are having some success. “It is a marathon, not a sprint. We are going to get there. But we want to work in a way that our community has confidence that the police are doing the right things in the right way. It is not going to be easy, but we are moving in the right direction.”

The intimate nature of these threats, coupled with reports that the culprits belong to the same community, has intensified the fear, eroding the sense of safety even among trusted circles.

The narrative gains depth as Hitesh Bansal, a former employee charged with extortion, emerges as a prime example. Arrested on Feb.12 by Peel Regional Police and charged with targeting a Brampton business owner, Bansal’s case underscores the intimate nature of these crimes. According to police, Bansal is alleged to have “ties to the mob” and they would force the victim to shut down their business. The threats were made via phone calls and text messages, police said in a news release.

The Peel Regional Police have so far arrested eight people and when asked if all the arrested belong to the South Asia Community, Andrews said: “Yes, they are all South Asian. In all of the incidents, the parties and the culprits are speaking in their regional languages. So while we do not have complete proof that everyone involved is a South Asian, we believe that that is the case.”

The revelation hits hard – the culprits, predominantly from the South Asian community themselves, wield familiarity as a weapon.

“It is a crime of opportunity,” says Pardeep Khunger, a resident of Peel Region. He argues that the proximity afforded by communal ties becomes a double-edged sword, enabling both exploitation and retribution.

He further reflected on the subtle shifts in behaviour of people and the cautious steps taken to safeguard against unseen threats. “There’s always an impact,” he acknowledges. “Even if it is not immediately visible, the fear lingers, reshaping routines and altering perceptions of safety,” he added.

In a similar development, Edmonton, Alberta, is also emerging as a specific area of concern, witnessing its own troubling increase in extortion-related crimes.

“The Edmonton Police Service (EPS) are currently investigating 34 events related to an ongoing extortion series that has affected the South Asian community in the Edmonton region between Oct 2023 and February 2024,” EPS communications advisor Carolin Maran said in an email when reached by New Canadian Media.

“Known as “Project Gaslight” this includes 6 extortions, 16 arsons and 7 firearms offenses, 1 attempted arson and 4 suspicious vehicle/person events,” Maran continued. “There have been no additional extortions reported as part of Project Gaslight in 2024; however, investigators believe there may be additional unreported incidents.”

The financial toll of these crimes is also alarming. During a news conference on Jan. 18, 2024, EPS Inspector Lance Parker announced that the amount of property damage as a result of arson and shootings is estimated to be $9 million.

Based on the combined information provided by Maran and EPS Staff Sgt. David Paton during the Jan. 18 news conference, the most commonly targeted individuals are affluent South Asian business owners that have been in Edmonton for more than 10 years.