Aboriginal Gangs in Prairie Provinces in “Crisis Proportions”

By Lloyd Dolha

GangPrairie-based aboriginal gangs have reached crisis proportions in major urban centers, supporting larger and more sophisticated gangs – such as the Hells Angels and Asian gangs – and are spreading out into smaller cities and rural areas, moving on and off impoverished reserves recruiting new members.

In the annual report by the Criminal Intelligence Canada (CISC),
Aboriginal-Based Organized Crime or ABOC has become one of the national agency’s intelligence priorities.

Released on August 22nd, the report states that aboriginal gangs are present in several urban centers across Canada, particularly in Winnipeg, Regina and Edmonton.

These gangs are generally involved in street-level trafficking of marihuana, cocaine, crack cocaine and crystal meth.

They are also involved in prostitution, break and enters, robberies,
assaults, intimidation, tobacco fraud, home invasions, vehicle thefts,
weapons offences illegal gaming and debt collection and enforcement as trench troops for other organized crime groups like the Hells Angels.

KnifeNationally, the primary gangs are the Indian Posse, Redd Alert, Warriors and Native Syndicate, with a number of smaller gangs that frequently form and reform.

The street gang scene in Winnipeg, the birthplace of aboriginal gangs in Canada, is dominated to a large extent by two aboriginal gangs, the Manitoba Warriors and the Indian Posse. A smaller street gang called the Deuce, with connections to the Manitoba Warriors, is a rival gang to the Indian Posse

“In Alberta, aboriginal gangs that once existed primarily in prisons for protection purposes, have now recognized the financial benefit of
trafficking hard drugs, such as cocaine, on the reserves,” states the CISC report.

Many of these gangs have ready access to firearms that has resulted in a number of incidents of violence.

Gang activity on the rise
In April, an Edmonton-based task force identified 12 aboriginal gangs operating in the city, with more than 400 members and almost 2,000 known gang associates. The task force warned that gang activity will increase along with the growing aboriginal population if the social and economic problems faced by urban native youth are not addressed.

The local task force identified gangs operating in the city as Redd Alert, Indian Posse, Alberta Warriors, Saskatchewan Warriors, Manitoba Warriors, Native Syndicate, Crypts, West End Boys, Death Do Us Part, Wolf Pack, Mixed Blood and Deuce.

One day before the release of the CISC report on aboriginal gangs, on August 21st, the Federation of Saskatchewan Indian Nations (FSIN), released its own report on aboriginal youth gang violence entitled Alter-Natives to Non-Violence Report: Aboriginal Youth Gangs Exploration, the result of a two-year examination of the conditions underlying the growing gang phenomena within Saskatchewan’s major urban centers and the communities that are most impacted.

According the FSIN report, aboriginal youth in the prairie provinces join gangs for money, power and excitement. They are characterized by feelings of disenfranchisement from the community and family with no attachment to school.

Youth gangs can be identified by the use of colours, various hand signals, caps/hats worn a certain way, pant-leg rolled up, one glove, an untied shoelace or a bandana worn a certain way.

Aboriginal youth are initiated into gangs by the following methods:
committing certain crimes at the behest of the leader; ‘beating in’, in some cases an intense beating can last up to three minutes; prostitution; ‘sexing in’ or ‘banged in’, where young females have sex with several members of the gang; a family connection, children who are raised in families in gangs; and, muscling others or intimidation.

Natives prime recruits
According to the FSIN report, of the 98,000 youth in Saskatchewan between the ages of 12 ­ 17 years, approximately 15,000 are aboriginal youth. Based on known risk factors such as poverty, lack of opportunity for employment, institutional racism and discrimination and a sense of hopelessness and despair, many of these 15,000 aboriginal youth are at-risk of being recruited.

The development of gang culture can be understood through the history of aboriginal people in Canada. A widely known aspect of the destruction of aboriginal culture in the residential school system experience and its subsequent intergenerational effects.

As it is widely known, many of the aboriginal children of the 1950′s and 1960′s suffered extreme physical and sexual abuse. The racism and assimilation efforts of the residential school era has left residual effects on aboriginal youth that provided the underlying social unrest of aboriginal youth leading to gang involvement.

Aboriginal youth gang can be characterized as a ‘spontaneous youth social movement.’

“For an undereducated aboriginal youth disenfranchised from society, there are few options for survival. Sheer survival is a strong motivational factor that leads many youth to gangs,” states the report.

Jail more likely than diploma
In the executive summary, the report notes, “In1992, the Lynn Report stated that, Oit was said that an aboriginal youth had a better chance of going to jail than graduating from Grade 12 ­ this is still true today.”

The report goes on to quote a January 2003 submission to the Commission on First Nations and Metis Peoples Justice Reform that notes Saskatchewan has the highest crime rate in the country. Aboriginal people account for only ten per cent of the population of Regina and Prince Albert combined but accounted for 47 per cent of the victims of crime.

Between 1994 and 2000, aboriginal people accounted for 55 per cent of Saskatchewan’s homicide victims as well as 60 per cent of those accused of committing homicides.

Aboriginal youth accounted for about six in ten youth accused ages 12 to 17 years in the three cities of Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert in 1997.

According to the FSIN, aboriginal youth comprise at least 75 to 90 per cent of youth in open and closed custody facilities. Of the 3,000 youth that are in the criminal justice system on any given day, about 1,800 are aboriginal.

In one passage, the FSIN report graphically demonstrated the danger of gang affiliation for aboriginal youth from a passage of the Western Reporter magazine.

One of the young people on the corner was a 13-year old Joseph Spence, known to his friends as ‘Beeper’. When Johnson asked the group ‘You IP?’ Beeper stepped forward even though he had no gang affiliation.

‘Straight up,’ he bragged. ‘In full effect!’ Johnson jumped up out of his seat and pointed the shotgun at Beeper as a 16 year-old Deuce named Fabian Torres shouted from the back of the van. ‘Bust a cap in his ass!’ As Beeper turned to run, Johnson fired a blast straight into his back. Beeper, who had just completed Grade 7, died in the street where he lay.

The FSIN report hopes to make a compelling case to the federal and provincial government agencies to substantiate the need for enhanced and new resources that can be directed at First Nations to address the gang issue.

Prison mentality on the Rez
A former resident who did not wish to be identified described the gang phenomena as the result of aboriginal inmates who return from jail and bring a ‘prison mentality’ back onto reserves that makes them ‘open air prisons.’

To address the exploding gang phenomena, a number of initiatives have been launched.

In November 2001, Corrections Services Canada (CSC), launched an Aboriginal Gang Initiative (AGI), in Winnipeg. The initiative was the result of former AFN national chief Ovide Mercredi, who examined the issue of aboriginal gangs and recommended 23 strategy options to CSC.

The major thrust of the May 2000 Mecredi Report, was the involvement of the aboriginal community, especially elders, to find solutions for the rise of aboriginal gangs.

The AGI team consists of five aboriginal facilitators guided by aboriginal elders. The team works with those involved in or affected by gangs.

“We’ve come along way in a very short time,” said Darrel Phillips, Project Manager for the AGI. “We’ve established a foundation of trust with gang members themselves and the CSC staff. We’ve also constructed solid bridges of between CSC and the community and we’ve mobilized a wide array of resources.

“We realized early in our work that many aboriginal gang members truly want to change, but they don’t really have the tools or skills to stabilize themselves,” added Phillips. “They’re being pulled in so many directions and very often their belief systems are totally at odds with committing to a crime-free lifestyle.”

Clayton Sandy, Community Relation Manager of AGI, believes that is where the strength of the elders comes into play.

“Because it’s our elders that can help gang members see how their beliefs and values determine the choices they make, which leads them into conflict with law. We help them commit to a spiritual path in life (the ‘Red Road’), and support them in their spiritual journey,” said Sandy.

As of April 2002, within Manitoba, 163 gang members were either incarcerated at the Stoney Mountain Institution, the Rockwood Institution of on conditional release in the community under the Winnipeg Parole office.

Pat Larocque, a lifer, has a great deal of credibility as a member of the AGI team. Larocque works directly with aboriginal gang members in Stoney Mountain and Rockwood.

“I find it’s really making a difference to consistantly interact with the
guys inside. Most of them know my experience with the correctional system and this gives them a lot of hope that positive change is possible. We’re not only trying to get these guys on a spiritual path, we also need to cooperate with CSC staff to help aboriginal gang members prepare for a job when they get out,” said Larocque.

Female gangs of concern
A key area of concern for the future is aboriginal women involved in gangs. The issue will be given greater attention once the AGI is established as an on-going initative.

Recently renamed Bimosewin, Ojibway for ‘walk your path in life in a good way’, the AGI has to date: obtained a written commitment from over 125 gang and ex-gang members to work with Bimosewin ; over 12 aboriginal individuals have been ‘helped out or kept out’ of gangs; secured employment for more than 15 aboriginal gang members; a safe house has been supported and is now available to ex-gang members; and, a core group of ex-gang members is
emerging that Bimosewin can mentor and work with.

CSC is currently evaluating the efficacy of Bimosewin and, with the approval of the executive committee, may be extending Bimosewin’s mandate to other to other provinces in the Prairies over the next five years.

“Many aboriginal gang members respect their elders and their traditional culture,” says Phillips. “This is a window of opportunity for us to help them find a new indentity rooted in their own culture. We believe this leads to aboriginal gang members making more positive lifestyle choices.”

Support programs
In Saskatchewan, Bimosewin has extended an offer to the FSIN to participate in their gang initiative committee. The FSIN has established a Youth Gang Awareness Cultural Camp for aboriginal youth 11­18 years in collaboration with the White Buffalo Youth Centre located in Saskatoon.

The camp provides healthy alternatives for aboriginal youth and
opportunities to interact with role models and elders, working towards dispelling the glamourization often associated with gang membership.

The FSIN is developing a three to five year strategic plan to address the complex issues underlying the development of gang culture and a provincial policy that focuses on the root social problems experienced by aboriginal youth who join gangs.

In Edmonton, the Spirit Keeper Youth Society (SKYS), an aboriginal non-profit society was recently formed in June to address the escalation and growth of aboriginal gangs in the city. The board of directors consists of a ‘hands on daily’ group of aboriginal professionals each with their own area of expertise in business, program development and crime prevention.

Spirit Keeper is currently working to establish a crisis line for aboriginal youth and a transition house for 18-25 yr. olds involved in gangs. Spirit Keeper also wants to establish a Learning Centre for pre- and early teenage aboriginal youth as an intervention and prevention measure against future gang recruitment.

They will also be developing an extensive aftercare and
follow-up program of both formal and informal support.

Len Untereiner, president of Spirit Keeper, said the society is currently facing some funding difficulties but is trying to secure a safe house for aboriginal youth seeking to escape the city¹s gang culture.

“We’re dealing with about 60 kids on a regular basis on the street level that want to get out of gangs and we have a deal going to have a safe house in the next few weeks to accommodate some of them.”