Auto thefts connected to organized crime becoming increasingly violent
(Feature image from X) 

Auto thefts connected to organized crime becoming increasingly violent

Exactly twenty years ago, the federal government released a research paper by Statistics Canada and the Canadian Centre for Justice Statistics, titled, Exploring the involvement of organized crime in motor vehicle theft.

“According to experts,” the paper reported, “vehicles stolen by organized groups are generally stolen for export overseas, inter-provincial resale or stripped for parts.”

It continued.

“In 2000, auto theft was identified as an emerging priority under the National Agenda to Combat Organized Crime… In 2002, over 161,000 vehicles were stolen in Canada, or about 440 vehicle thefts each day.”

The report addressed the intertwined national and international networks of organized crime that drove automobile thefts more than two decades ago, and other articles and data show not much had changed since the proliferation of cars generations earlier.

It even examined the role of youth.

“A report by Transport Canada indicates that organized vehicle theft groups recruit youths to steal cars specifically in order to protect the upper levels of the theft ring. Some experts also indicate that organized groups involved in vehicle theft rely on the justice system to be lenient with young offenders and will assure them they have little to fear if they are apprehended. In most cases, the youths are only able to identify others involved in the theft ring by nickname, which decreases the risk to other members if the young thieves are apprehended.”

So what has changed?

Not much.

While there has been a recent surge over the past four years in the number of vehicle thefts across the country, we are still not close to the figures in 2002 when more than 160,000 were stolen across Canada. Twenty years later, in 2022, according to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, about 105,000 vehicles were stolen.

While the cat and mouse game of stealing cars has been going on since the first vehicles rolled off assembly lines, one troubling recent trend is the violence associated with organized crime rings currently operating in Canada. 

During an Auto Theft Summit hosted by the Peel police and Peel’s police services board in March 2023, Peel was referred to as a “cash cow of organized crime.”

After the spike more than twenty years ago, rates steadily declined before surging across the GTA in recent years with carjackings increasing at a troubling pace.  

Since 2020, the Region of Peel has seen a 145 percent increase in auto thefts, according to Peel police data. Those are just the reported cases.  

Last year, Peel Regional Police (PRP) reported 8,279 known auto thefts — a record-breaking year for the Region — up from 6,042 in 2022 and from 3,376 in 2020 (the high numbers across Peel reflect the rapid population increase in an area that went from less than 600,000 residents in 1986 to about 1.6 million 38 years later).

There is wide agreement among police organizations that organized crime rings operating domestically and internationally have ramped up operations in Canada over the last half-decade or so, with different criminal dimensions posing increased challenges to law enforcement and public safety.

From 2018 to 2022, auto theft across the province increased nearly 90 percent. In 2022, it was reported that across Ontario, over 27,800 vehicles were stolen the previous year, representing an average of 75 vehicles per day. In Peel alone, there was a 118 percent increase during that same four-year period. Similar surges were seen in other major jurisdictions across the province including Durham, Halton, Toronto, and Ottawa. Police have attributed these spikes partially to the strained supply chain and economic hardships — consequences of the pandemic. 

A report from Criminal Intelligence Service Canada noted that from 2021 to 2022, three of the main police services in the GTA — Toronto Police Service, York Regional Police and Peel Regional Police — experienced a combined 104 percent increase in carjackings. It notes that although vehicle theft is traditionally a non-violent offence, “As inherently violent street gangs are already the predominant subset of organized crime involved in carjacking, the levels of violence carried out during carjacking is also expected to increase as this method of theft becomes more frequent, notably through the use of weapons.”

This phenomenon is not limited to the walls of Peel Region and its Greater Toronto Area neighbours, but transcends across national and international borders. 

PRP deputy chief Nick Milinovich previously noted Canada has become a source country for organized crime, and auto theft, he explained, is now one of the top revenue generators of these crimes. The deputy chief previously estimated revenue generated from auto theft-related crime to be as high as a billion dollars annually. As auto theft has evolved from a common petty theft to a serious funding mechanism for organized crime, police leaders across the GTA have stressed the significant need for intervention from provincial and federal counterparts. 

In the wake of this alarming reality, on February 8, political leaders, police, border agents and auto industry executives convened at the National Summit on Combatting Auto Theft to discuss on the political stage what has become a Canadian issue. 

According to the Insurance Bureau of Canada, a baseline estimate over the last decade of 90,000 vehicles are reported stolen annually (or one car every six minutes) in the country, and the threat of these types of crimes has evolved. In some regions, organized crime groups are increasingly turning to violence to commit crimes, like carjackings and home invasions, and the financial rewards from these more brazen thefts — which are considered a low-risk way for criminals to make a profit — are then used to fund other illegal activities like money laundering and drug trafficking. 

“Over time, these sophisticated offences have become more prevalent and international in scope,” according to a report commissioned by the Canadian Finance and Leasing Association.

“There is no single solution to vehicle theft because it is a multi-dimensional and jurisdictional problem,” the report noted. “Solutions require leadership in bringing together the multitude of interests and authorities needed. Vehicle theft will continue exacerbating without coordinated multi-jurisdiction initiatives involving public and private stakeholders.”

In July, a 24-year-old international student was killed while delivering food in Mississauga during a carjacking. Gurvinder Nath, from Brampton, arrived at the delivery address where he was confronted by “unknown suspects” who attempted to take his vehicle when a fight broke out. The suspects then drove away from the scene in the victim’s vehicle, leaving him at the side of the road with life-threatening injuries. His vehicle was later found abandoned hours following the attack, less than five kilometres away from the scene. Nath succumbed to his injuries days later.  

“The ability to shift from just taking [a vehicle] from the driveway to acts of violence is a concern to us,” PRP Chief Nishan Duraiappah told reporters during the February 8 summit. “The rates provincially in Ontario of carjackings and violence associated to the theft of vehicles is growing right across the province.”

“There’s no one solution to stopping auto theft, it has to happen across everybody’s area of purview. One of the things we’re absolutely encouraging is discussion on potential considerations to the Criminal Code or the prosecution to them that would be part of the equation in terms of turning the dial down.”


Peel police Chief Nishan Duraiappah is calling for a review to the Criminal Code to “[turn] the dial down” on auto theft, which is increasing at exponential rates in the Region of Peel.

(Alexis Wright/The Pointer) 


Duraiappah also suggested Peel Region may have the highest rate per capita of stolen vehicles, which he said are roughly 600 a month — almost one an hour. Tacking the issue of auto theft is not just a police solution, he noted. It needs to be discussed with industry partners, provincial, federal and municipal officials, and law enforcement.

“The real test of this is to see if post-today there’s continued investment and collaboration to make sure we mitigate the risks of auto theft,” he explained. “This is an organized crime issue, it's not just a theft of somebody’s property from their driveway, it is a real significant macro issue that requires a lot of coordination.”

“Organized auto theft has existed for decades… so it's not new from that standpoint but without a doubt, during the pandemic, supply chain issues that caused back-ups in the ability for sale of vehicles shifted people to a low risk, high reward type of criminal activity,” he added. “We’re a source country… for stolen autos internationally and it is used to fund a variety of different things inclusive of organized crime, drugs, firearms, internationally.”

These organized crime syndicates are targeting Ontario’s biggest cities and with no immediate solution on the horizon to put a halt to these crimes, which are becoming increasingly violent, they pose a major concern for police services and all levels of government.​​ The situation has become so dire, it’s garnered the attention of the federal government. 

In the days leading up to the national auto theft summit, in an effort to address the growing issue, the federal government announced a succession of funding investments aimed at curbing the surge in auto theft.

The first financial gift came on January 31 when Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced the federal government would be investing $121 million over five years to target gun and gang violence in Ontario, focusing specifically on auto thefts in the Greater Toronto Area, where the numbers of carjackings have soared to alarming rates in recent years. The funds earmarked for Ontario are part of a larger federal fund of $390 million set aside by Ottawa in 2023 for the national Initiative to tackle Action Against Gun and Gang Violence. 

“Auto theft is a growing problem and one that is increasingly violent,” the Minister told reporters during the announcement. “This investment will support efforts to address gun and gang violence, but it will also support efforts from police officers across the province to deal with the criminal linkages, the organized crime linkages to an increasingly violent and alarming circumstance around auto theft.”

The report from Criminal Intelligence Service Canada noted although “higher-level organized crime groups are believed to be involved in the export of stolen vehicles, most vehicle thefts involve lower-level-threat groups, with violent street gangs being the most prevalent.” The report anticipates that with the more “frequent presence” of anti-theft devices in vehicles and the increasing involvement of street gangs, law enforcement can expect a continuing rise in carjackings to spread to other jurisdictions and higher levels of violence.

Standing alongside the federal Minister, Ontario Premier Doug Ford vowed to use “every single tool” available to put an end to the increase in auto thefts and carjacking across the province, asserting “people shouldn’t have to live in fear of their cars getting stolen in the middle of the night or their doors being kicked in at their residence and sometimes at gunpoint.” 

“This landmark deal between Canada and Ontario is going to enhance our efforts to help tackle gun crime and gang violence in our communities.”

The Province did not respond to requests for The Pointer to confirm how much of this funding would be directed to the Region of Peel.

A week later, another funding announcement was made on February 7 — a day ahead of the national summit — for $28 million for CBSA “to bolster [the Agency’s] ability to combat auto theft” according to Minister LeBlanc. The investment aims to increase the agency's ability to detect and search containers with stolen vehicles, as well as test available detection technologies. In the days following the announcement, CBSA reportedly recovered 34 stolen vehicles in the GTA, valued at over $2 million, that were destined for export in one week alone, according to a post on X.


Within a week, Federal Public Safety Minister Dominic LeBlanc announced two envelopes of funding aimed at tackling auto theft as rates of stolen vehicles continue to rise at a national level.



The funding announcements heeded the calls from the Ontario Big City Mayors (OBCM), which has requested “a more robust program” from the federal and provincial governments to fight the rise in auto thefts in the province. In October, OBCM put forward a motion asking the federal government to provide a more vigorous anti auto theft program that supports “law enforcement agencies and municipalities in the form of funding, resources, and legislation to combat auto theft” and additional funding to CBSA to increase inspections of shipping containers at all major Canadian ports. 

Recognizing that “all levels of government as well as police departments, community safety groups and auto manufacturers need to work together to tackle this auto theft crisis in Ontario and across Canada,” it also requested the government enact legislation requiring the inclusion of theft-deterrent technologies from auto manufacturers, and that the provincial government make changes to the vehicle transfer process to minimize the improper transfer of vehicles and falsification of documents.  

Some politicians are calling for more.  

Conservative Leader Pierre Poilievre, was in Brampton a few days prior to the national summit, where, in a campaign-style announcement, he placed the blame for Canada’s rise in violent auto thefts on Prime Minister Justin Trudeau. During the announcement, he outlined his four-point plan to tackle auto thefts, which includes increasing mandatory prison time for those who commit multiple auto theft crimes from six months to two years, noting his government “will hit the brakes on car theft.” 

“A Pierre Poilievre government will go after the real criminals by announcing jail, not bail for repeat violent offenders and career car thieves,” he said on February 5. “We will bring in mandatory jail time and we will end house arrests for career car thieves. We will toughen sentences for associated car thieves.”

Poilievre’s promises come as politicians at different levels of government have been calling for more security and stricter sentences for people found guilty of car theft offences.

Ahead of the national summit, the Ontario government reiterated its call to the federal government to “beef up” inspections and surveillance at Canada’s ports and a review of the Criminal Code to bring in mandatory minimums for violent car theft.

In a February 6 letter, Solicitor General Michael Kerzner urged the federal government to combat violent car crimes. He cautioned that “Every 14 minutes a vehicle is stolen in Ontario,” adding, “This problem has turned into a crisis and all levels of government need to work together to get a handle on it.”

In May the PC’s announced $51 million over three years on prevention efforts to tackle organized crime networks through dedicated auto theft police and prosecution teams across the province. With this investment, the Province said it would enable Ontario's police services to work with federal authorities to identify stolen vehicles on shipping containers before exportation. The joint police task force would aim to assist police in identifying and dismantling the criminal networks behind auto theft rings. Kerzner told reporters during the January 31 funding announcement from the federal government that the task force has made 89 arrests, laid 554 charges and recovered more than 100 vehicles since it was inaugurated last year.

Kerzner noted in his letter the country’s ports have become hotspots for organized crime, with stolen vehicles “slipping through them at an alarming rate.” It called on the federal government to invest in increasing outbound inspections at ports and rail yards, deploying more border agents and officers, and investing in technology that can be used for scanning shipping containers, something Kerzner said is “especially crucial at the Port of Montreal and the various rail yards in Ontario.”


The Doug Ford PC government says it would like to see tougher sentences for individuals involved in auto theft and other types of organized crime.



The letter also “strongly [urged] the federal government to review the Criminal Code and “consider treating vehicle theft for what it is — a serious crime.”

“It is time that the punishment matches the seriousness of these violent carjackings and that our justice system holds individuals accountable,” it stated. “In particular. Premier Ford is calling for mandatory minimum penalties for violent car thefts. People who commit those serious crimes must be held accountable for their actions.”

The requests in Kerzner’s letter reiterated previous calls from Premier Ford for federal reform to the justice system, saying he would like to see tougher sentences and penalties for individuals accused of auto theft and other violent crimes — a request he repeated during the January 31 announcement. 

“I have a message to all the criminals: we’re coming after you, we’re going to catch you and you’re going to jail, simple as that,” he told reporters. “We’re going to keep you in jail as long as we possibly can and I will not spare one resource to make sure we go after these thugs and make sure that they’re going to jail.”

As the severity of auto thefts country-wide garners national attention, locally, Ontario municipalities are searching for their own solutions to address the issue. 

Brampton has implemented a Faraday bags/pouches pilot program in its hardest hit neighbourhoods, handing out free bags (which electronic keys are placed in to block the signals thieves use to steal the owner’s nearby vehicle) to deter attacks that often occur during a confrontation to stop a robbery attempt. The City of Vaughan has also implemented a similar program to assist residents at risk of having their vehicle stolen.  

More recently, Mississauga’s councillors have been working to find solutions to add a layer of protection for their residents with a recent notice of motion. Crafted by Councillor Alvin Tedjo, it recognizes municipal governments can do more to support the actions of Peel police through education and delivery of necessary tools. It directs staff to work with Peel Regional Police and Safe City Mississauga to develop additional communication materials to educate residents on how to prevent auto theft in our neighborhoods. The motion was passed unanimously by City Council. 

While all tiers of government are working to find solutions to combat the rise in auto thefts, the report from the Canadian Finance and Leasing Association acknowledged that these joint efforts will be essential in tackling these crimes.  

“Vehicle theft has done more than persist,” the report stated. “It has become more prevalent as organized crime has taken advantage of technological advances and gaps in law enforcement and vehicle registration jurisdictions to earn lucrative profits.”

“These problems can be overcome, but it will take leadership to drive a committed and coordinated effort by all stakeholders,” it cautioned. 

Peel police will be hosting its own annual Auto Theft Summit on March 20 where partnering police services, government and industry stakeholders will join together to discuss the challenges in public safety related to auto theft and define action to implement solutions to address the dire crisis. 



Email: [email protected] 

Twitter: @mcpaigepeacock

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