Wednesday, March 17, 2010
Violence reaches 'epidemic levels'
Aboriginal gangs are proliferating across Canada as criminal organizations exploit the intense poverty and squalid conditions that many First Nations youth live in, says a top officer with the RCMP's aboriginal police division.
The gangs' stock-in-trade includes drug distribution, prostitution and theft, and they're only growing more sophisticated, said the RCMP.
"The gangs are brought on by poverty," said RCMP Sgt. Merle Carpenter, who holds the aboriginal gangs file with the National Aboriginal Policing Services.
"They intimidate by violence and these aboriginal youth are just wanting to belong to somebody."
While Winnipeg, with its large aboriginal population, is still the epicentre for native gangs, outfits like the Indian Posse, the Manitoba Warriors and the Native Syndicate have spread from coast to coast and into the Far North.
"They are certainly increasing in numbers and becoming more sophisticated in how they do business," said Carpenter, who is a member of the Inuvialuit First Nation in the Western Arctic.
The gangs are growing through the country's network of jails, which are acting as hothouses for recruitment and learning the tricks of the trade.
If you're not a member of a gang when you go to jail, police officials in Manitoba say, you will be when you come out. Many prisoners simply cannot survive jail life without the protection of a gang.
Last week, an aboriginal policy conference in Ottawa heard that aboriginal youth membership in gangs could double in the next 10 years.
Mark Totten, a sociologist and expert on Canadian street gangs, released a study that found aboriginal gang violence has reached "epidemic levels" in many communities.
Totten said female aboriginals are often traded among gang members and, as part of their initiation, are made to have sex with numerous gang members at the same time.
Observers say the explosive growth can't be combated unless the federal government steps up and addresses the woeful conditions underlying the startling trend.
"It's so simple that it's hard to understand why nothing's happening," said Steve Koptie, an aboriginal social worker who spent several years working in the mental health field for 21 reserves in Ontario's northwest.
"It's all about education and employment. If we don't get youth educated and we don't get them... participating in the workforce we're going to continue to watch this deterioration."
Koptie notes there is vast mineral wealth in Canada's North, such as the Ring of Fire in Northern Ontario, which can provide jobs for many now-destitute aboriginals.
"The issue is how are we going to share the resources and how are we going to make education a priority," said Koptie, who notes schools on reserves get half the funding of schools off reserve.
"The federal government is responsible for education on reserve and they're fallen so far behind, they've dropped the ball majorly on this."
Calls to the federal Ministry of Indian and Northern Affairs for comment were not immediately returned.
Vancouver and the Lower Mainland, with its close proximity to the United States and its coastline, have become a major gateway for the importation of drugs in the last few years, said the RCMP.
But alarmingly, the native gangs are spreading into rural B.C. as well recently, including Vancouver Island, the B.C. Interior, Fort St. John in the northeast and Prince Rupert on the northwest coast.
Smaller gangs are springing up there, with names like Red Alert, Cree Boys, Native Blood and Native Posse.
They are now in all corners of the province, said Supt. Dan Malo, the RCMP's officer in charge of the Combined Forces Gang Task Force in B.C.
"In all the locations and corners of this province, there are people who use drugs," said Malo.
"Where there's a consumer base there'll always be a seller, and that's where some of our native gangs seize the opportunity."
Aboriginal gangs are easily migrating eastward from Winnipeg into northwestern Ontario as well, often using relatives and friends as drug and alcohol couriers into even the most remote fly-in reserves, via plane or winter ice-roads.
"In one of the northern communities I was in, I met a young man with rope burns on his neck, he was 17 years old, and a gang member from Winnipeg had been in the community and he gave him one week to come up with $1,500," said Koptie.
The young man decided he was going to kill himself because he couldn't come up with the money, he said.
"This is happening across the country."
Now, in any given neighbourhood in Winnipeg, for instance, all the gangs will be represented, said Mitch Bourbonniere, a Métis and veteran social worker who has spent decades pulling aboriginal kids out of gangs in Winnipeg.
"The higher-up guys who are smarter know not to make trouble for each other," he said.
"They've all learned to kind of co-exist because they all know they're all in it for the same reason, and that is to make money."
First of all, I think its dangerous that this article is singling out only "aboriginal gangs", perpetuating the stereotype of Aboriginals and crime, and not identifying the fact that all ethnic groups can be involved in gangs.
I completely agree with the propositions that this article lists for change, however. Education and Employment and Poverty are the main reasons why youth join gangs. Communities need more variety of recreational activities, community centres, improved education and an emphasis on the importance of education among Aboriginals, affordable housing, and more employment for youths. Youths need to learn work skills and be provided with more resources for where youth employment is available and how to apply, etc.