'No rags, no colours': Regina's gang exit programs create 'safe zones' for youth seeking fresh start

Young people trying to leave behind a lifestyle of drugs, crime and violence in North Central - a neighbourhood in Regina, which has the highest murder rate of any Canadian city - are getting help from two new gang exit programs.

Children as young as 9 joining gangs in North Central, the city's most crime-ridden neighbourhood

Former gang member Shawna Oochoo leads a pair of young people away from a life of gangs in Regina's North Central neighbourhood. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

Jay didn't know how to drive when he was first ordered to steal a car for his gang. 

But he was 12, anxious to earn his stripes and naively believed he would be off the hook after the heist. 

So he got behind the front wheel of a stranger's vehicle, turned on the ignition with keys left inside, put the shift into reverse and stomped on the gas as hard as he could.

"I kind of crashed the car in a fence outside," he said. "I was full of adrenaline."

Jay, as we are calling him to protect his identity, wasn't caught by police — but he wasn't freed of his gang's orders either. 

"I couldn't leave or else there would be consequences after that," Jay said.

"They were threatening to hurt my family."

Where young people can just 'be'

Jay spent the next few years doing his gang's dirty work in Regina's North Central — one of Canada's most crime-ridden neighbourhoods, in the city with Canada's highest murder rate — robbing people and making money for his leaders off drug deals.

He started hanging around with gang members when he was 9, after his father left. Now 17 years old with two kids of his own, Jay has been given a break from his members, who have largely split up into smaller gangs. 

But he still needs help to make sure he and his children stay away from his old habits, so he's turned to the Youth Street Gang Exit pilot program.

The program is an evening workshop where teens can drop in to strategize with former gang members on how to leave the streets and reconnect with their Indigenous culture. 
North Central has some of the highest rates of crime in Canada. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

"Within these walls, this is the safe zone," program founder Shawna Oochoo told the participants. 

"There are no rags. no colours, no gang stuff. This is where you guys can just be."

Oochoo's program launched in December around the same time ReGEN — the Regina Gang Exit Network — took off.

ReGEN is a mentorship with police support that pairs gang members with former gang members to create individualized programming, according to director Spurgeon Root.

Problem getting worse?

Both programs are grassroots, run by volunteers and in the early stages of development without a solid source of funding besides donations. Root and Oochoo said they hope they can fundraise to keep going because North Central's gang problem is getting worse. New gangs are forming all the time.

Root believes a high crime rate, socioeconomic injustice and family breakdown are all at play.

"I would suggest, if you have those three things, you're going to have gangs," Root said.

"Everyone needs their own way out."

The Youth Street Gang Exit Program offers young people evening workshops to get support and develop a strategy to leave gangs. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

During one of Oochoo's sessions, she burns dry sage and teaches two young people how to smudge.

"It helps to clean your body, your mind and your spirit," Ooochoo said as she fanned the smoke towards her face. 

"It gives you that protection so it's really good to smudge yourself."

Oochoo hosts her meetings in a nondescript room where she also runs a patrol group called White Pony Lodge on Fridays and Saturdays to clean up the neighbourhood.

She wants to make sure no one else goes through the same trauma she endured by being part of a gang. 

When Oochoo was 14, she said she was brought to a hotel room for her initiation and raped by three members.

"That's the reality for a lot of young girls," she said. 

"I remember just being in shock and disbelief because these men that I had taken as my bros had done this to me."

Leaving more difficult than joining

Oochoo said she couldn't call the police for fear of being labelled a snitch.

The abuse continued until she was in her twenties and was old enough to leave for her the sake of her children, she said.

Former gang member Shawna Oochoo is trying to inspire the next generation through the program. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)
​But for others, cutting ties can be even more challenging. 

"There are guys that have to move provinces away," Oochoo said. 

"Their families are left here to deal with the situation. The community is deeply affected."

Another program participant, who we're calling Kathy for her protection, had to rob people. She usually targeted sex workers. 

The Youth Street Gang Exit Program, along with the Regina Gang Exit Network (ReGEN), will need to find funding to continue. (Kirk Fraser/CBC)

"We'd have to go tell hookers to pay up," said Kathy, who joined a gang at 14.

"If they didn't pay up, we'd have to take all their shit."

Kathy was much younger than her victims, but she had power over them since she was stronger and had backup from her gang. She joined as a way of venting frustration after her boyfriend died.

'You cut yourself, you still bleed red'

"I just wanted to stop caring for my life," Kathy said. 

"Stopped going to school. Just give up."

Kathy and Jay are now finding a new meaning for life with the help of Oochoo.

"I feel really guilty now," Kathy said.

"But now I know I won't do that in the future because no one deserves to be hurt."

Oochoo said the needs in North Central are simple: Young people need a safe place to go, and people who they can trust and talk to. 

"I just don't want our population in North Central to just go completely madness with all these gangs," Jay said.

"We're all the same. We're all First Nation. You cut yourself, you still bleed red. You don't need another bandana colour just to prove yourself."

About the Author

Olivia Stefanovich

Reporter

Olivia Stefanovich is a network reporter for CBC News based in Toronto. She previously worked in Saskatchewan and northern Ontario. Connect with her on Twitter @CBCOlivia. Send story ideas to olivia.stefanovich@cbc.ca.