Tensions are running high for business owners in Edmonton after a series of targeted extortion attempts and arsons to newly built and under-construction homes.
Police say members of the city's South Asian business community are being singled out by extortionists using WhatsApp to demand large amounts of money from home builders and construction businesses.
When they don't pay up, show homes and new and under-construction builds have been torched, police say.
The fires have mostly been in suburban areas where many new homes are being built. In the deep southeast community of Aster alone, three homes burned down just weeks apart.
One business owner, Ravi Prakash, said there's a growing sense of unease after months of hearing about threats and seeing houses go up in flames.
As of Sunday, Edmonton fire crews had been called to 11 fires at new or under construction homes since the beginning of November. Some fires caused damage to other nearby homes.
Arson has been determined as the cause behind eight of the blazes, while three are still under investigation.
"Everyone is feeling like, 'Who's next?'" Prakash said in an interview.
"People are in trauma. They are not able to understand how to react to this situation."
Other business owners and community members contacted by CBC News said they aren't willing to speak publicly because of the fear of being targeted themselves.
Sources described community members struggling through turmoil inflicted on their businesses and uncertainty about their personal safety.
There's been talk in the community about developers taking down logos and pulling back on advertising out of fear it's increasing the risk to their properties. Some sources said they have heard of business owners fleeing their own homes after receiving threats.
"Our business community people, they are getting demotivated," Prakash said.
"It takes years and years to establish those kind of companies. And one person, they decide one day that, 'You know what, let's get the money out of them.' How fair it is toward them?"
Fire crews were called to a fire inside a home under construction in west Edmonton on Jan. 8, 2024. Police say the case is believed to be linked to a known extortion scheme in the city. (David Bajer/CBC)
Sources said properties not related to South Asian businesses have also burned. An Edmonton police spokesperson said it hasn't been confirmed if groups outside the South Asian community have been directly targeted.
Industry organizations haven't publicly addressed the issue.
The Edmonton Region Canadian Home Builders' Association and the Edmonton Metro chapter of the Urban Development Institute issued a statement to CBC.
"At this time we have made the joint decision not to speak publicly about this issue, relative to the nature of the ongoing investigations," the statement said.
Police looking at cases in B.C., Ontario
EPS announced charges this month against five young men and one youth in relation to the extortion attempts, arsons and drive-by shootings. No injuries were reported as a result of the shootings.
But there have been more fires since — two homes in new communities in Edmonton's west and southwest burned less than a week later, and police are investigating possible links to the series of threats.
Police in B.C. and Ontario are investigating similar reported threats primarily targeting South Asian communities. Just north of Toronto, Peel Regional Police recently set up a hotline for the task force handling what they call a "disturbing trend" of extortion attempts.
Surrey RCMP Cpl. Sarbjit Sangha told The Canadian Press that extortion attempts involving people seeking "protection money" from business owners are common in India, and police "believe that the same element has raised its head in Canada."
An EPS spokesperson told CBC News that the force is looking into whether threats reported here are related, and investigators are working with other police agencies.
Organized crime "is suspected to be a factor" in the Edmonton cases, according to EPS.
Rob Gordon, a professor emeritus of criminology at Simon Fraser University with expertise in gang violence, said police will need to collaborate across jurisdictions as they seek information.
"The challenge is for the police to actually work with the communities to encourage people to report, to come forward, and [for authorities] to express their willingness to prosecute," Gordon said.
In B.C., political leaders and police have addressed concerns from the South Asian business community at public forums. To date, Edmonton hasn't seen similar action.
A statement from Mayor Amarjeet Sohi said he's in touch with some business owners who reached out to him about the threats. Sohi said he shared their concerns with the city manager and EPS Chief Dale McFee.
"The mayor appreciates the collective efforts of fire rescue and EPS, and all businesses in Edmonton deserve to conduct their business without fear and intimidation."
Arthur Green, press secretary for Public Safety and Emergency Services Minister Mike Ellis, said the Alberta government has "zero tolerance" toward violent and organized criminal activity.
"We will be monitoring this closely while EPS conducts their investigation."