Researcher shines light on aboriginal street gangs

Matt Gardner
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Childhood for many is a source of nostalgia. For others, it can represent something darker and more painful.

Interviewing ex-members of indigenous street gangs for a research project, University of Saskatchewan PhD student Robert Henry found that a troubled childhood was a common thread in each subject’s biography.

“When you’re five years old … and all you see are parties, or your mom getting beat, or your dad beating you, or your brothers getting beat, or you’re getting ripped from your families, or you don’t even know who your family is, you’re looking for anything that kind of gives you a sense of belonging -- and that’s what the gang does,” Henry said.

“The gang … creates a larger identity for a person. It gives the person a place in which they can feel that they are a part of something greater than themselves. It gives them a sense of group identity.”

Henry’s research eventually left to a book, Brighter Days Ahead, which combines the former gang members’ stories with illustrative photographs.

On Saturday, the author will appear at Playasol Clothing & Activewear from 1 p.m. to 3 p.m. to sign copies of the book and answer questions.

Currently a sessional lecturer in the university’s Department of Native Studies, Henry -- who is of Métis descent -- first became involved with gang research about 13 years ago after noting a general lack of information on the subject.

After exploring definitional issues of street gangs for his master’s degree, in his doctoral program Henry sought to examine how street gangs help men, particularly aboriginal men, form identities and notions of masculinity.

His research illustrates the complicated interplay of factors that propel young people towards the gang life.

“For aboriginal youth, it’s complex,” Henry said. “What we have to understand is that it’s not a one-day decision of ‘Oh, I’m going to join a gang today.’

“For a lot of the individuals, they’ve been normalized to a heightened sense of violence that many of us will never understand just through growing up, and these are all byproducts of policies that have limited and controlled aboriginal peoples.”

Taking the example of residential schools, Henry noted that the decline of that notorious institution was followed by an expansion of the child welfare system.

A greater number of aboriginal youth are in care today, he said, than was the case at the height of the residential school system.

Growing up in harsh circumstances, often suffering abuse, many youth attempt to gain respect through violence in the schoolyard. A lack of economic opportunities can further increase the allure of power and respect associated with gang membership.

Henry also pointed to differences in how society views misbehaviour depending on one’s ethnicity.

“We start seeing these hypermasculine notions … yet we seem to attach this to aboriginal youth that they’re doing it in deviance, whereas if we see it other youth out on the playgrounds, it’s just boys being boys,” he said.

“So even in this notion, some kids are allowed to be violent and just work their way through it, while others are labelled as criminals and we treat them as such at very young ages.”

Henry argued that the impact of colonization and its associated policies has created a “perfect space” for aboriginal gangs to form in rural and urban communities.

Noting that gangs are not an individual phenomenon but rather a social one, Henry drew a comparison to the situation facing early Irish immigrants in Canada.

“If you look historically on all of this, the first gangs that we saw that we attributed to what we see today are those marginalized Irish youth who were coming across back in the early part of the 19th century, where they were marginalized by the community.

If we actually decrease gangs and gang membership and the violence associated to it, we actually increase the overall health in the entire community. Robert Henry

“They weren’t wanted. They were segregated. They were told they weren’t allowed to move out of these places and they had to band together in order to economically survive. So they stole together, they survived together, they fought together, they created an identity together.”

Many of the gang members Henry interviewed committed their first break-and-enters at five or six years old in order to obtain food for themselves or their siblings.

Violence is a regular feature of gang life. The men interviewed in the book describe suffering “beat-ins” to join a group, being targeted in drive-by shootings or engaging in fights with rival gangs.

While many gang members perceive Regina as a more violent city than Saskatoon, Prince Albert has a reputation for being more violent than both.

Henry again noted the overlapping social issues that create spaces for gangs, which in Prince Albert include names such as Indian Posse, the Terror Squad and the Scorpion Brothers.

“There are street gangs in Prince Albert due to the correctional facility,” he said. “They have a lot of individuals who are moving in and out of the system.

“When they go to leave the system, their first place is there in the community. So if they have family there, then they stay there and take what they learned from within a system and apply it to the streets.”

Both provincial and national gangs have a presence in Prince Albert, along with other unassociated groups.

Even when individual gang members decide they want out, the process of leaving a gang -- like the process of joining -- can be a protracted one.

“For some people … you have to move out of the community, but for others, those individuals that are part of the gang, their family might actually be the gang,” Henry said. “So how do you expect somebody to actually leave the gang if their family’s part of that whole system?”

Some of the individuals in Henry’s book turned to Christianity as a way of finding the values they needed to reconnect to their communities. Others did so by reclaiming their traditional culture.

From the author’s perspective, an ideal solution would be to create meaningful relationships with individuals through programs tailor-made to their situations.

He noted the five steps of the anti-gang organization STR8 UP (which helped connect Henry with his interview subjects). They include writing one’s autobiography, dropping their gang colours, learning how to be humble, learning honesty and working on their addictions.

Henry said that any programs to address gang membership should adopt multiple perspectives, such as housing, education, job training and other economic factors.

“We need to move away from the silo approach,” he said. “There’s a Hub in Prince Albert and everybody … from a justice perspective keeps looking at the Hub as a way to try and help communities understand the issues that we’re talking about. Why don’t we apply this sort of issue to a smaller subset of the population?

“If we actually decrease gangs and gang membership and the violence associated to it, we actually increase the overall health in the entire community because the psychological impacts of fear, about being fearful about certain things, begin to dissipate. So you actually increase the health of the entire community.”

Organizations: University of Saskatchewan PhD, Prince Albert, Department of Native Studies Scorpion Brothers

Geographic location: Canada, Regina, Saskatoon

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Recent comments

  • Judy Chartrand
    November 13, 2013 - 20:51

    It's a damn cop out...I grew up in the skids and watched my older sisters hit the damn streets and also attended their funerals...I made a choice not to follow in their footsteps...I think it's too bad they didn't have me as their big sister because I would have been there kicking their asses straight!