By Clint Buehler
HOBBEMA, AB – Gang violence has subsided substantially on the four reserves here since RCMP and community leaders have taken a numbers steps to quell it.
With 13 gangs competing in the lucrative drug trade in a community of only 12,000 residents, beatings, stabbings and shootings were an almost daily occurrence, and violent deaths happening almost weekly.
But it was the wounding of a toddler in a drive-by shooting that galvanized the community, leading to community action that finally seems to be getting 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 in critical but stable condition in the pediatric intensive care unit where she underwent successful emergency 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.)
Community leader Roy Louis says many of the gang leaders and members are now in jail or in the Remand Centre awaiting trial, while others have left the community as a result of community action taken against them.
Some of the community actions were basic and subtle, some more dramatic. One of the more dramatic was the bulldozing of 26 dilapidated houses that were known to be drug houses, and/or the headquarters for drug gangs.
Other less dramatic actions included the imposition of curfews, and the immediate removal of gang-related (and other) graffiti whenever it appears. There was also a dramatic increases in tips to police from community members—who had previously kept silent because they feared retaliation—on gang-related activity, leading to arrests and the confiscation of drugs, weapons and money.
“Community members said ‘enough is enough,’” Louis says. “Only they can make a difference in setting the tone for our community.”
To that end, there have been numerous community meetings, and Louis and his daughter Claudine, who is pursuing a Ph.D. in education, have also made numerous presentations to reserve schools, and to schools in the neighbouring towns of Wetaskiwin and Ponoka attended by Hobbema residents, with the emphasis on cross-cultural teaching.
The community meetings, Louis says, are aimed at “setting the tone for our community, talking about the future, setting a plan,” and particularly involve the community’s business and education leaders.
Louis gives particular credit to the Hobbema Community Cadet Corps which, he believes, is providing a positive alternative to young people who might otherwise have been recruited into the gangs and their drug trade.
Founded in 2006 with the enthusiastic support of the community, and under the leadership of RCMP Cst. Richard Hlushak, a “people person” who is also the RCMP liaison officer in Hobbema schools, in a matter of weeks more than 700 Hobbema young people had joined its ranks—a number that remains constant to this day.
Surprisingly one of the attractions and key factors to the corps success was the influence of the strict discipline of its members demanded of them by their “drill sergeant,” RCMP Sergeant-Major Mark Linnel, directing them in the strict no-nonsense manner of British-style regimental sergeant majors, complete with the moustache and swagger stick. Linnel’s success in Hobbema has led to him being put in charge of Community Cadet Corps across Alberta.
The achievements of Hobbema cadets were so impressive that they performed at home with the RCMP Musical Ride, the first time the Ride had performed on an Indian reserve, and had the added honour of helping to care for the Ride’s horses while they were on reserve.
Now 20 of them will have a new honour when they go to Jamaica to showcase their achievements.
A former president of the Indian Association of Alberta (when it was still an influential grassroots organization), Louis is currently chair of the Maskwachees Consulting Group which deals with community issues, advisor to the Commission of Corrections, and advisor to Rod Knecht, assistant commissioner of the RCMP’s K Division.