The Sunday Magazine

Life after gangs: hope, resilience and redemption

A new book by Winnipeg writer Anne Mahon offers intimate personal profiles of eight men and one woman, all of whom are former gang members.
Chris Courchene (left) is one of the former gang members profiled in a new book by Anne Mahon (right). (Keith Levit)

Chris Courchene is harsh when he describes the man he once was: "Aboriginal, coming from the ghetto, ex-con, ex-gangster from the north side, good for nothing, just straight from the gutter, straight from the dirt".

He lives in Winnipeg, which has been described as Canada's  "Aboriginal street gang capital." There are said to be 1,500 active gang members in 30 different gangs there.

Getting into gangs is the easy part, getting out nearly impossible. Chris did it though, and he is one of nine ex-gang members profiled in the new book Redemption: Stories of Hope, Resilience and Life after Gangs, written by Anne Mahon.

The Winnipeg writer knew very little about the realities of gangs and the gang lifestyle before her book project. What she found was a laundry list of rejection, neglect, violence, addiction and low self-esteem. But she also found rays of hope.

Her latest book was inspired by the work of Father Greg Boyle, a Jesuit priest who's been working with ex-gang members for more than thirty years.

Father Greg Boyle, founder of LA's Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention and rehab program in the world. (Eric Politzer Photography)
Father Greg's parish is in East Los Angeles, one of the city's poorest and most gang-riddled neighbourhoods. In 1988, he founded Homeboy Industries, the largest gang intervention and rehab program in the world.

He says sending people to jail is like treating a cough when the real problem is lung cancer. Until we stop being punitive and begin seeing gang members as more than the worst thing they've done, Father Greg adds, we don't stand a chance of helping them get free of violent lives.

Guest host Gillian Findlay talks to Anne Mahon, Chris Courchene and Father Greg Boyle about the realities of starting over.

Click 'listen' above to hear the full interview.

Anne Mahon is donating the proceeds from her book to GAIN — Gang Action Interagency Network — to support those who want to leave gangs.