By Clint Buehler
HOBBEMA, AB – Violence is nothing new for the four First Nations reserves here, an hour’s drive south of Edmonton. With 13 gangs competing in the lucrative drug trade in a community of only 12,000 residents, beatings, stabbings and shootings are an almost daily occurrence. The presence of a beefed up RCMP squad of 42 officers has so far been able to do little to stem the violence. But the wounding of a toddler in a drive-by shooting has galvanized the community, hopefully leading to the kind of community action that will get results.
Asa Saddleback, only 23 months old, was sitting at her grandfather’s kitchen table eating soup when she was struck in the abdomen by a stray bullet from a drive-by shooting. (She was airlifted to hospital in Edmonton where she was in critical but stable condition in the pediatric intensive care unit after surgery. The bullet that pierced the wall of her home and hit her could not be safely removed and she will have to carry it for the remainder of her life.)
The child’s mother, Candace Saddleback, told a press conference that she won’t go home again. “I’m pretty sure I’m not ever going to feel safe to even go home now,” she said. “No, I won’t go back to Hobbema, not now, not back to my home, not to where I raised my children. Because, if it happened once, who’s going to stop them from doing it again.”
An 18-year-old man and a 15-year-old boy from the community have been arrested in connection with the incident. The man also faces another nine charges not related to the incident while the boy also faces 14 unrelated charges. The ages of the accused come as no surprise, with gangs actively recruiting children as young as 10 to act as mules to transport drugs.
Hobbema resident Alice Wildcat says “the sickening part is that the young people—I won’t call them men—are related to the family of this baby. I’m glad they caught them and I hope they get put away for a very long time.
“And I hate the fact that people outside of here always lump us all together, you know, that we ALL belong to gangs and either do or sell drugs. They forget that these really are a small, but growing larger, group of hoodlums that live this way.
“They forget that in this small area of land there are thousands of people living on top of each other. I know of one three-bedroom house where 19 people are living together. They don’t know that our leadership fight among themselves and against the band members.
“They don’t see that there are regular everyday people who do their best each and every day to keep their families safe and healthy. The outside people just don’t see us—they don’t know that we live here in Hobbema, too. It’s very sad.”
The shocking assault brought a strong reaction from the chief of the Samson Cree Nation, Marvin Yellowbird, who said it has sent the community into a state of crisis. He called for more RCMP officers and a task force to deal with the rampant violence.
In a broadcast to the community on the local Maskwacis radio station, Chief Yellowbird said “the Samson Cree Nation has worked cooperatively with many levels of law enforcement as well as with provincial and federal officials over the past few years to reduce gang activity in our community.
“Clearly, more work and resources are required and Samson chief and council is resolved to do everything possible to make Samson Cree Nation a safer place for everyone.”
Hundreds of residents attended a subsequent meeting, closed to the media, to discuss ways of dealing with the problem. The outcome was a decision to create a task force on thwarting gang activity.
Other suggestions included the traditional justice act of banishing gang members from the reserves, a suggestion that was not well received; kicking gang members out of band owned as a start toward banishment; targeting troublemakers who come from outside Hobbema thus reducing exposure to gang role models, and even the creation of a Guardian Angels-type citizen patrol group which some feared might encourage vigilantism.
One action that has had immediate success—and could have an even more significant impact by reducing the number of youth recruited by gangs is the future—is the Hobbema Community Cadet Corps. The Corps focuses on the discipline of military-like marching drills, culture, arts and crafts and sporting activities. In its first six months almost 700 young people had joined, and dozens of community member had become involved as volunteers.
Ironically, the Samson Cree is one of the richest reserves in Canada with hundreds of millions of dollars in oil wealth which has enabled them to create their own trust company, Peace Hills Trust; insurance company, Peace Hills Insurance; an energy company, and numerous real estate and other business investments, including shopping malls, office buildings, hotels and casinos.
Rather than that wealth providing progress, prosperity and productivity, it has led to addictions that now are affecting second and third generations, providing a fertile market for drug dealers and intense competition among the gangs who deal the drugs.
The cycle starts with trust accounts of $80,000 or more given to each Samson member when they turn 18, as well as monthly trust funds thereafter. Too often that money is immediately spent on a powerful new vehicle, drugs and alcohol, and a hotel room in Edmonton. If that combination doesn’t result in the too frequent—and sometimes fatal—vehicle accidents, it does too often lead to addictions and poor parenting, perpetuating the problem.
Even if that doesn’t happen, those receiving their trust fund are assailed by the professional vultures eager to take their money in questionable deals or outright fraud.