Vol. 76, No. 2Cover stories

Proactive approach

Addressing Canada's aboriginal gangs

Cst. David Michaud of CREST assists with a traffic stop in Norway House, Man. Credit: CREST


When it comes to dealing with the issue of aboriginal gangs, Canadian police require a different approach, plenty of patience and a lot of context.

Especially in Western Canada, the RCMP's anti-gang strategies approach the issue of gangs from more than just a reactive perspective, addressing some of the problems that make gangs appealing in the first place.

Identifying the issue

Northern Manitoba has its fair share of violence. Thompson, which is known as the hub of the North, is also recognized as one of Canada's most violent cities.

Sgt. Ben Sewell, the member in charge of the Crime Reduction Enforcement Support Team (CREST), which is based out of Thompson, says along with the prevalence of violence in the area, comes gang activity.

But they're not necessarily traditional criminal organization groups. Compared to what police see in larger cities, the gangs and their activities remain, for the most part, restricted to their local communities.

"Basically, kids hang out together and because of the levels of violence in the North, they end up making gangs," says Sewell. "Sometimes I would suggest that some of these aren't really gangs by definition, but a group working on negative things for their community."

Of course, they're still just as much of a threat to their community's public safety as the more well-known and larger gangs in Manitoba like the Native Syndicate and the Manitoba Warriors.

In addition to the rampant property damage, assaults and general disorder they bring, calling themselves gangs also draws the attention of those extremely organized and dangerous gangs, fostering potentially violent rivalries and competition over perceived territory.

"In the North, we have double the homicides compared to the rest of the province, double the assaults and double the aggravated assaults," says Sewell. "We have way more violence than the rest of the province for a variety of reasons from social issues to the isolation and living conditions in northern Manitoba."

CREST, which serves 22 northern detachments that are, for the most part, remote, small First Nations communities, was created in 2011 to help the RCMP in those detachments begin to be able to address the prolific violence in their communities more proactively.

Building partnerships

Similarly, the RCMP in Alberta has, for a long time, been working on their strategy to address gang activity in their First Nations communities.

Insp. Dennis Fraser, from the Alberta RCMP's Aboriginal Policing section, says the gang issues in western Canada originate from a number of complex issues, which include substance abuse.

"Where there's money, you're going to get drugs, when you get drugs, you're going to get gangs," says Fraser.

He goes on to reference communities like Enoch, which is just outside of Edmonton, and Fort McMurray, a hub of oil production. The physical proximity to the cities and the high-profit industries like oil and gas, paired with the pre-existing social and economic issues of the communities themselves, make them particularly vulnerable to organized crime groups.

The Alberta gang strategy has four main pillars: education and awareness, intelligence-gathering, enforcement and exit strategies. But with limited resources, Fraser recently has tried to narrow their focus to exit strategies.

He explains that not only were the other three pillars being addressed by other front-line members and operational units within the force, but that when his team did an inventory of the resources for gang members looking to get out, there was an alarming lack of help available to them. That emphasis has meant developing close partnerships with various external agencies.

"We've done up a resource and services guide from around the province for a lot of things that we can't do, like housing," says Fraser. "When a lot of kids want to get out, they've got no place to go, so we looked at what's already existing out there and we try to hook them up."

Two members of his team, Ret. S/Sgt Darrel Bruno and Cst. Clayton Bird, work on developing those partnerships as well as delivering presentations to various groups from members within the RCMP, Correctional Services and the community members themselves across the province.

"With just one or two members, we're pretty limited with what we can do. Where it becomes powerful is when we start mobilizing other police agencies, other government agencies and especially the communities," says Fraser.

They especially look to partner with the people Bruno refers to as movers and shakers in the community.

Managing offenders

Especially at the community level, the biggest stumbling block can be less about what's happening in the community, and more about what's lacking. Sewell says the main reason a person joins a gang is to feel a part of something.

"It makes you feel good, people respect you, you're all working towards a common goal," he adds.

And with the high policing demands of the communities in the North, where detachments might be dealing with a shortage of employees, there's already a strain to meet the demands reactively, let alone proactively.

That's where CREST comes in. An important part of their mandate is centred on offender management. Members of the team are on hand to come help check in on offenders, deemed to be prolific, who are released on recognizance to ensure they're meeting their release conditions. The benefit for those northern communities is huge.

"It's an augmentation of the manpower, but also, they're highly trained in source work and offender management so I like to put them with my young guys so they learn from them," says S/Sgt. Rusty Spragg, the detachment commander in Cross Lake.

Cross Lake is a large First Nations community in northern Manitoba. And while they have issues with drugs (and subsequently gangs), they've recently seen improvements. With help from the CREST members and their own community, many of the big players in town have been arrested and charged, and are now serving jail time.

Another important aspect of CREST's work is mentorship and education. Every year, they hold an intelligence and crime reduction conference in Manitoba North District, where they discuss crime reduction strategies within a northern context. And within the communities, because there are so many younger members stationed in the area, they offer mentorship and support on the job.

"I've seen the drive it puts in my members' eyes," says Spragg. "CREST walks them through the steps and I can see they're invigorated after, thinking, 'I can do this.' And that's what we want, we want to teach them and make them better police officers."

Taking ownership

But sometimes being a better police officer means taking a step back until the community itself is ready not only to accept change, but to help bring it about.

"That's where the education part comes into it," says Bird. "When they take ownership and set their differences aside to help one another, that's when we start to see some good results."

One example is the community of Maskwacis, formerly Hobbema, Alta. Over the last 10 years, their struggle with gang activity has played out fairly publicly in the media. The shooting deaths of several young children were the final breaking point, prompting the community to declare enough was enough.

Once they bought in, that's when change really started to happen. Less than a decade ago, they had between 400 and 500 gang members in the community. In 2013, they've seen that number reduced to 130. And they've been able to achieve such successes thus far because they are diving deeper into the root causes of these problems.

"One of the key issues we're really dealing with here is poverty," says Bruno. "If we eliminated the povery, I believe we'd see a major reduction in a lot of these social issues like gangs."

Bruno goes on to explain that there's an alarming number of people in these communities who are illiterate – especially those currently in Corrections. And with that, comes many problems most people would never think of. For example, if a person can't read or write, they won't be able to get a driver's licence. And if they have no licence, travelling to and from work is almost impossible in some of these communities.

Addressing those problems are the key to making gangs less attractive options for both Canada's aboriginal population, and everyone else as well. But the most important thing Bruno and Bird try to impress on the communities they work with is that results are never going to be immediate.

"The biggest thing that we push is patience, it does take time: it took time to get here and now it's going to take time to get out," says Bird.

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