At 31 years of age, Bobby Crane weighed the impact of a program that helped him learn to control his violent temper.

“I probably would have killed someone," Crane said.

“Or joined a gang. And ended up in jail for the rest of my life.”

Crane learned how to cope with his anger through techniques taught in SNAP, which stands for Stop Now And Plan.

Sitting in Tim Horton's in his hometown of Red Deer, Alta., Bobby Crane remembered how he went from zero to 100 when he was a six-year-old student in Toronto.

Life had been tough up to that point for the now-married father of two, who traces his Ojibway roots to northern Ontario.

' I asked the teacher for a new pencil, sharpened it, then I quietly walked up to the bully and stabbed him in one fast shot in the shoulder.' - Bobby Crane

Raised by a single father who worked hard and drank hard, Crane saw his mother only occasionally. He was mostly left on his own at home.

“I was like a little man: I lived the life of someone older than me, and I didn’t like being told what to do.”

At elementary school one day, Crane decided he’d “had enough” of a boy who taunted and punched him.

“So I asked the teacher for a new pencil, sharpened it, then I quietly walked up to the bully and stabbed him in one fast shot in the shoulder.”

At age 12, after a confrontation with a principal, he ran through a steel-frame door knocking it off its hinges.

Crane was moved into a class with kids who had similar behavioural issues, and also into the anger management program called SNAP.

Turning his life around with SNAP

Resistant at first, Crane slowly felt the staff’s patient, positive reinforcement pay off.

“I began to open up.”

In weekly sessions, SNAP staff use role playing to show how better to handle tough situations. Children are verbally reinforced, and a prize box is used to reward attendance and the completion of home practice assignments.

Bobby Crane

Into his teens, Crane stayed involved with SNAP, eventually becoming the first leader in training, a SNAP initiative that teaches leadership skills to select participants. (Wawmeesh G. Hamilton)

The program serves children aged six to 12 who are experiencing severe behavioural problems. That age range is ideal for shaping self-control and problem-solving skills, said Leena Augimeri , a director at  Toronto’s Child Development Institute, which developed SNAP in 1985.

The program uses a cognitive behavioural model that teaches children how to handle difficult emotions and recognize when their behaviour is problematic, and replace them with more positive behaviours.

“It basically teaches children to stop and think before they lash out,” said Augimeri. “They learn to solve problems when they are small, before they grow bigger.”

SNAP also hosts summer camps, which had an indelible effect on Crane.

“SNAP was reinforced all the time…. But at camp, we were allowed to be just kids for eight hours and I can't tell you how much that meant to me.” By Grade 8: “You know how some kids get trophies for something and they’re proud of them?” he said. “Well, not being violent was like a trophy to me and it made me feel just as proud.”

Adapting SNAP for indigenous communities

In Quebec, the Justice and Correctional Services Department of the Cree Regional Authority (CRA) has run SNAP programs in Waswanipi and Mistissini, two of nine Cree communities in the CRA jurisdiction, according to Said Nicholls:

“We wanted to show this can work in a small community that has limited resources,” said Don Nicholls, director of justice and correctional services for the CRA.

To date, the program has graduated more than 100 children and 40 parents.

'The kids have good coping skills now. There’s a strong likelihood now that we won’t see them later.' -  Don Nicholls, Justice and Correctional Services, Cree Regional Authority

The CRA modified SNAP to make it fit Cree culture, people and values rather than vice versa. After consultation with elders, the program was renamed “Mamtunaata,” a Cree word meaning “think before you do something.”

The program translated its lessons into Cree, spoken fluently by most residents, including children. And it melded culture and traditions into the curriculum.

“When we first started we wanted to reach kids early in their lives so we didn’t have to deal with them later, once they were into the criminal justice system,” Nicholls said. “The kids have good coping skills now. There’s a strong likelihood now that we won’t see them later.”

Crane is glad to be alive

Back in Red Deer, Bobby Crane peered out the doughnut shop’s window, pondering his life since taking SNAP.

“I buried some friends I was walking down the same dark path with,” he said. “I would have been buried right beside them a long time ago.”

'It’s important for me to give back because I got so much out of it' - Bobby Crane

Into his teens, Crane stayed involved with SNAP, eventually becoming the first leader in training, a SNAP initiative that teaches leadership skills to select participants.

Years later, having moved halfway across the country, he still speaks to communities on behalf of SNAP.

“It’s important for me to give back because I got so much out of it,” he says. “I want to share my story as widely as possible because, unless you tell your story, no one will ever know.”

This story was produced in partnership with Journalists for Human Rights. It is part of a JHR series, called Leading Together, that profiles innovative experiments in Aboriginal youth empowerment.