Breaking free: Regina program gives gang members a way out

The Carillon, Vol. 52, Issue 20 | March 11 – 17, 2010

Regina’s gang problem isn’t discussed much in the media these days, beyond occasional reports in the newspaper or the six o’clock news, tied to specific events. It’s one of those complex, insoluble issues that are readily dismissed in the hustle of daily life. When the issue does explode into the public consciousness, it is often framed in either fiery rhetoric or well-meaning sentimentality. Context and understanding are limited in supply, and often the debate boils down to two sides, both founded in ignorance.

On the one hand, there is simply moral outrage, which ignores the historical and existential realities that underlie gang involvement, for which we as a society are collectively responsible. On the other, there is a misdirected beneficence that treats the issue like a disease that can be cured by throwing more social programs at it.

Genuine understanding reveals a tragic constellation of monstrous legacies; to borrow a phrase from Art Spiegelman, Regina “bleeds history.” The legacies of residential schooling, persecution, systemic racism, poverty, and abuse, in varying degrees in different individuals, have all left deep and lasting scars. Neither condemnation nor Band-Aid solutions can touch these wounds. Healing takes the time and commitment of dedicated social workers and volunteers, and most of all the willingness on the part of the individual to change. It’s a long, painful, difficult process.

The best that any of us can do is attempt to comprehend the awful realities that play out on the streets and in the homes of those who have suffered greatly, and to take heart in the stories of redemption that emerge on the front lines of the crisis. The issue of gangs in Regina is an everyday reality that must be confronted and understood, and the struggles of those who strive to rise above the deadly cycles of violence and addiction represent some of the greatest examples of the human ability to change, grow, and overcome.

When individuals work to shed their former lives and begin themselves anew, they become heroes in the truest sense of the word.

Gangs of Regina today

Estimates about the number and nature of gangs in Regina are difficult, because the landscape is continually changing. Allegiances and the proportion of dropouts to new recruits are variable, so statistics are obsolete almost as soon as they are collected. Among the interviewees for this feature, the lowest estimate was between 400 and 500, while the highest estimate pegged the number at 800. Part of this comes from uncertainty about whether individuals are members or simply down with a gang, and don’t actually commit crimes with the gang. Membership numbers within each gang are even harder to determine.

Holly Matharu is a youth facility worker at the Paul Dojack Youth Centre, a detention facility. She said that people are becoming involved in gangs at younger ages than ever before. “We deal with kids 12 to 20,” said Matharu, “but some of the girls we’re working with are starting at 11, but the average age of the average gang kid would be 14 or 15.” Organizations such as the Regina police and the Red Cross, she said, have been doing presentations in schools, “trying to get the kids grade 4 to 6, because a lot of those kids are coming from gang families, so they’re born into gangs.”

There is also some uncertainty about the gender proportion within gangs, but generally between a quarter and a third of gang members are female. Everyone, however, agreed on one statistic: 80 per cent are aboriginal.

Gangs make money from various illegal enterprises, explained Preston Henry, a case worker at Regina Anti-Gang Services (RAGS), such as prostitution, selling drugs, extortion, or breaking and entering. “Taxing” involves taking money from rival gangs or drug dealers. According to RAGS director Jacqui Wasacase, cocaine is the top-selling drug.

Henry described the standard gang hierarchy, which parallels the hierarchy of soldiers, caporegimes, underboss, and boss within the Cosa Nostra, also known as the Sicilian Mafia. “You start from the bottom, as they say, a striker. You work your way up into the rankings. There’s striker, higher-up, vice-president, and president … If you can make money, you’re moving up in the ranks, and you’ll have your own group of guys.” He was quick to add that this was not consistent across all gangs.

When asked if the president had any advisors, similar to a Cosa Nostra consigliere, Henry nodded. “There is, and that’s probably where the drugs come from.”

Native Syndicate (NS), Native Syndicate Killers (NSK), Indian Posse, Crips, Saskatchewan Warriors, and Redd Alert have been the largest gangs in recent years, but tides often turn quickly. “NSK have become big,” said Matharu. “They kind of patched over the Redd Alert, which have kind of amalgamated into them … Some people still identify as the Redd Alert, and I think they came more from Edmonton. [But] they’ve sort of mixed into the NSK.”

There are also a number of smaller gangs or offshoots, including Crazy Cree, the Crazy Natives, the Crazy Dragons, and West Side Crips. Many of these appear only intermittently.

Murdered culture and false appeal

Gangs are often appealing on the surface, Matharu said, because many people see few alternatives. “A lot of it is familiarity, because their peers are in gangs or family members are in gangs. A lot of those kids, they’re not doing well in school, they don’t fit into that sort of positive social group … Definitely a sense of belonging, a sense of protection, a way to get money, power, recognition, respect, all the things that they don’t have or they don’t see as achievable … It’s the danger and the drama that they’re drawn to.”

Matharu said that it’s hard for many people to understand the day-to-day realities that produce the reports on the six o’clock news. “The stories that you read in the paper, it always comes across as like just another [incident of] native violence. But almost all of the kids that I work with, that’s not who they are … It’s not just that they made a bad choice, it’s that all of their life, circumstances leading up to that have helped to make that choice.

“They’re coming from things that you and I can’t even fathom. We’re not mourning. They don’t even realize that they’re mourning; they’re not mourning having two or three family members being murdered, or dying of drug addictions, or suicide. [It’s] the death of a culture. There’s so much tragedy that they’ve been feeling.”

Much of the problem has to do specifically with the open wounds that remain in the aftermath of the residential schools, which traumatized hundreds of thousands and virtually annihilated aboriginal culture, said Henry. “It goes back to residential schools, and also at home, to their parents. Being a residential student, it’s that cycle; the parents are still traumatized, they’re still grieving, so they’re not there to give support to their kids. As a young kid growing up, kids want to feel loved, and if they’re not getting it at home, friends come together and that’s a family.”

Wasacase agreed that there is a multigenerational cycle of abuse and neglect that contributes to gang involvement. “You have two or three generations of lost culture, trauma, abuse … Some of the guys in the program didn’t have a positive male role model growing up … so it’s a generational thing.”

She indicated the bulletin board above her desk, which was covered with pictures of young men with babies and small children. “It’s very important to our young men here to understand that they can break that cycle. Any sperm can make a baby, but it takes a man to be a father.”

Wasacase also pointed out that there are serious systemic issues that narrow the choices available to potential and current gang members. North Central Regina, she said, shares many similar aspects with Crenshaw, the notorious neighbourhood in Los Angeles, with its high proportion of rental homes, the age and poor condition of the houses, poverty, and ethnically segregated population. “You’re looking at a higher population of transient people,” she said. “They move four or five times a year but stay in that portion of the city.” Every city, she said, has its “wrong side of the tracks,” but Regina’s problems are compounded by a convergence of these factors, along with the legacy of the residential school system.

“There’s too much systemic racism, there’s too much poverty, there’s too much system involvement,” she said. She criticized how the Canadian welfare state has failed to encourage values of self-reliance, and cited the adage about teaching a man to fish instead of merely giving him one.

Matharu agreed that although support must be available for those who want to change, the desire to take that leap has to come from the inside, and cannot be imposed from without. “They’re broken,” she said, “but they can’t just live their lives based on that concept. You have to make the choice at some point, that you’re going to change yourself and be a productive person. They’re able to be loving parents, they’re able to be really good to their family members, or they’re able to accept kindness from people who intervene in their life … They have to work on becoming a whole person, and the length of that journey is different for everybody.

“They have two selves. We all do. But what do you feed more? What part of you is being nurtured?”

Escape route: RAGS

RAGS is an outreach program under the North Central Community Association that is available 24/7, every day of the week, for clients who wish to put gang life behind them. The outreach team can always be reached on the phone and is often out on the streets dealing with crises. The program was started in December 2006, and represents one of Canada’s most comprehensive gang exit strategies, engaging over 40 agencies and government departments on a daily basis. The Carillon is the first media outlet that has been allowed access to RAGS.

RAGS has a number of services and activities aimed at improving the lives of their clients. COLORS (Changing Our Lives on Regina Streets), a program with roughly a dozen clients, engages in team-building and friendship exercises. “If they have a girlfriend or a wife, then they’re working on their relationship. Working on how to be a responsible young adult, getting back on their feet and back out there into the real world,” said Henry.

Another program is based on encouraging clients to be the fathers that they hope their sons will grow up to be. On most days they also have different activities: archery, game nights, hockey, poker, life skills classes. They started a baseball team last year, said Henry. “We didn’t win a game; we came close to winning, but it was our first year, and these guys had never played.

“If they’re stressed out or upset, that’s when they tend to fall back into their old ways and want to go back. That’s why we come up with these game nights and stuff like that. They can come here and let some steam out.”

RAGS also provides access to aboriginal elders who can help clients reconnect with their lost roots. “If you believe in the aboriginal culture, definitely speak with an elder, and do all the cultural stuff,” said Henry. “It’s good healing and it works.”

The RAGS building has comfortable chairs, a weight set, a TV, and areas for playing poker or hanging out. Cameras are everywhere. People have to be buzzed in; all of the shades are drawn, and there are thick metal bars crisscrossing the doors. “The safety of our clients is our first priority,” said Wasacase. Clients often face ridicule or even threats for wishing to leave their former lives, so confidentiality and security are critical.

Wasacase said that RAGS clients have been highly successful; out of 68 intensive cases, only eight clients went back to gang life. But success for her is much more than being able to close a case file. “If you are starting your first job, you’ve never had a job before, you’re 28 years old, and you hold onto that job for two whole weeks, man, that’s a success … If you have been doing drugs since you were 14 or 15 years old, and now you’re 28 and you’re smoking dope but not shooting up, that’s a success. If you’re coming here Saturday night and playing poker, and not going out and drinking, that’s a success.

There’s a long road ahead for gang members who wish to change, Wasacase said. “Dropping out of the gang is the easiest part. The harder part of it is dropping the lifestyle. When you drop your colours, it doesn’t mean that you automatically don’t drink, don’t smoke drugs, don’t crank, don’t involve yourself in criminal activities, you might still do all that shit because it’s your lifestyle. Just dropping your colours doesn’t mean the rest of that changes overnight.”

Honest work

Former gang members often face significant challenges when entering the workforce. Fortunately, despite criminal records and lack of experience within the mainstream workforce, they can often find work with the YMCA, custodial and janitorial positions, call centres, or restaurant kitchens. Sometimes they find work at RAGS.

“We’re in the process of hiring two of our old clients, and now they’ve got their [drivers’] licences,” said Henry. “They’d be coming in part-time or casual to talk to people. That’s actually what I do; I go out to do prevention work and speak to the communities, schools, jails, the youth facility, group homes.”

Honest work is a big step for clients, said Wasacase, and brings with it a shift in perspective. “If you’re a higher-up in a gang for five or six years, and you’re making $5,000 a week selling coke, you might make a lot of money but you don’t keep a lot of money. Illegit money comes and goes, right? … When you do make legit money you feel good about yourself. You also spend your money wisely because you worked for it.

“The other side of that coin is that if you are 25, 26 years old, and you go get a job at McDonald’s, and your boss is 17, and you’ve been running 12 guys on the street for a number of years, that’s a hard pill to swallow.”

Developing education and experience are essential to getting clients into the workforce and keeping them from relapsing into old habits. “I don’t care what anybody says, education is still the key,” said Wasacase. “We want them to go back to school, we want them to get their grade 12. It’s all part of that self-confidence … and a lot of our guys will get their GEDs while they’re in jail … We have a lot of guys who learn about their cultures while they’re inside.”

What many people may not understand, Wasacase said, is that former gang members often have impressive skill sets that they can draw upon. The challenge is to apply those skills in a constructive direction. “Shit happens, so make it work for you. It’s like transferable skills, right? You’re telling me that you can’t get a job because all you know how to do is sell drugs? That’s a skill. Do you know how much skill that takes? Salesmanship, people skills, mathematical skills. People don’t always understand that to do what these guys do out there … it takes lots of brains, lots of street smarts, lots of skills.

“When I was younger, I was Regina’s biggest con artist. I could talk to you and I’d have your car keys, I’d con you out of anything … Now, I’ve transferred those skills … I con the government out of money for programming. It’s still a skill. It’s a street skill that I had, that I turned around to make it work.” She mentioned that she was very impressed with the negotiation and organizational skills of two clients that she hired recently to assist with coordinating a forthcoming conference. “They’re transferring a lot of those skills that they already have.”

Some of these skills are highly creative. Wasacase has bundles of paper from her clients: lyrics, poetry, prose, autobiography, drawings. They all shared themes of suffering and redemption. Many of her clients are aspiring musicians. Others now have dreams of going to college or university.

Little brothers, little sisters

Terrence, a former gang member, seeks redemption through the various struggles and successes of day-to-day life. He became affiliated with NS as a striker six or seven years ago, although he had been associated with gangs for most of his 29 years of life. He participated in violence and drug deals, but he wants to put that behind him.

“I’ve started to mature more in the last three years,” he said. “Once you get to the big house, it’s no joke.” He got his GED and is currently working for RAGS, coordinating an upcoming conference. “I want to be successful in all aspects of my life. It’s working for me … I set a goal for myself every day, and I do those short-term goals.”

Fortunately for Terrence, it’s easier living in Regina than where he did previously. “The gang I was with, they’re not around here.” He said, however, that staying on this new path is often difficult, as he sometimes fantasizes about returning to his old lifestyle.

“Sometimes I glorify how my life [was], but it’s phoney.”

During the interview, he mentioned to Wasacase that it had been a stressful day for him. Before he left the room, she gave him a hug. Wasacase often hugs clients before they leave to go somewhere.

Reflecting on his experiences with RAGS, Henry said that the best part was being a big brother to people that never had positive male role models. After he graduated from criminal justice and was in the process of becoming a police officer, he decided that he wanted to work at RAGS.

“It’s so rewarding, I’ve actually put my police career on hold, just for the fact of working with these young kids. These kids are good kids; they haven’t really had any guidance in their life, so support workers are there to help them. We’re pretty much their big brother. We don’t tell them what to do, they make their own decisions, and … we’re not just going to throw them away.”

He said later that he stays up some nights worrying about his clients. It’s difficult but necessary, he said, to retain that professional distance. The RAGS staff care about their clients, but don’t get too emotionally involved, nor do they ever take sides against prospective clients in favour of present ones. Every client is a little brother or a little sister; they need help and guidance, but ultimately, what they do is up to them. RAGS provides a refuge where they can seek redemption when the horrors and miseries of gang life become intolerable.

“Mostly these gang members are good kids,” said Henry. “They’re just coming from a bad upbringing and there’s hope. It’s just the decisions that they make.” 

Full Feature Credits
All writing and photographs by Alex Colgan

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