By Graham Duggan

The CBC Docs POV documentary Prison Pump follows Jose Alejandro Vivar, an ex-drug dealer, ex-gangster and ex-prisoner, trying to rebuild himself through his own fitness business, based on a prison-style workout.

At the age of 13, Vivar entered into a life of dealing drugs, eventually becoming a gangster and leader of the LA (Latino Americano) Boys gang and a kingpin in Toronto’s criminal underground.

Stats on youth gangs in Canada

According to the Canadian Police Survey on Youth Gangs in Canada, there's an estimated 7,000 Canadian youth in 434 gangs, located throughout the country. Almost half of those members are under the age of 18.

For teens, recruitment into gangs is a complex issue, with every member joining for their own reasons.  Gangs can provide a sense of security or belonging for some, a social community for others or access to drugs and alcohol. And some may see it as the only means of making an income if they have few prospects in education and work.

Risk factors for teens

There are many risk factors that could make a young person more vulnerable to recruitment. According to Public Safety Canada, everything from negative life events (e.g. serious illness, relationship troubles), early problem behaviours (e.g. aggression), poor parental supervision, or an association with delinquent peers, can propel teens into criminal and gang activity.

Monica Gupta is the Chair of Friends of Christie Park and a mother of two teens. She lives in the area that Jose Vivar once claimed as his turf and, as a caseworker, Monica sees how vulnerable some teens are to the pull of gang life. “This older, cooler, guy starts paying attention to these kids, and the teen thinks they have a cool new friend and are making some money [by selling drugs], but they’re only a mule. For the gang, they now have a kid inside the school that can sell drugs for them — it opens up a whole new market for them.” 

Monica notices a substantial change in attitude in those that join gangs. “Suddenly, their swagger is different and they become more difficult to work with.”

Preventing youth from joining gangs

Public Safety Canada has studied youth gangs in Canada and has compiled a list of factors which may prevent gang involvement.

A positive home life and peer group are crucial for providing teens with love and acceptance. Beyond that, a teen’s focus on education and future prospects are important to provide them with a sense of confidence.

After school, summer and extracurricular programs also provide an outlet. “When teens are active and engaged, they have less free time. They have a job, or they volunteer, they do sports or go to music class. These types of activities work,” says Monica. Teens stay occupied and are less likely to get involved in gang activities. “If kids are loitering and have nothing to do, they can end up in trouble.”

While there is not a one-size-fits-all approach to youth gang prevention, there are several local groups and national resources that are trying to address the phenomenon.

Resources

Parents and teens can learn more through Kids Help Phone (1-800-668-6868) and speak with counsellors about avoiding youth gangs, or how to leave one.

Community-specific organizations offer ways to keep teens from entering gangs, focusing more on education — like Toronto’s Regent Park Community Health Centre or Yonge Street Mission, but there are resources available in each province and city. Additional information is available through Public Safety Canada or through the RCMP’s Youth Gangs Resources.