THE Sikh community in Canada is in a state of shock. No one can understand why Mark Vijay Chahal gunned down his estranged wife, Rajwar Gakhal, and eight members of her family. "I am stunned. This has never happened in our community," says Surjit Singh of Toronto. "There must have been something he could have done if he was unhappy. Why kill?" This question is being asked all across the country as Canadians take in the horrific details of the massacre in Vernon, the second-worst mass murder in Canadian history.
On April 4, 30-year-old accountant Mark Chahal left his Burnaby high-rise apartment for Vernon in the western province of British Columbia, home to one of the largest Sikh communities in the country.
In his red Nissan, Chahal was carrying a 12-gauge shotgun and two handguns—a Smith and Wesson 40-calibre semi-automatic pistol and a Smith and Wesson 38-calibre revolver. The entire Gakhal family was in Vernon to celebrate the marriage of Rajwar's younger sister. Rajwar, separated from Chahal for a year, had been living with her parents in their home in Vernon, where her father Karnail worked in a local sawmill. Divorce proceedings were on, the marriage having ended within months of the 1994 wedding after charges of abuse.
At Kelowna airport, Mark parked his car and continued his journey in a rented dark green Ford minivan. When he reached downtown Vernon, Chahal stopped at the small Globe Motel, where rooms go for $29 a night, signing in simply as 'Singh', and paid for two nights in cash. At about 10.30 am on Friday, Chahal reached the Gakhal home, a two-storey house in a pretty middle-class neighbourhood where wedding preparations were well underway. Rajwar's parents, Karnail and Darshan, well-known among the Vernon Sikh community and founders of the Vernon Sikh temple, had invited 400 guests to the wedding.
In the driveway, Karnail was washing one of the family cars. Leaving the shotgun in the van, Chahal walked up the driveway with his handguns and shot his father-in-law in the face. Karnail died on the spot. He then fired at someone through the front window before entering the house.
By then, everybody inside was screaming. Chahal walked through the house, shooting everyone: his ex-wife, her mother, her sisters, her brother, her brother-in-law and her grandmother. He only spared the children. He shot 28 times, aiming many of the bullets at his victims' heads.
Chahal left through the back door and drove off. When the police arrived, six people were dead. Three more died later. After leaving the scene, Chahal returned to his motel room. The police believe he planned to escape but something made him change his mind. He wrote a short note apologising for his actions and asking the police to call his family. He then shot himself.
Could something have been done to prevent the massacre? Family and friends of the victims say that had the police refused to give the killer a gun licence after his wife filed a complaint against him, the tragedy might have been averted. But the police say they were powerless to deny the firearms certificates because Rajwar had asked them not to conduct a full investigation into the case because there were no witnesses to the abuse she had suffered and because she feared a probe could aggravate the situation. She said she was filing the complaint because she wanted the authorities to be aware of the situation.
But the victims' friends are not convinced. "We are concerned about how he got two guns," says Jeet Dukhia, a friend of the family. "If it did come after the complaint, what kind of system have we got?" As the shock wears off, the Canadian media is asking the same question: why did the police issue a firearms permit to a man they knew had threatened his wife?
The murders have prompted a lot of soul-searching on the part of Canadians, who are seeing it not so much as a cultural issue but a women's issue. There is talk of gun laws being tightened, of the government putting into place a zero tolerance policy for domestic violence whereby the police make arrests and lay charges against abusive husbands even if wives do not want to go ahead with the case.
Domestic violence is a cause for much concern here. Over half the Canadian women murdered, die at the hands of estranged husbands or lovers. "I think all women in abusive situations should be aware of the reality that this can happen," says Monica Martinez, a friend of Balwinder Gakhal, Rajwar's 24-year-old murdered sister.