In spite of the province’s concerted efforts to reduce gang activity, they are gaining a stronger foothold in Saskatchewan, according to Stan Tu’Inkuafe from STR8 UP, a Saskatoon-based non-profit that helps people leave the lifestyle.
Tu’Inkuafe, a former youth worker with the John Howard Society who co-founded STR8 UP, said gang memberships are on the rise.
“It’s continuing to be an issue,” he said in a phone interview Feb. 3.
STR8 UP has seen a marked increase in the volume of phone calls about gang activity. The calls are coming from parents concerned their child has joined a gang, from individuals saying their partner has joined a gang and from adults wanting to leave, said Tu’Inkuafe.
He was quick to add, however, that he doesn’t have any statistics, which he said are skewed because there’s no real tracking or database where authorities share information and numbers.
RCMP Crime Reduction Team (CRT) officer Cpl. Tyler Zrymiak, during a presentation to community leaders at the Saskatchewan Urban Municipalities Association’s annual convention in Regina Feb. 4, said there is a “Continual increase in street gang recruitment activity in Saskatchewan.”
Gang members as young as eight
STR8 UP is working with gang members as young as eight and Tu’Inkuafe said there aren’t adequate programs in place for youth wanting to get out.
“If a young person is using drugs where do they go for AA meetings, or any meetings? Where are the support systems? We usually say to adults ‘there’s an AA meeting’ but if you are 12 or 13 you would feel out of place with the rest of the adults.”
In addition, he said schools aren’t equipped to work with these youth.
“What do you do with them in a school setting?”
Cpl. Zrymiak confirmed RCMP are seeing gang members as young as eight.
Signs of gang membership
Tu’Inkuafe said there are signs parents can watch for that may indicate gang membership.
“If a young person lives in one place, does he/she have new friends, access to money all of a sudden, not going to school, leaving at one in the morning, coming home with bruises, if they were open with parents before but now all of a sudden they are secretive, and if the slang they use becomes different.”
Cpl. Zrymiak said other warning signs include if your child changes clothing style and wears certain colours, carries a bandana, uses hand signs, gets new tattoos or writes or references certain numbers or symbols.
Tu’Inkuafe said the province needs to set up an information hotline phone number people can call.
“Why can’t we create a centre hub, a 1-800 number where people can call in and say ‘do you have any material on gangs you can send me, and what are gang colours I should look for in my area?’”
Gang members are recruited at schools, but many are recruited in prisons with inmates joining for protection and safety, said Tu’Inkuafe.
Motives for joining a gang
There are no simple answers to why people join gangs and the reasons vary but there’s a common thread.
“My experience has been that every gang member struggles with addiction,” said Tu’Inkuafe.
This addiction is generational.
According to the Provincial Gang Strategy Forum held in Saskatoon in May 2018, Saskatchewan’s Indigenous peoples are still impacted by colonization and the inter-generational trauma associated with racism. The emerging generations of Indigenous youth are still dealing with the trauma — the residual effects of the Indian residential school era. This continues the cycle of suicide, addictions and now gang activity.
Racism is a huge part.
It hasn’t gone away. It’s just veiled, more subtle. It’s in the tone, the disapproving look.
Tu’Inkuafe said people are more aware of racism and being prejudiced so they are just more careful.
But racism seeps through.
“It can be something as simple as how a social services worker talks to a client. The way they (clients) are talked to is different.”
Addiction a huge factor
“To get to the gang level, I would argue their addiction is more entrenched,” said Tu’Inkuafe.
“Most people don’t become a gang member overnight. I know parents who steal meat to feed their kids. They get caught and go to jail and their kids end up with family or in social services’ care and then the parents become stuck in the cycle of being in jail. When they get out they have no support and feel trapped. They are spinning their wheels doing things not going anywhere.”
The Indigenous population is over-represented in Saskatchewan’s penitentiary system and Indigenous children and youth are greatly overrepresented in the province’s child welfare system and young offender facilities.
Even though Tu’Inkuafe said he has seen immigrant gang members, the majority of Saskatchewan members are predominantly First Nations struggling with addiction, addictions they use to cope with trauma from abuse and racism.
So, to address gang membership, you have to address addiction, and to address addiction you have to address trauma.
Saskatchewan’s street gangs
Gang members in the province move among the major cities, Regina, Saskatoon, Prince Alberta and North Battleford. They also move among smaller rural and reserve communities.
This mobility prompted STR8 UP to urge the province to develop a provincial street gang prevention and intervention strategy.
Paula Steckler, media relations officer, Executive Council, Government of Saskatchewan, said in an interview on Feb. 4 that STR8 UP is a valued partner in the province’s Gang Violence Reduction Strategy, and is responsible for delivering the Community Integration Model (CIM) in central and northern parts of the province.
“Through this model, STR8 UP is providing outreach, intervention and prevention services to help people leave gangs and reintegrate back into their communities.”
Steckler said a number of recommendations STR8 UP made in their 2018 Provincial Gang Strategy report helped inform Saskatchewan’s Gang Violence Reduction Strategy, and have been implemented by the province.
“This includes the adoption of a grassroots-led, relentless gang prevention program, expansion of addiction treatment in correctional facilities and increasing the use of trauma-informed and culturally relevant programming amongst service providers in the corrections system,” said Steckler.
In December 2019 the province announced $4.5 million in funding over the next four years to STR8 UP and the Regina Treaty Status Indian Services Inc., to deliver the CIM program.
“The strategy also includes expanding the Dedicated Substance Abuse Treatment Units into additional correctional facilities, reallocating provincially-funded police units to Crime Reduction Teams in Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert, and improving intelligence gathering and sharing between police agencies,” said Steckler.
In 2019 the province designated a provincial gang crown prosecutor. The Ministry of Justice also increased the number of security intelligence officers in correctional facilities to enhance information sharing abilities.
In September 2018 two permanent Crime Reduction Teams were placed in Prince Albert and North Battleford.
Takes a community to get people out of gangs
It really isn’t that difficult to get people out of gangs, said Tu’Inkuafe, adding it boils down to money and resources.
Instead of putting more money into enforcement the province needs to address social issues at the root cause. Tu’Inkuafe said there needs to be more supports in place for inmates when they are released from prison. He said if an inmate wants to leave a gang after getting out of prison, often he can’t leave the lifestyle because of a lack of supports and he reverts back to criminal behaviour to survive.
“If they can’t find a place to live or find a job, where do they live and how do they support themselves?” he said adding, “We have to look at the big picture. Yes, we want them to be accountable, but it’s not that easy.”
Something as simple as making sure an inmate has proper identification when incarcerated would be a start, because often inmates coming out of prison don’t have any ID.
“Now they want to be a responsible citizen, but they need a SIN card first. But before they can get a SIN card they need a birth certificate. If he doesn’t have any money who is paying for it? Even if he might have money for a birth certificate he’s still waiting three to four weeks for the ID.”
Tu’Inkuafe said the prison system should help inmates obtain ID while they’re incarcerated.
Steckler said the Ministry of Corrections and Policing begins reintegration planning at admission with sentenced offenders.
“Case managers in corrections facilitate access to community services in preparation for release,” she said. “For example, offenders can access phones without charge to call social services or community-based organizations that support reintegration.”
Helping youth in the school system
When it comes to the youth, suspending them from school doesn’t help because they are no longer trackable, said Tu’Inkuafe. And some youth don’t have any stability because their families constantly move, which affects their academic performance. This causes the student to become frustrated in school and he/she often ends up dropping out.
To help, investing resources to address this issue would be a start.
“Why not invest money (in schools) so we can say to a young person, ‘we know you are bright, let’s do an educational assessment so we can place you in the right place and you won’t be frustrated.’”
Steckler said the Ministry of Education wants all students to succeed and encourages school divisions to provide welcoming, inclusive environments that support student learning.
“Safety in our school communities is a shared responsibility,” she said. “The ministry works with other government partners on initiatives related to schools that address social and systemic issues such as bullying prevention and mental health and addictions awareness. Additionally, school divisions work in partnership with various community and policing agencies in an effort to support student achievement.”
Business community has a role
The business community also has a role to play, said Tu’Inkuafe.
Often, a person just arrested or released, has numerous court appearances, which can jeopardize his employment.
“If a guy gets released into the community and has to go to court on Tuesday, he has to approach his boss and ask for that day off. Then court is adjourned and he has to ask his boss to take Thursday off. If a guy isn’t getting paid for those days he has to make a decision, ‘do I miss work or do I miss court and pay rent?’”
Add to that, having to miss work for meetings with his lawyer and probation officer.
“He has to say ‘oh, hey, can I get those times off too?”
Displaced youth also face their own employment challenges.
Tu’Inkuafe said he has met many 18- and 19-year-olds who have limited, or no job experience, and haven’t gained the necessary skills to communicate effectively with an employer.
For instance, if they miss a bus and will be late they often don’t know they should call their boss.
“Soft skills like these, people take for granted, but a lot don’t know that and they just need someone understanding to say ‘these are the rules of employment.’”
Personal issues also create challenges, said Tu’Inkuafe.
“There are lots of people that want to leave gangs, but these are the circumstances they have to overcome and some do it better than others.”
Providing the right support system is critical to help people out of gangs.
“If we provide community support more people would leave gangs,” said Tu’Inkuafe.
Tu’Inkuafe said getting to treatment can be a challenge.
“If the province opens 11 new beds in Indian Head, because we have no bus system, how do I get that person there? You can open 400 beds in Indian Head, but what good is that if my clients can’t access them because we don’t have the means to pay for transportation?”
Steckler said treatment beds are located in a variety of locations across the province.
“Frontline addiction counsellors and other referral agencies often assist individuals in planning for transportation needs including getting to residential treatment centres.”
Once the person is out of rehab he needs support such as rides getting to follow up appointments.
Sober living places also need to be created, said Tu’Inkuafe.
“They get out clean and feel good about themselves, but, unfortunately, they are going back to the same environment.”
For the addict to remain sober he needs a safe living space, a job, basic needs met, a good support system and problem-solving skills to deal with life’s unknown.
“People are struggling to find a safe place to live, that’s where we should invest money, not just more enforcement,” said Tu’Inkuafe. “At least dollar for dollar have prevention in there.”
And yet there’s hope
Tu’Inkuafe said in spite of all the obstacles he sees gang members face as they try to leave the lifestyle, many are committed and determined.
“They know they have to climb Mount Everest 10 times, but they are willing to climb,” said Tu’Inkuafe. “That is amazing. They say ‘I know it’s going to be a struggle but I’m committed.’”
And what gives them the strength and motivation to leave?
“A lot of different things,” said Tu’Inkuafe who has been working with gang members for about 20 years.
“If they have kids they want to be a better parent than what they had growing up. If it’s a young person and they have siblings they want to be a good role model for their siblings.
“When they get healthier I haven’t met one gang member who hasn’t wanted to give back to the community they say they ‘took so much from.’ They all want to give back.”
Lisa Joy, Local Journalism Initiative Reporter, The Battlefords Regional News-Optimist