Almost No Way Out

UBC professor Alanaise Goodwill says poverty, violence and a lack of resources are determinants for gang involvement.
Photo: Martin Dee.

The Prairie provinces of Alberta, Saskatchewan and Manitoba are home to a thriving agriculture industry, an abundance of natural resources and many of the country’s First Peoples. It’s also home to cities with some of the highest crime rates in the country. Year after year, Regina and Winnipeg go back and forth in sharing the dubious distinction of being Canada’s murder capital.

Gangs have gripped these cities in Canada’s heartland, particularly in marginalized communities. Many are Aboriginal gangs, like the Native Syndicate and the Indian Posse, that are rivals in a deadly street war. According to government statistics, their numbers and influence are rising.

UBC counselling psychology professor Alanaise Goodwill is a member of Manitoba’s Sandy Bay Ojibway First Nation. As part of her PhD work, she interviewed 10 former Aboriginal gang members, including one of her relatives, in Saskatchewan and Manitoba. She talks about her work, which focuses on better understanding Aboriginal gang entry and exit.
Why are Aboriginal youth joining gangs?
Most people assume that kids join gangs to “fit in” or belong somewhere, which is true. But the main reason behind gang membership is the need for basic necessities, like food and shelter. In urban centres like Winnipeg, and on many reserves across Canada, poverty, violence and a lack of resources become determinants for gang involvement. Many Aboriginal youth who join gangs have parents who have been or are a part of a gang. In fact, Aboriginal gangs can be traced back to residential schools. In some ways, joining a gang serves as way to ventilate past trauma.
How do gangs convince youth to join?
An Aboriginal youth’s interest in gangs peaks at puberty and the promise of free sex is used as a recruitment tool. Women play a significant role in gang operations. After all, the lifeblood of gangs is prostitution. The men I spoke to also used women’s houses to hide in. More women are also joining gangs as members themselves and they represent a demographic I am interested in studying further.
How does one leave a gang? How does someone get out successfully?
There are a number of ways people exit gangs, but the most successful avenue is getting a legal job. These jobs would need to provide enough money to roughly match the money made from being in a gang. Federal prisons in Canada provide vocational skills, but many of the gang members I spoke to say going to prison only makes them better gangsters. This points to the need for job training for at-risk youth long before incarceration. The gang members who do get out, either by getting a job or by other means, are the exception. Most men never get out. They die before that’s ever an option.
What can be done to stop Aboriginal youth from joining gangs in the first place?
The problem with preventative programs is that they never seem to be steady or sustainable. One promising approach is called wraparound intervention. This method involves at-risk youth handpicking known adults in their lives to work as a team with child and family service agencies, and their school. The team then identifies health, social, cultural and vocational goals for the youth and helps him or her work towards those specific objectives.

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