Finding a sense of family, after years in foster homes, a street gang and prison
"The guys I grew up with are either dead or in jail... I'm the only one out here."
Darcy Belanger has tried to find a sense of family in some dark places — foster homes, a street gang, prison — but he has finally found it, at least in part, at Winnipeg's Circle of Life Thunderbird House.
As a kid growing up in Winnipeg, Darcy Belanger bounced from foster home to foster home. He never felt connected to his birth family.
Now the 30-year-old is on a different track with his life. But it hasn't been easy. His mom was 15 when he was born. Dependent on drugs and alcohol, she couldn't care for her six children.
"That was probably the hardest time of my life," he said. "I grew up with a lot of abuse, negligence and poverty."
"I was always told I was an outsider. I never belonged," he explained. "I was used to being an outcast and always being on my own."
So he looked for acceptance, and found it with the Indian Posse, one of Canada's largest street gangs.
"I was 11 years old," he recalled. "I was living in [Winnipeg's] North End, skipping school, hanging out with the older guys. I felt like I belonged."
"I really wanted to prove myself and show myself," he said. "I didn't care about jewellery or money. I liked that emotional connection because I never had it before."
Belanger became fully immersed in gang life, rising through the ranks to become a senior "full patch" member. As his involvement grew, so did his criminal activity. He was eventually convicted of second-degree murder for killing a member of a rival gang, and went to prison for eight years.
He was released, and within eight months he was back in prison on another charge. Back behind bars, Belanger began to question his life in the gang.
"My girlfriend at the time was pregnant with our daughter," he recalled. "I was like, 'Man, I have to really, really motivate myself to change."
Belanger made the risky decision to leave the gang that had been his chosen family for over 15 years.
"The gang I was with, they pretty much ran the whole prison," he said. "I had to take a big leap and say to myself, 'I can't do this no more. I'm done.'"
Belanger began taking advantage of all the resources available to him. He finished high school. He got his learner's license. He got his first job, and his first paycheque — all while in prison.
"Now that I'm out, the guys that I grew up with are either dead or in jail," he explained. "I'm the only one out here."
Belanger has been out of prison for a year now.
One of the people who's helping him transition out of gang life is Mitch Bourbonniere, Program Director with OPK - Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatwin. One of the programs Bourbonniere runs is aimed at helping former gang members turn their life around.
Belanger frequently shows up at Circle of Life Thunderbird House to volunteer and help Mitch any way he can.
"Mitch looks like a real tough dude, but he's a big teddy bear," he said. "I love his energy. He is very genuine."
Belanger is not in contact with his biological family. He's severed ties with his gang family. Now his family is his two-year-old daughter as well as Bourbonniere and others he works with at OPK.
"I never had a father figure in my life, right? So there's definitely that type of vibe there. I do look up to Mitch tremendously," he said.
One of Belanger's proudest moments took place recently.
"[Mitch] gave me a van for a while," he explained. "He let me use his own personal truck — just showing me the rules of the road. I got [my license] on my first try. I was very happy."
"Every time something good happens I let him know. He's very supportive."
"I would do anything for Darcy," added Bourbonniere. "We're all uncles and nephews to each other here. While he's like a nephew to me, he's also an uncle — with what he has done and will continue to do for the younger guys."
These days, Belanger is finishing up a college course in business and digital marketing. He also feels drawn to working with kids. His is a specific goal — to help them turn away from the gang life.