Few people would say that Daniel Richard Wolfe had an easy start to life.  Born into crushing poverty in The Pas, Manitoba, the Opaskawayak Cree grew up on the mean streets of Winnipeg’s North End, bouncing from foster home to foster home before getting his first criminal charge at the age of 12. By then he was already a drinker, using drugs and learning the violence of the street gangs that supplied them.

Too many young people in Canada, especially Native youth, grow up in that kind of environment. That’s a crime for which our governments – and, by extension, all of us, of whatever ethnic origin – collectively bear some responsibility.  A more difficult question to consider is whether a rough beginning like Daniel Wolfe’s justifies or even diminishes responsibility for the violent criminal behaviour that he excelled in during his brief adulthood.

Last week, at the age of 33, members of the same vicious street gang that he helped found on those tough streets of Winnipeg, Indian Posse, stabbed Wolfe to death during a vicious brawl in the maximum-security unit of Saskatchewan Penitentiary in Prince Albert. It may have been a more-or-less predictable end to a troubled life that began as a victim and evolved into a victimizer. But it’s far too easy to write off this story as a morality tale, in which he who lived by the sword died by the sword.

It’s hard to feel much sympathy for him. Two months previous to his death, Wolfe had been convicted of three murders and two attempted murders in a spectacular shooting attack he had launched at the home of a member of a rival gang, the Native Syndicate, in Fort Qu’Appelle, Saskatchewan, following a banal incident of macho bravado in a local bar in 2007. The only trigger to this cinematic level of violence was a verbal jab at the gang tattoos that Wolfe sported on his arms. After the fellows who made the comments left the bar, according to a witness, Wolfe said, “They don’t know what’s coming for them.”

To most of us, it’s senseless. But it’s also a scenario that is increasingly common, which makes it harder to dismiss as a tragic but isolated incident of one young man gone wildly astray. If more and more young men – and, increasingly, women – are feeling so completely alienated and cut off from any sense of feeling toward their fellow human beings, all of us need to be concerned.

The drama of Wolfe’s story is captivating and troubling enough on its own. With his older brother, Richard Daniel Wolfe (either his parents had a bad sense of humour or a limited imagination in choosing names), Daniel co-founded the Indian Posse gang sometime around 1990. From the streets of Winnipeg, Indian Posse has expanded its reach to cities, reserves and prisons across Western Canada to become one of the most powerful, violent and feared criminal organizations in the country.

While the IP has yet to expand east of Lake Superior, it’s worth looking at the conditions that favour its growth and that of numerous other aboriginal gangs. Recruitment is particularly effective among young Native prison inmates and poor urban aboriginals with weak or non-existent family ties. The lack of self-esteem that many in these settings understandably feel is exploited by appeals to cultural pride. That’s why, early on, Richard Wolfe could use a Winnipeg newspaper to vaunt the gang as a grouping of “proud Indians” who would some day “join the Great Spirit in the sky.”

It doesn’t take much to see through the rhetoric. No real leader uses this power to victimize the weak – and make no mistake, most victims of gangs like Indian Posse are also Native. But there is a reason that gangs like Indian Posse haven’t made real inroads into Eeyou Istchee. That’s because, despite real problems, the communities here are stronger, socially and economically, than are many of the western First Nations that are comparatively very poor, remote and unorganized. The political, cultural and economic development in Eeyou Istchee, while often the subject of vociferous debate on specific issues, has formed a web of protection against the severe breakdown we see elsewhere in Canada.

And that fact is reinforced in the circumstances of Daniel Wolfe’s early and violent demise. The success of the organization that he and his brother founded in their teens was to a great degree due to the feeling of family and belonging that it instilled in those, like them, who had neither. But no real family eats its own, and Indian Posse has become notorious for imposing gang loyalty through fear and violence, up to and including the execution of its own members. Thus, according to many sources, it appears the same lack of real solidarity has resulted in the death of one the gang’s founders, in a bloody declaration of open warfare between Saskatchewan and Manitoba members of Indian Posse.

So yes, Daniel Richard Wolfe was responsible for his own fate. But we ignore the conditions that helped create him at our own peril.