When we think of gangs we usually think of poverty, violence and inner-city minority struggles common to big cities throughout the world. But strife can take many forms, shapes and sizes and so do gangs. In small Native communities, the impact of unemployment, social problems, addiction issues and the changes in cultural identity have led to the loss of pride and sense of belonging for many youth. The lack of a sense of purpose, self-esteem and the absence of strong role models are all ingredients contributing to the development of gangs in communities.

The gangs in northern communities differ in some ways from the urban gangs presented to us through film, hip-hop and reggaeton clips. Urban gangs are loosely or closely affiliated with organized crime. Urban gang membership is usually determined by ethnic background, the members are predominately male and between the ages of 15 and 25. Many urban gangs are also made up of youth and young adult men who have been sentenced to correctional facilities. Urban gangs are involved in many forms of illegal activity, including drug sales, arms sales, theft, intimidation, extortion and prostitution. To become a member, a youth has to submit to some form of test or initiation and pledge loyalty to the gang. When a youth enters an urban gang he or she forfeits a certain level of individual freedom and social autonomy, and has to follow the directions and restrictions set by the gang hierarchy.

In many Native communities, mainly in the western provinces, gangs have become more visible and formal in their structure. They have taken on names, insignias, distinct tattoos, and styles of dress, and they recruit their members. Some of these gangs engage in initiation activities, as a way for their members to pledge their loyalty to the group.  These gangs are often connected to organized adult criminal activity, such as the transport, distribution and sale of drugs and alcohol. Other activities these youth gangs may engage in are theft, intimidation, extortion, sexual violence and prostitution. Some youth, who have been in detention outside the community, introduce other youth to the gang mentality and behaviours.

The Montreal Police Service defines a gang as “an organized group of adolescents and/or young adults who rely on intimidation and violence, and commit criminal acts in order to gain recognition, power and/or control over areas of unlawful activity.”

In smaller, more isolated communities, gangs have been initially forming in a haphazard way. They start off as a small group of youths who hang out together. They are often youth who are bored, who are seeking to belong somewhere and want to be listened to and understood. These needs are typical of all youth and do not in themselves lead to gang membership. But youth coming from families in conflict, who have little or no supervision, who are angry or have addiction problems, will seek out support and have a strong need to belong to a group outside the family. Often the father or father figure for these youth is absent. These are usually the youth who do not play hockey, do not engage in other community or cultural activities and may be having difficulty or have already left school.

Adolescence is the time of life when we discover our identity and sense of belonging outside the family, and find our future role in the community and society. Gang membership unfortunately provides a sense of belonging and identity to youth who are left to their own devices.

The small unorganized and informal gangs nevertheless engage in anti-social behaviours, such as vandalism, intimidation and bullying, theft, and drug consumption and sales. Once a small gang exists, it can be easily infiltrated by members of larger gangs from outside the community that are connected to organized crime.
Who joins a gang?

The youth attracted to gang activity usually exhibit some or all of the following attributes.

• Youth who suffer from feelings of not belonging, who have distanced themselves from their families because their parents are unavailable, due to divorce or family problems, such as addiction or violence. These youth have a strong need for validation and a place to belong.

• Youth who feel vulnerable or different from their peers and have low self-esteem may seek out the gang to protect them from bullying. The gang makes them feel safe and accepted.

• Youth who are struggling or who no longer attend school, do not engage in sports, creative activities, such as art or music, community or traditional activities.

• Youth who engage in delinquent activities, such as drug and alcohol abuse, or/and sale, bullying, vandalism and theft.

• Youth who seek excitement and prestige (a sense of power), who are easily bored and have no structure or challenges in their lives.

• Youth and young adults who have previously been in detention and have a criminal record.
Why do youth join gangs?

Here is an excerpt from a commentary by Ojibway author Richard Wagamese, originally from Wabaseemoong (Whitedog), Ontario. He speaks about the Native gang reality, his own youth in the 1960s and the gang he belonged to called the Freak. The way he describes how youth form gangs is still pertinent today.

“The Freaks were a bunch of displaced teenagers. We had left our homes because of familial breakdowns, domestic violence or abuse, and we went to the streets of the city. We found each other in our travels and we became a gang in the very loosest terms. We were dropouts, poor and often unemployed. Just a collection of lost souls who clung to each other for community.

“When we weren’t on the road we gathered in the pavilion at Montebello Park. We drank cheap wine and listened to music. We played Frisbee. We talked about where we came from, some of the hurts, the difficulties and the dreams we had for our futures. We shared food and cash and crashed on each other’s couches when we were lucky enough to have one. Montebello Park was our haven. Our turf.”

Now… “there are Aboriginal gangs everywhere. They flourish in the concrete rez of prisons and spread to the urban rez, low-income neighbourhoods of cities, and nowadays, to the reservation communities themselves. They emulate the big city gangs of the United States and in their tattoos, graffiti, clothing, music, gang sign, argot and violence, proclaim themselves as ‘warriors’.

“There is nothing warrior-like about them. Nor is there any semblance of ‘Native pride’. Instead, there is only a broad, dismal caricature and the struggle to maintain it costs lives, disrupts homes, destroys communities and makes each of us, Native or not, angered and wounded and ultimately victimized.”

It is believed that the breakdown in families and intergenerational links, and the absence of positive authority figures, fathers, father figures and role models for youth are some of the root issues that lead to youth turning away from family and community, and forming gangs.

Many male and female youth today feel they do not have a place in their community, that they do not belong. It is a great challenge for these young people to bridge the gap between the traditional lifestyle and the great seductive wave of the urban lifestyle, with all its glamour and alienation. The gang image has been presented through video clips, films and games as attractive and exciting.

Finding one’s place in the community and in society and discovering one’s individual and cultural identity is a great task of the adolescent. The attraction of today’s youth to join a gang is simply a reflection of the problem of identity and belonging existing in a community or a culture.

The issue of gangs in northern communities needs to be addressed by the communities as one of the by-products of the weakening of the family structure, and the erosion of cultural values.

In order to prevent gang development in the communities, solutions must come from all levels of the community.

• It is initially important to review cultural values in how they define family and the child-centered environment, beyond early childhood.

• An adjustment to both educational and recreational programs to the needs of youth with different interests and different challenges.

• The development of role model programs for youth which highlight their contributions and accomplishments in the community.

• Develop specific parenting workshops for the parents of teens.

• The development of activities that promote community recognition.

• The ongoing support to all families, particularly those with high-risk youth, through community, cultural and spiritual programs, educational seminars, awareness campaigns and clinical support when needed.

Statistical information for this article was taken from the official websites of the Montreal Police Department and the RCMP.
Louise Dessertine is a psychologist and member of Order of Quebec Psychologists from Waskaganish