Gangs taking hold in more rural Sask. communities

People working to stop the spread of gangs in Saskatchewan say the criminal organizations are worming their way into a growing number of communities.

'They’re just taking over,' says Christine Derocher of Meadow Lake Tribal Council

Gangs that started in single communities are spreading into new parts of Saskatchewan, say some of the people working to stop them. (Alicia Bridges/CBC News)

Drive-by shootings. Eight-year-olds being "used" to do break-ins. School lockdowns. Squatters selling drugs from the home of a vulnerable elder.

These are the stories coming from small, rural Saskatchewan communities where gangs have taken root.

People trying to stop the gangs say the criminal organizations are worming their way into a growing number of communities.

"They recruit when they go to jail, they recruit when they go partying around, they recruit young kids," said Tara Waskewitch, a youth prevention worker at Onion Lake Native Justice.

"I was talking with one family and they're scared that their 11-year-old is in it."

Onion Lake Native Justice is one of 10 organizations that received $20,000 grants from the provincial government as part of a Gang Violence Reduction Strategy announced Wednesday.

Six of the organizations are based outside the major centres of Regina, Saskatoon and Prince Albert.

The elders have come to the leadership, they're really quite afraid and rightly so.- Christine Derocher, Meadow Lake Tribal Council 

Waskewitch said she has seen rapid growth in gang activity in the past two years, not just in Onion Lake but across the province.

She said the Westside Outlaws, whose origins are in Onion Lake, are gaining ground in Saskatchewan and into Alberta.

Onion Lake has banned some peoples from the community for up to five years, but Waskewitch said it is difficult to stop the spread of gang ties. Those who are banished, or simply pushed out by pressure from the community, often continue their criminal behaviour when they move into other communities, she said.

Christine Derocher is the senior director of programs and services at Meadow Lake Tribal Council.

She said in the past two years she has seen gang activity — and violence — becoming more prevalent in four of the MLTC's nine member nations: Flying Dust First Nation, Waterhen Lake First Nation, Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation and Ministikwan Lake Cree Nations.  

Squatting in elders' homes

Derocher said some are setting up shop in the homes of vulnerable elders who don't recognize the signs of criminal activity.

"They're selling drugs out of those homes, they're doing gang activity and they're just taking over," she said.

"The elders have come to the leadership, they're really quite afraid and rightly so. They're afraid, they feel vulnerable and used."  

Derocher said she plans to use the $20,000 grant, bumped up by funds from the tribal council, to run workshops in each of the nine communities to raise awareness about gang methods, prevention and intervention.

"It's hitting our communities really hard — our northern communities — which we didn't see before and it's possible that we just didn't know what to look for before," she said.

Gangs previously able to 'operate in the shadows' 

She said getting chiefs and councillors from the communities to endorse the tribal council's anti-gang work will help vulnerable people feel more protected if they want to speak up or name someone they think is involved in a gang.  

Derocher said that hasn't happened yet because the problem is relatively new.
Tara Waskewitch from Onion Lake Native Justice says gangs recruit new members in jail, then those people return to the community and recruit more. (Shutterstock)

Sgt. Ryan How is the detachment commander at Loon Lake RCMP, near Makwa Sahgaiehcan First Nation.

He said naming the Westside Outlaws gang and getting the community to shun the behaviour of its members had helped slow recruitment in the area.   

"If you let them operate in the shadows, which was happening, they're able to recruit and do their own thing," said How.

"If the community will shine light on them and stand up for themselves it seems like they will move on and find other places to do their thing."

Sgt. How said recruitment has slowed down since his community started taking that approach to the gangs.

Family ties hold strong

Gangs are more established in the member nations of the File Hill Qu'Appelle Tribal Council, which also received a $20,000 grant.

Bev Poitras, the director of restorative justice for the council, said criminal groups like the Indian Posse and Native Syndicate Killers started in that area.

She said her organization tries to connect young members to resources they need to escape gang life, but that family connections often draw those people back into the criminal lifestyle.

"Our gangs that we have here, many of them are family made, they have an uncle or a cousin and then their family start coming in and so they're second generation and third generation gang members," she said.

"It's difficult, right? How do you break up a family, if you are trying to break up a gang?"

Poitras said drive-by shootings and home invasions have spread fear in her community and that gangs have also contributed to the prevalence of crystal meth.

She said she expects the $20,000 her group received from the province to go toward research.

"How can we work with those families as an entity instead of just trying to work with one?" said Poitras.

"How do you keep them as whole and heal the whole family?"

$20K grants criticized

In Onion Lake, Waskewitch plans to put the money towards counselling and support to help people who want to leave gangs or those who are vulnerable to being recruited.

"The only way that you can defeat it or anything like that is if you actually work with them and not telling them what to do," said Waskewitch.  

Waskewitch also works with the Saskatoon-based group Str8 Up — which helps support people who want to leave gangs — to develop strategies to use in Onion Lake.

Str8 Up last week criticized the province for not offering larger grants from a $11.9 million pot it received from the federal government for addressing gang and gun violence. In collaboration with a University of Calgary professor, the group developed a set of guidelines and recommendations for the provincial strategy based on consultations it held across Saskatchewan.

Str8 Up worker Shane Partridge said last week he was disappointed to hear that the latest round of grants was being distributed in increments of $20,000.

"I see that as a huge waste of taxpayer dollars because all these communities are going to get these small little chunks of money and they aren't going to be able to do anything with it," said Partridge, who worked on the strategy.

Provincial Policing and Corrections Minister Christine Tell responded by saying that Str8 Up would have an opportunity to apply for more funding at a later date.

With files from CBC's The Afternoon Edition