For 21 years, Sister Lesley Sacouman has been walking the same one-block stretch in north-central Winnipeg. The daily trek down Ross Avenue, from her home to Rossbrook House—a refuge for street kids she helped establish in 1976—has given the Roman Catholic nun an unfolding view of a neighborhood in social decay. The once-vibrant, blue-collar residential area is now scarred by neglected and, in some cases, graffiti-covered homes. Sometimes at night, she is startled by the sound of gunshots or the ruckus of fights between street gangs. “In the last four years, things have really changed rapidly,” says the soft-spoken Sacouman. “There’s a climate of fear that wasn’t there before.”
Streets of fear have become common in the Manitoba capital. In recent years, a growing number of street gangs, made up mostly of disillusioned and disadvantaged young natives, have staked out their turf in an escalating struggle to control criminal activity in their territory. With names like the Manitoba Warriors and Indian Posse, they have become a source of growing concern. Small wonder. With an estimated 800 youths involved in the loosely organized gangs, there is nothing subtle about their tactics. Assault, armed robbery, driveby shootings, prostitution and murder are all part of the gangrelated violence that is making parts of north-central Winnipeg seem more like the streets of East Los Angeles. “In this economy, it’s more and more difficult for young people,” says Wayne Helgason, executive director of the Winnipeg Social Planning Council. “They don’t see finding a decent job even if they get an education,
Native gangs terrorize
and so other forms of activity become their only choice.”
At the root of the problem is the poverty that afflicts many of Winnipeg’s estimated 65,000 native people—10 per cent of the city’s population. Winnipeg, in fact, has the largest single concentration of natives in Canada. Lured to the city in the hopes of finding a job and a more secure life, many of those who migrate from the province’s 62 reserves or 120 Métis communities find only hardship and unemployment.
As a result, social and economic malaise has become deeply rooted in the native community. “People come thinking they will have a better life in the city, but they end up trapped,” says Dave Chartrand, spokesman for the Manitoba Métis Federation. “The kids see what’s happened to their parents—and don’t see any hope for themselves.”
Gang activity is the most recent manifestation of that hopelessness. Since its 15-member gang unit was formed in the summer of 1995, Winnipeg police have made 440 gang-related arrests. Last year, among Winnipeg’s 29 murders—up from 16 in 1995—the most grisly involved the torture and murder of three men in what police said was gang-related retribution. Ironically, the increase in gang activity comes at a time when the overall crime rate is actually falling in Winnipeg, as it has been across Canada in recent years. But in a series of public forums staged this month by police Chief David Cassels, the overwhelming concern voiced by Winnipeggers was fear of crime—and particularly of gangs. “There’s no doubt the problem here is beyond anything you’ll see elsewhere in Canada,” says University of Winnipeg sociologist Doug Skoog.
That might change—and not for the better.
There is evidence that Winnipeg gangs have attempted to expand into other Prairie cities with large native populations. In Regina, there were 71 gang-related arrests in 1996. Saskatoon police say they have identified attempts by Winnipeg gangs to recruit members in the city. Police in both cities have established full-time gang units, hoping to contain the problem before it reaches Winnipeg levels. There were also early signs of gang activity in Edmonton last fall, but police say the problem was solved by the arrest of a few key figures late last year. Edmonton’s gang unit now operates with only one officer co-ordinating intelligence.
Although as many as nine gangs are thought to be operating in Winnipeg, the landscape is dominated by the Warriors and Indian Posse. Smaller gangs, with names like the Deuce, East Side Crips and Nine-0, are thought to be linked to the two larger gangs. Like farm teams, they become training grounds for kids, some as young as 10, who aspire to join the gang big leagues. But police say that thanks to a tough, zero-tolerance approach, coupled with more foot patrols and satellite bases, the situation is well in hand. “The gang thing has pretty much levelled off and we have a good handle on it,” says Insp. AÍ Brolly, who heads the Winnipeg police gang unit. Police officers, however, are uncomfortable with the media attention gangs receive because it tends to give them a certain stature.
In fact, while many involved in gang activities have been sent to prison, gang members themselves say the flow of new recruits more than replenishes their membership. “ We grow by the day—it will never stop,” one member of the Indian Posse told Maclean’s. Giving his name as Enemy Wind, he proudly displayed the tattoos etched on his hands, including one that reads “Bonded by blood.” Then he rolled up his sleeve to show an Indian Posse tattoo on his bicep: a clenched fist holding a pistol. That insignia, he said, is reserved for only the highest members of the Posse. His eyes hidden by sunglasses, he said that gang life is about belonging. “The gang is my family,” he declared. “It always will be. I can no more leave the gang than you can leave your family.”
As a social worker for Winnipeg’s Child and Family Services, Rosie O’Connor knows many gang members and has come to un-
derstand the psychology that makes the street gangs so popular among young natives. It comes down to a search for self-worth, she says: for all their antisocial and criminal behavior, gangs offer positive feedback to their members. “The message they get from the gang is that they are OK the way they are,” says O’Connor. Crown attorney Cathy Everett, who has prosecuted many young offenders involved in gang activity, says that the gang replaces the family. In one case, she recalls, a 15-year-old gang member charged with a driveby shooting scoffed when he was threatened with the prospect of doing hard time. “That’s OK, my gang is there,” the youngster told police. “They’ll take care of me.” Everett calls gang activity “an overwhelming problem” that the justice system cannot solve. “By the time people end up in court,” she says, “the situation is pretty well entrenched.” David Newman, Manitoba’s recently appointed minister of native affairs, says he is determined to find ways to reduce gang activity—and open doors for natives. A Winnipeg MIA in a Conservative caucus dominated by rural members, Newman says the time has come to focus on the issue of poverty among urban natives. He is calling for a co-ordinated approach between all levels of government, community groups and business. Such measures are long overdue, says Nelson Sanderson, president of the Winnipeg Indian and Métis Friendship Centre. In fact, he notes, five years ago the Tories actually cut their share of financial support for the centre by 85 per cent, leaving staff scrambling to find private donors ever since. “I see the gang issue as a very grave problem,” Sanderson says. “ We have to give kids some alternative to the streets.”
Native leaders are certainly paying attention to the issue. Last November, Sanderson helped organize an aboriginal youth justice symposium, attended by 400 young people, that called for increased educational and job opportunities for natives. And, this April, Manitoba aboriginal MP Elijah Harper and five Manitoba native organizations are planning a conference they hope will attract 1,500 people, including gang members. The goal: finding meaningful alternatives for disaffected and marginalized aboriginal kids who often come from broken homes and have few opportunities. “This will not be our conference.” Harper says. “The youth will organize it with our backing. We want to work with them on a vision for our future—and what part they see themselves taking.” Meanwhile, the terror on the streets of north-central Winnipeg continues. One safe haven that is open year-round is Rossbrook House. There, Sister Lesley Sacouman says, she tries to give local youths a sense of be longing and self-worth. Warren, 18, and Richard, 17, are among the regulars at Rossbrook and, like many other kids in the neighborhood, they work part-time at the centre. “Rossbrook has given me confidence that I can keep a job,” says Richard, who first visited the centre five years ago. Warren only discovered Rossbrook nine months ago. “This is the kind of place I wish I had when I was smaller,” he says with a trace of sadness. “I could have enjoyed growing up.” Such testimonials give Sacouman the strength she needs to continue. “I have nothing but the greatest of admiration for these young kids, knowing what they must go through, the pressures they face and the dignity they show,” she says. “They’ve enriched my life so much.” In a city struggling to give disillusioned young natives a future, Rossbrook House stands as an important example of how it can be done.D
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