Ottawa funds gang reduction strategy in Maskwacis

A gang reduction initiative modelled after one in Chicago that reduced shootings in that city’s most violent neighbourhood by nearly 70 per cent in its first year is coming to Maskwacis.

A gang reduction initiative modelled after one in Chicago that reduced shootings in that city’s most violent neighbourhood by nearly 70 per cent in its first year is coming to Maskwacis.

On Monday, Wetaskiwin MP Blaine Calkins announced $2.9 million for the community, formerly known as Hobbema, to implement the crime prevention program. The funding over five years comes from Public Safety Canada’s Youth Gang Prevention Fund.

A main part of the successful program in Chicago sees former gang members engaging with youth who may already be involved in gangs to help mitigate conflict before it turns violent. Along with employing “violence interrupters” in the streets to resolve conflicts peacefully, Chicago’s CeaseFire program focuses on behavioural change of high-risk individuals and changing community norms.

Samson Cree Nation band Coun. Kirk Buffalo has already seen some change in community norms stemming from citizens being fed up with the gang violence that has plagued the four First Nations — Ermineskin, Louis Bull, and Montana are the others — that make up Maskwacis. Gang activity has declined, he said, and after the last violent incident community members stepped up to assist RCMP to catch the perpetrator.

“We understand and know we do have a problem of people that have been misguided,” said Buffalo.

“It’s becoming friends and understanding who they are. Once that happens, we won’t be in the news. We can’t change things in five years, but we can definitely make choices and learn from what’s happened in the past to make tomorrow a brighter future,” said Buffalo.

The community of about 12,500 has been beset by violent gang activity in recent years, highlighted by the 2011 shooting death of a five-year-old sleeping in bed by youth gang members. RCMP recently reported that the number of gangs operating in the community had fallen from 13 to five, with 150 to 180 active members, down from 300.

The program at Maskwacis will get underway in the coming months and is being run by the Samson Cree Nation. Called the Maskwacis Conflict Resolution Program: Maskwacis Youth Initiative, it is intended primarily for approximately 600 aboriginal youth aged 14 to 25 who are either involved in gangs or at risk of getting involved in the violent lifestyle.

Saying “the answers lie from within,” Buffalo wants to see people on-reserve facilitating the program and getting young people to talk. He said he hopes collaborative efforts like talking and justice circles will be part of the program, along with traditional ceremonies.

“To me that’s where all the healing begins. That’s where all the connections begin, once you direct the youth to their cultural side, to who they are. The beauty of the ceremonies help develop an individual,” said Buffalo.

Calkins said the community has taken steps in the past few years to reduce the presence of gangs, from removing graffiti and gang signs to knocking down derelict buildings and implementing a bylaw to evict troublesome residents from the community. This funding, he said, can help further pressure gangs through giving at-risk youth alternatives.

“Some of the program facilitators will be former gang members and they’ll be facilitating trust with these at-risk youth and facilitating them away from the gangs … whether they need to further their education and go back to school, whether they need counselling, whether they need some skills training, whatever they might need to get them pointed in the right direction,” he said.

In 2012, the province provided funding for two programs in the community through its Gang Reduction Network. One program helps people recover from grief, trauma and abuse; the other is an intervention program to help children resist gang recruitment.

More than half of the population in Maskwacis is under the age of 18.

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