Breaking Down The 90s – A Look Back at Tamil Gangs

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January is Tamil Heritage Month. To mark this occasion, TamilCulture Magazine will publish a series of articles on Tamil history and heritage. Today’s article reflects on Tamil gang violence in Toronto in the 1990s.

Our past defines us. No matter how many achievements we make as a community or how many leaders we produce, we will always have to reconcile and balance this with the reputation that precedes us. Universally, Tamils are known for their struggle from a war-torn country where discrimination and communal violence brought about the Tamil diaspora. However, here in Toronto, our reputation is scarred by gang warfare, crime and fraudulent activities. We can’t escape our past. But as a community, we can try to understand how this happened if we have any hope of securing a positive future for the next generation.

Growing up as a teenager in the 90s, I recall a time whenever I turned on the news, images of Tamil gang violence would flood the screen. I remember wondering – how did machetes and drive-by shootings become synonymous with Tamil boys? What was the reason for the never-ending cycle of revenge that captured the lives of so many of our young men? Countless families escaped Sri Lanka with little more than their lives. So why did the violence follow us?

Recently, I had the opportunity to interview a group of Tamil men in their 30s who, due to proximity and circumstance, grew up in the midst of this situation. This experience opened my eyes to the misconceptions and preconceived notions that I brought to the table when I chose to explore this topic. I was surprised to learn that for most of the men I interviewed, their earliest memory encountering violence in the Toronto community had nothing to do with conflicts with other Tamils.

Interestingly, it all began with defending themselves from escalating acts of neighborhood bullying by older Caucasian boys. All of my sources had stories of being spit on and taunted for their accents and clothes, of being jumped for their lunch money and barraged with racist slurs. What resonated with me most was a particularly bloody incident in which a group of Tamil youth were run down on a field in Malvern and beaten with their own cricket bats by white teens when they were only thirteen years old. We never saw this reported on the evening news!

Tamil gangs were formed as a defense against racism. As first generation immigrants in the streets of Scarborough, the bonds of friendship and loyalty were forged from the simple need for protection.

However, this bond also set the foundation for gang activity to spiral down to new depths. The situation began to escalate as territories in the GTA were claimed by large groups of Tamils. A sense of belonging was established as gangs began to give themselves names. Gang members adopted nicknames based on their quirks or strengths. Gang entitlement settled in as firm boundary lines were set – the East side vs. the West.

It is hard to pinpoint when everything began to spiral out of control. However, most of the men agree that what started out as looking out for your “brother” escalated into groups of Tamils turning on each other for the most trivial reasons. Gang behavior was no longer just about self-defense and protecting one another. Ego, respect and reputation needed to be upheld at all costs wherever gang members went. Just looking at another man’s girlfriend the wrong way at a club could result in a shooting by the end of the night.

The guise of racism was no longer relevant as revenge became a driving force behind the escalating gang violence of the 90s. Every action taken against a gang had an equal or larger reaction – a proverbial twist to Newton’s law of motion. One source relayed how helpless he felt when two of his friends were gunned down two weeks apart. “When you are so far into it, going to the police is just not an option. Besides telling your friends to keep a low profile, what can you do but wait for something to happen as the cycle of revenge runs it course… over and over.”

The bond of loyalty among gang members is so strong that nothing is large enough to ask from a fellow “brother”. The consequences of these choices are the last thing to be considered when loyalty is at play. For most gang members, it doesn’t cross your mind that following your boys to the wrong place at the wrong time could end up jeopardizing the rest of your life. With the strength of this bond, all that matters is that your boys need your help. Saying no is not an option.

But consequences are where these stories end. Consequences ultimately catch up to anyone who engages in gang activity. They are also the reason the men that I spoke to agreed to share their life experiences with today’s generation of Tamil youth.

For the lucky few, warnings by the police were enough deterrence from engaging in further gang activity. Others had their Canadian citizenship revoked. Many were deported back to Sri Lanka. Large-scale deportation of prominent gang members – triggered by tips from the older members of the community – are credited with putting an end to the gang violence that was tearing up Toronto streets.

Today, there are former gang members who still live as fugitives from the law, running away from the life-altering choices that they made as teenagers. Often there is a meteoric fall, from a powerful, feared gang leader to a forgotten soul. Many never find peace as their past continues to haunt them. And while peripheral gang members often leave the gang due to the violence they witness or experience themselves, core gang members have a difficult transition due to their dependence on the gang for status and social support.

Growing into adulthood – through finding legitimate employment, getting married and becoming a father – is a key motivating factor to leave gang activity behind. Past grudges and gang loyalty become irrelevant when providing for one’s family becomes a top priority.

For every person I interviewed, a criminal record, no matter where it lies on the sliding scale of gravity, has had a tremendous impact on their lives. It has created obstacles that have interfered with securing career goals and lifelong dreams. Almost every company performs a criminal record check before hiring. And even if you are lucky enough to procure the job of your dreams, your past mistakes will inevitably establish a glass ceiling for promotion. This means that even if you try to work your way up within the company, a criminal record has the potential of always standing in your way. Not to mention living with the constant fear of losing your job at a moment’s notice if the company decides to impose random criminal record checks.

What about the consequences for your family? When you link your life to someone else through marriage and children, your mistakes are no longer solely yours to bear. Your spouse and children are also affected when a criminal background check is extended to include family. Is this really the price anyone is willing to pay to uphold loyalty to a gang? Breaking the law as a teenager creates a shadow that will stalk you quietly for the rest of your life. It has the potential to thwart your goals as well as the ambitions of those you love.

The evolution of our community has provided Tamil-Canadian youth today with multiple opportunities to get involved and stay out of trouble. “In the 90s, Tamil guys spent most of their time hanging out and drinking in parks in large groups. Boredom breeds opportunities for kids to find trouble.” Since teenage boys are known to be competitive by nature, Tamil sports organizations such as the Toronto Tamil Basketball, Volleyball and Softball leagues allow Tamil youth – male and female alike – to compete in a healthy and productive way.

All of the teams in the TTBA are named after different regions of the GTA. However, players on each team are drafted and chosen according to their talent, not where they are from. This effectively teaches them to forget about territorial loyalty and focus on working as a team to achieve a common goal – winning. If we continue to guide our youth to spend their time engaging in positive pursuits, we have a chance of stopping senseless acts of violence and crime from re-emerging.

It is now 2013 and we have made tremendous progress as a community. We have our own media outlets, sports leagues, numerous thriving small businesses and charitable organizations, a growing cohort of young professionals and even a young female Member of Parliament.

The temptation is there to solely focus on the present and set goals to move forward as a community – to sweep these lessons under the rug and pretend that the gang violence of the 90s never happened. But it did happen, and it has affected the reputation of the Tamil community in Toronto. If we choose to ignore the past, how will we ever learn from it to ensure that the cycle of violence does not repeat itself?

And to the men who were brave enough to open up their lives – as someone who works with youth on a daily basis, I believe that troubled teenagers who find themselves stepping in your footprints will learn from your experiences. I hope they will think twice about the long-term consequences of each choice they make, irrespective of gang loyalty. Thank you for educating me and giving me the chance to share your truth, one story at a time.

“The past is built from our experiences.  Experience produces knowledge. Knowledge must be passed down so that we do not repeat the mistakes of our past.” 

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Niluja Albert

Niluja Albert

Born in Colombo, Niluja grew up in Scarborough and currently works as a high school Mathematics teacher. She is also the CEO & Co-Founder of Diaspora Debates. Niluja earned an HBA double major in English and Mathematics and her B.Ed., both from the University of Toronto. She also completed her Masters of Mathematics at the University of Waterloo. Niluja is an eternal optimist, with a particular interest in social commentary pertaining to the assimilation of Tamil culture in North American society. Niluja’s interests include travel, running and activities that encourage the pursuit of knowledge.

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17 thoughts on “Breaking Down The 90s – A Look Back at Tamil Gangs

  1. Amen to your article N.Albert. I really hope this article is reached out to all youngsters within our Tamil community, not just in Ontario, but other countries where our youth is growing. As a 19 year old, first year in university, I would like to say, the 90’s really did have a huge impact on the youth growing up THESE days. You still have the youth looking up to these 90’s teens, not so much with the gang-like behavior, but with the reputations they all try to keep up. Young-adults of the current generation have come along way,however, there are still some existing behavioral and social issues that shadows from the 90’s decade. Why, I’ve come from a family, where all my older cousins have grown up in this time period, which has caused most of them to bring our family reputation down. Now, me being the first going into post-secondary have a lot of expectations from my family. And since I have witnessed my own family go through that 90’s phase, I know my do’s and dont’s, but it is a lot of pressure knowing not every Tamil around you has recovered from this phase, and when I say recover, I mean “one who has received a wake-up call”. I still witness the likeness of the 90’s teens, in young-adults today.
    – This article has touched me personally, and I’d like to thank you for that.
    I really hope this article reaches out to as many Tamils as possible so that our youth can now think before they act, socialize and engage-in. If all Tamil youths are considerate about our past, there will be a brighter reputation for Tamils standing up in society in the years to come.

  2. Good article, although, I have a comment regarding this magazine as a whole. Since ‘Tamil’ represents a language and not necessarily a cultural group, I do not think it is appropriate to only use it in the context of those who originate from Sri Lanka. Albeit the majority of people in Canada who speak Tamil are from Sri Lanka, we cannot just limit that. People speak Tamil in a lot of countries, with India having more Tamil speaking people than the very small minority in Sri Lanka. As a magazine you should broaden your audience, as not all people who speak Tamil relate the same way due, and address this as well.

  3. Really? Intellectualization of a socio- economic / cultural issue by a b.ed/ math major? So many points were missed, lost, mis- theorized in this article. What about lack of involved upbringing due to immigrant parents struggle to hold many jobs tye down to provide, lack of father’s because they were in s.l or died in the armed conflict in jaffna? What about the gangsters that started TTBA, still laundering money, still instilling conflict..what about tamil gangster rap …. this is all about loss of identity and low class thuggery. Its not about blaming white kids. These gangs were typical in jaffna then and now. Its common primitive behavior. Why bring the 90’s up, when in 2013 these brats still consider consider conducting debit fraud a source of income. All it really comes down to is not understanding the system and therefore abusing it and trying to outsmart it. Ms albert please follow up with better details& solutions.

  4. +1… wait scratch that + ∞

    The author is just blowing hot air… is this what it takes to write for TamilCulture??? Hell I can write a more reasonable article half asleep.

    PS How’s TTBA being used to launder money?

  5. @f6aeceaa78eee0b89143c00586b4ffc7:disqus pretty sure the author has indicated within her article that there were factors beyond racism that led to the prevalence of Tamil gangs in the 90’s. Some of which could be the things you’ve outlined. As I see it, the author’s intention was to draw attention to the negative stereotypes associated with the Toronto Tamil community resulting from the indiscretions of some members of the community (mainly in the 90’s) and how we need to ensure that it doesn’t happen again. Which means remembering that it happened. In that regard, she has done a fantastic job of delivering the message!

    So in your world, unless you have letters behind your name that make you an ‘expert’ on a topic, you should not have an opinion about it? How very Tamil of you 😉

  6. Really? A rant from what sounds like a grumpy Sociology TA (Ms. thuglife), who’s too afraid to set foot in a TTBA gym? Great summary on “All it really comes down to”…*applause….I only wish I was as smart as you!

    Thank you for the article N. Albert. Looking forward to your next post.

  7. Things to keep in mind;
    – the Tamil movie industry heavily favors alpha-Male characteristics that is highly associated with violence
    – the idea of “honor” and “duty” is enforced in most Tamil families to an extent that is unacceptable after the 1920s
    – three interviews is not sufficient; police records, surveys, and jail records will help your article tremendously, so far it appears too light for such an important topic
    – check out Sudhir Ventaktesh’s work with organized crime

    I refuse to accept the idea that “Tamils” are intrinsicly associated with violence; these are ideals instilled by the peers and archaic stereotypes within our society.

  8. Where did you get ‘three interviews’? Nothing like that is mentioned. I know the author and she interviewed a number of people for this article – including men who are currently in jail and those who have an live with the consequences of criminal records! Also, the author is not agreeing with the stereotypes – she is just addressing the fact that they do exist. Niluja has done a great job with a difficult topic.

  9. Are you familiar with the “Straw man argument”?
    Regardless, I do applaud this article as it is adding to a growing critique within Tamil discourse. However, you avoid acknowledged any of the other things I pointed, admittedly I actually don’t know where the 3 interviews came from (may have confused different articles I’m reading simultaneously). Statistics would add credibility to the article though, as an academic, it is one of those little things that really adds to an article.

  10. True. Tamil gangs have been a great issue in Singapore and Malaysia. There are places in Malaysia where you probably better run if you see a fellow tamil. These are both established tamil societies. Been existant since the early 19th century. Not sure why. Tamils tend to join gangs in countries where they are minorities. Interesting article.

  11. I am pretty sure they have broadened it. There are quite a number of articles written by Indian Tamils. I believe S.L tamil issues are off greater importance. There are blue collar workers, white collars and bigger issues that needs to be addressed within the community. Yeah before you tell me off, I am off indian descent too.

  12. Our society NEEDS more authors like you! Authors that really focus and dig into ACTUAL issues in today’s society. This article was flat out amazing and on point. People need to realize that every choice and decision you make right now, creates the path your life is headed towards. Amazing article and keep at it, looking forward to future posts.

    p.s. to all those people that are hating on this article, first go get a life, and second of all I bet you wouldn’t even come close to writing such a knowledgeable piece like this.


  13. “Its is better to light a candle than curse the darkness”.
    To encompass the whole of the peak Tamil Gang era within a single article is no small task and I don’t believe that was your intention in this article. What you have done is shed some light based on some qualitative research and sparked very necessary discussion. For taking the time to research and write on a difficult topic such as this your efforts must be commended. Contributing factors to violence in the community are of course numerous and some commentators have left important and valuable suggestions–hopefully your piece which scratches the surface evokes others to delve deeper in the areas suggested. There will inevitably continue to be violence and gang related activity in our community at some level–however the progress that has been made must be recognized. Today in Toronto there are more Tamil post secondary students, graduate students and professionals than ever before. Young men are starting successful businesses; being better sons, brothers and fathers; and growing spiritually. This is not to gloss over the challenges and difficulties that our community as a whole faces but to state unequivocally that we are moving forward. Great article and good attempt to shed light rather than cursing the darkness.

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