Toddler shooting followed 3 weeks of violence on reserve

Native leaders and police struggled to cope with the violence that has gripped their central Alberta reserve, two days after a toddler was hit by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting.

Two teenagers charged with aggravated assault and firearms-related offences

Native leaders and police were struggling Tuesday to cope with the rash of violence that has gripped their central Alberta reserve in recent weeks, leaving a toddler with critical injuries.

Twenty-three-month-old Asia Saddleback was shot Sunday night by a stray bullet during a drive-by shooting. The bullet tore through the wall of her house, hitting her in the liver and spine as she ate dinner with her family.

Twenty-three-month-old Asia Saddleback remains in critical but stable condition. ((Family photo))

On Tuesday, the child was in critical but stable condition in an intensive care unit in Edmonton, RCMP Cpl. Darren Bruno told CBC News. He said she is expected to recover.

Christopher Crane, 18, and a 15-year-old have been arrested and charged with aggravated assault and firearms-related offences, Bruno said.

Crane appeared briefly in court on Tuesday before being remanded into custody. The 15-year-old remained in custody and is scheduled to appear for a bail hearing on Wednesday.

A 19-year-old was also arrested, but charged in relation to a different incident.

13 gangs battling over drug trade: RCMP

Bruno said the drive-by shooting on the Samson Cree Nation in Hobbema, about 100 kilometres south of Edmonton, is roughly the 12th gun-related incident in the past three weeks in the community of 12,000.

The violence relates to acts of revenge and retaliation as rival gangs battle each other for control of the illegal drug trade in the community, primarily revolving around crack cocaine, Bruno said.

He said there are 13 gangs on the reserve, drawing members from the community who are as young as 12.

Bruno said this is not the first time gang violence has erupted in the community — two years ago there were four or five drive-by shootings a night, several of them nearly striking homes.

"It's a real problem. We've got many in the community that are fearful, that live in fear," Bruno said.

The chief of the community used the band's radio station on Tuesday to give details of the "state of crisis" he declared a day earlier.

Chief Marvin Yellowbird said all band council business that is not urgent will be put on hold while the band deals with the problem of local gang violence.

Yellowbird also appealed for additional resources from the federal and provincial governments, as well as the RCMP, to deal with the crisis.

Extra officers from nearby RCMP detachments will be deployed in the community for the next several months, the CBC's James Hees reported Tuesday.  

Strahl says he won't impose solution on reserve

Indian Affairs Minister Chuck Strahl said Tuesday that he won't impose a solution to the gang-related problems on the reserve. He called Sunday's shooting a "tragedy," especially since it involved a young child.

Asia Saddleback was critically wounded in a drive-by shooting Sunday while she ate supper in this house on the Samson First Nation. ((James Hees/CBC))

"We're willing to work with the First Nation and generally take direction from the First Nation and chief in council as to what they'd like to do for next steps," Strahl said in Ottawa.

"It's usually best if the direction comes from the community. We don't want to be prescriptive from the top."

Bruno said only about one per cent of the population is involved in gang activity, but it's difficult to crack down on them because some people aren't co-operating with police and refusing to provide information. Others are too afraid to come forward as witnesses.

Bruno said he hopes people realize they can come forward anonymously by calling Crime Stoppers.

"If they know and see and hear things, they should call us and let us know," he said. "You don't have to give up your identity."

Aunt says girl went white after shooting

The toddler was airlifted to an Edmonton hospital soon after the shooting, her aunt, Judy Applegarth, said Monday. Applegarth was at the house as the family fearfully waited for the ambulance to arrive.

"I picked up the little girl and she was already turning white," Applegarth said. "I kept telling, praying and telling her, 'Don't sleep, don't sleep.' "

She said people in the community are talking about leaving because of the violence, but she hopes they'll stay and speak out to police. She hopes they'll come forward with information about her niece's shooting and all the others.