Understanding gang life is the key to helping members leave it

News | Gregory Beatty

Last year around this time, University of Saskatchewan academic Robert Henry was awarded a $120,000 Canada Research Chair in Indigenous Justice and Wellbeing by the Social Sciences and Humanities Research Council. Born in Prince Albert of Métis ancestry, Henry is internationally known for his research into Indigenous street gangs and lifestyles.

The grant covers five years, and early on Henry is working with STR8 UP in Saskatoon and Ogijiita Pimatisiwin Kinamatwin (OPK) in Winnipeg to establish a community advisory committee composed of people with gang experience. As research progresses, he intends to connect with community agencies in Regina, Calgary, Edmonton and Thunder Bay to share information and develop policies to improve justice and community well-being.

As the first anniversary of Henry’s appointment neared, we reached out for a telephone interview.

Hi Robert, how has the first year gone?

One thing that’s helped is I have an individual who I’ve built a relationship with since 2017, and he was the one who introduced me to the four guys in Winnipeg. It was the same with Str8up. It took me years to build the trust, so now it’s an open conversation where we can discuss and set up different things.

To do a research program like this, you need to build relationships, you can’t rush into it. You have to understand who the people in the organization are, their lived realities, especially connected to the street, and the day-to-day changes that happen for them. You’re not just there for a couple of days, it needs to be a long-term partnership.

In media reports you’ve talked about misconceptions around street gangs based on American depictions.

When we look at the literature, a lot of people create a mythology that individuals in gangs lack morality. What I argue is it’s more of a survivance strategy, where they’re surviving, resisting and resurging. That way, we can begin to look at how individuals become engaged in a street gang, and how that may be in resistance to erasure or not being able to support themselves. Then there can be a resurgence, where people try to redefine themselves outside their gang persona.

You’ve talked too about gang life being part of a broader street lifestyle.

Gang life is the top echelon. But there’s a lot of fluidity, where individuals may be connected to the street, but not involved in gang life. But it’s all connected, because there is an underground economy that individuals [use] to get their basic needs met.

I refer to it as the untaxed economy, where you have goods and services transferring between people without any taxes going to the government. You have things like illegal drug sales, the transfer of stolen goods and other property, and sex work. There’s also a protection racket, where there are independent drug dealers, and the gangs tax them to sell in an area. It varies community to community, and very much depends on what’s around and what people know. And it can change from day-to-day, depending on what’s available.

How do people typically become engaged in street gangs?

At a very young age, you start watching individuals and how they interact with each other. How do they get power, control and respect in certain spaces. At the same time, they may want something like a new iPod, a shirt, or whatever, but they don’t have the dollars to buy it. Now they start learning from others how to earn money through work. They start doing things like small B&Es. These individuals tend to form cliques where they are involved in the street economy, but they are not formally involved with a gang yet. But the gangs are watching to see who can make it to the next level.

There is a misconception that gangs want everybody. The reality is they don’t. What they need are individuals who fit a specific model of what they want to represent. It’s like a sports team. You only have so many positions or spots available, so you want people who are tough, not afraid, willing to go that extra mile. You might see someone who is big and looks tough, but when things start happening, they might be the first to run. You don’t want individuals who are doing needle dope, because it’s known to be dirty on the streets. You want to show your gang is above that.

I imagine you want people who will follow orders too, and not charge off on their own.

If you are part of the underground economy, you don’t want excess violence in your community because that brings more police officers, scrutiny and surveillance, which makes it harder to do business. So random violence isn’t as big as it’s put out to be. It’s still out there, but it’s more of a structured violence where, if someone comes after me, I have to calculate if it’s worthwhile to try to get revenge or get my power back. Or is it more where you decide to wait. If I have a higher up who tells me not to do something, I need to follow that, because if I don’t, there might be bigger things in play that [I’m] not aware of.

Sticking with your survivance model, there are also people who are resurging and want to exit gang life.

When you get into gang life, you start out as ‘Greg’, then you’re given your street name, so you create this whole new persona. Then at some point Greg decides ‘I can’t do this anymore because of the violence and trauma and everything else.’ Greg needs to redefine who he is on the other side of this. But to do that, he needs the right supports, and a lot of that revolves around housing, mental health, addictions, trauma, economic opportunities, redefining this hyper street masculinity into a more positive model, and so forth.

It can even involve something as basic as tattoo removal?

A lot of individuals will get tattoos that identify them as gang members. But if they do leave the gang, it can be difficult to get a job. Removing the tattoos is a good first step to show you are removing yourself from that lifestyle. With a lot of gangs, there are ways to get out. But afterwards, it’s violence from rival gangs that can be a big concern — because now you no longer have a group behind you to protect you. So it’s not just getting out of your gang, it’s getting out of the whole lifestyle where you’ve built this history with others who you may have done something to in the past. How do you make amends for that?

How many gangs operate in Saskatoon and Regina?

It depends on where you are looking, and what they are doing. Usually, the gangs are based in lower socio-economic neighbourhoods, and then may expand into other neighbourhoods. But really, they are all over the city. There’s this street code, so you look at tagging to show control of a territory. When it comes to higher ups in other neighbourhoods, it’s a bit different. They’re not as connected to the street anymore, but they are connected to the larger dollars.

There’s a network between different prairie cities, too. It’s not like with the Hell’s Angels, where they are based in a certain area with a clubhouse. This is more rhizomatic, where each community has its own base, but they’re connected through family or prison/child welfare ties. We have to recognize that, and work with it. If you get rid of the Native Syndicate in Regina, there’s still the Native Syndicate in other cities.

The network isn’t limited to cities, either.

Usually it starts in an urban centre, and then branches out to smaller communities. There has always been an underground economy, but before you had groups like Native Syndicate, Indian Posse, the Warriors and the Outlaws there were families that were doing the same thing. Then they began to join together under one banner, and from that, the creation of gang culture.

What do you hope to accomplish with your research?

What I’d like to do is shift the way we work with individuals who may be at risk of becoming involved in a gang and those who are trying to get out. How do we make sure we have the proper programs, while also ensuring we aren’t creating the spaces we’re actually trying to move people away from. Historically, people who have lived that lifestyle have been ignored so it’s fallen to police and correctional officers, as well as social workers, to talk about.

If we really want to address this issue, we need to look at prevention and intervention rather than a punitive approach. All that does is [entrench] gang culture. We can’t just continuously [use] police and prisons to deal with social issues related to mental health, addictions and lack of social resources in communities. If we don’t involve individuals who experience those issues daily, the policies we put in place will probably miss the basic stuff they are trying to deal with. They won’t be effective. ■