'It's becoming part of their identity,' warns Regina anti-gang crusader

Regina’s Shawna Oochoo is reaching out to the community for help in setting up an eight-week program to help people escape from violent street gangs.

Shawna Oochoo wants to help gang members break free

Shawna Oochoo is the co-founder and president of Regina's White Pony Lodge. She wants to set-up a program to help gang members leave that lifestyle behind. (Adam Hunter /CBC)

Regina's Shawna Oochoo is reaching out to the community for help in setting up an eight-week program to help people escape from violent street gangs.

That culture is now becoming part of who they are.- Shawna Oochoo

Oochoo knows first-hand how tough it can be to walk away. She was once the partner of a high-ranking gang leader. Oochoo's status with the gang helped her escape.

"I was able to leave that gang without being hurt or harmed."

But that's the exception, not the rule, she says.

3rd and 4th-generation gang members

Oochoo believes that Regina is at a critical point because there are more gangs every day, busily recruiting young children — some as young as seven or eight years old. She warns that gang life in the city is now into its third and fourth generations.

"That culture is now becoming part of who they are — it's becoming part of their identity, so when you are trying to work with an individual to address these issues it's hard because it is part of their identity.… It's hard to break down a lot of those barriers," she said.

"All of this is preventable if the right supports are put in place."

That's what Oochoo and the White Pony Lodge — a community group she helped form aimed at reducing violence in Regina's North Central neighbourhood — are trying to do by bringing together community members, organizations that are able to offer support and all levels of government.

Risks in leaving gangs

It's not going to be easy. As evidence, Oochoo offered the example of two young men she recently tried to help escape from the grip of a violent gang.

"The two young men were harassed in the community. Their house was rushed," she said.

Gang members were literally rushing into the young men's home and beating up the boys, she said. The family eventually had to flee the community they were living in.

For Oochoo, the key to the program that she is trying to establish will be to consolidate aid organizations, wrapping gang members in support and "helping them find that self-love for themselves."

The first step is finding out if the community is ready to help. Oochoo will host public talks this weekend at the White Pony Lodge at 2901 Fifth Ave. in Regina.

The consultations are open to all and will run Saturday and Sunday from 1-4 p.m.

About the Author

Danny Kerslake

Danny Kerslake is an award-winning journalist who has worked in radio stations across Western Canada. In his career with CBC Saskatchewan, Danny has reported from every corner of the province and has lived and worked in Saskatoon, Regina and Prince Albert. Danny is a newsreader and digital AP for CBC Saskatoon.

With files from The Morning Edition