Sask. one step closer to long-awaited provincial gang strategy

For the first time in Canada, a not-for-profit organization is attempting to create a provincial gang strategy, instead of law enforcement.

Recommendations should be delivered to the provincial government by the end of summer 2018

Alex Muñoz is the executive director of Str8 Up. He says lived experience of former gang members is crucial to the development of a provincial strategy. (Bridget Yard/CBC)

For the first time in Canada, a not-for-profit organization is attempting to create a provincial gang strategy, instead of law enforcement.

That might be why it's taking so long for Saskatchewan to create a plan, but Str8 Up and its partners are committed to keeping the movement grassroots.

"It cannot come from the top down, it cannot come from researchers. It can't come from me as executive director," said Alex Muñoz, who heads Str8 Up.

"It's gotta come from that lived experience voice, and those are the recommendations we need to follow." 

Building jails is not the answer. Getting people help so they can get off their addiction is a solution.- Mark Arcand, Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief

The organization has been active informally for 20 years, and formally for five. The small group of staff offers outreach services and programming for current and former gang members.

Str8 Up has worked with more than 400 people over the years. Twelve individuals who have exited the gang lifestyle are contributing to the forum, together with more than 80 other organizations from across the province.

Prevention, intervention key

Muñoz doesn't have clear recommendations yet, but he and Str8 Up have a clear vision of what will not be included in their strategy.

"For the longest time it's always been around areas of suppression and enforcement, or incarceration for a simple crime, or because they breach," he said.

"That's what the whole forum is about, developing those strategic methods so we use more prevention and we use more intervention so we don't have to continually go back and use the courts and the judges and the POs."

Part of the all-important "prevention" piece is recognizing the effects of intergenerational trauma, especially for young Indigenous people.

Colonization, residential schools and the Sixties Scoop are all part of the history many Indigenous gang members carry.

Preventative action also centres heavily on the voices of former gang members.

"As our members begin to heal they want their voices heard. As part of that they're continuously moving towards telling their story, making youth understand the dangers of being gang-involved."

Intervention will require NGOs, businesses, and other community members to become involved.

'It's a long time overdue'

Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand is on board with Str8 Up's approach, and has been following the forum, but he believes time is of the essence.

"We've had the most children in care, our men incarcerated, our women incarcerated, we have high numbers," he says of the province's Indigenous population.

"It's a long time overdue."
Saskatoon Tribal Council Chief Mark Arcand is on board with the strategy, but says time is of the essence. (CBC News)

He also acknowledges the low graduation rate of Indigenous youth.

"We're not graduating enough students to really make a difference in this province and this country."

Still, he says the forum is on the right track, and believes "it's a good time for reconciliation."

Drugs, alcohol, and addiction are not only problems in the cities, but in First Nations communities, as well.

Arcand believes that targeting intergenerational trauma will yield best results. The current system simply isn't working, he says.

"When we look at economics, building jails is not the answer. Getting people help so they can get off their addiction is a solution," he said.