Gang rates dropping in Maskwacis leading to new hope

Spirits are high in the community as crime rates drop

Brandi Morin
APTN National News
For almost two decades Sherman Louis lived the hard-core life as a gangster.

In and out of jail, violent fighting and everything else that goes along with the lifestyle, until one day he had had enough.

“I found it was hard being a father, husband and a gangster. I told them I was done,” said Louis.

He used his willpower and reconnected to his culture to get out of gangs.

Now, he reaches out to kids in his home community of Maskwacis, Alta., to encourage them to walk the straight road through the Maskwacis Youth Initiative, a program aimed at helping youth who may be vulnerable to becoming involved with gangs.

“I just let them (youth) know that it’s really not a good life. It may sound cool, but it’s really not after you really open your eyes and notice what you’re doing is bad,” said Louis.

The program started a year ago and is thriving, according to Leslie Montour, an outreach worker.

“It was definitely needed with our youth. With our program we talk to them about better choices, education, what they’re showing their younger siblings…it’s done so well for the ones that really needed us the most. To hear them, to take charge,” said Montour. “This has been so great because the majority of them we’ve gotten to look for jobs, stay in school, they’ve really come a long, long way from when we started.”

So far the initiative has helped 62 youth.

Former gang member Sherman Louis now helping youth leave the high-risk lifestyle. APTN/Photo
Former gang member Sherman Louis now helping youth leave the high-risk lifestyle. APTN/Photo

The Cree community formerly known as Hobbema, now called Maskwacis, sits in central Alberta and has previously made national media headlines for its excessive problems with gang activity.

The last couple of years has seen improvements.

Gary Hollender, an operations officer with the Maskwacis RCMP detachment, affirmed gang rates are tending down.

This is partly due to the special enhanced policing unit that was established five years ago via a partnership between the provincial and federal governments. It is the only on-reserve service of its kind in Alberta that delegates officers to target issue areas such as gangs.

“It makes a big difference,” said Hollender.

“We were busy enough before and didn’t have extra time. When a shooting used to happen, then retaliation would go back and forth for a while. Today if something happens, like a shooting, they’re (RCMP) are all over it,” he said.

It’s also getting harder to report what is and isn’t defined as “gang” violence, said Hollender.

“If two 15 year old kids meet in the street and one beats another up that’s not necessarily gang violence- but what if they decide to wear a bandanna each? It’s not like East L.A. where you have Crypts coming to shoot up the Bloods on the other side. There’s some of that- but sometimes it’s two people who live on the same block who call themselves a gang,” he said.

The special policing unit also works with outside support agencies through the HUB program in Maskwacis. This approach helps to alleviate underlying contributors to gang and criminal activity by providing resources such as providing access to health and mental health professionals, addictions counseling, building rapport with resource officers in the school system, addressing housing issues and other factors, said Hollender.

“It’s definitely working. Is it the end all, be all? No, because there’s always going to be those underlying social problems,” said Hollender.

It’s been two and-a-half years since the four communities located between Calgary and Edmonton changed their name from Hobbema to Maskwacis. Maskwacis meaning ‘Bear Hills’ in Cree, was its original name until it was changed to Hobbema after a Dutch painter by the former president of the Canadian Pacific Railway in 1891.

The name change reversing to Maskwacis in 2013 was a “taking back” of the area, said Samson Cree Nation Chief Kurt Buffalo. He said it also instilled a sense of pride in Cree values, languages, culture and history.

“It’s hard to live down that kind of stigma,” said Buffalo referencing past gang violence.

“But for us it was really about educating our nation members, on who we are as First Nation people. It’s starting at the root level and asking our community members-is the behaviour that’s going on in our community, is that really how we are as Cree people?”

The community of approximately 15,000 struggles with a high rate of unemployment, and although those rates saw improvement over the last couple of years, Maskwacis is feeling the hit of the current recession, said Buffalo. At the same time there hasn’t been a spike in violence or gang activity to coincide. Buffalo said programs like the Maskwacis Youth Initiative helps to curb the cycle of gang involvement.

“It’s more focusing on youth and family development. If you focus just on the gangs that’s where the focus will be. But we’re trying to give them (youth) as many chances as possible to be better human beings and to become citizens of global society,” said Buffalo.

He believes answers lie in empowering members of the nation and encouraging them to take responsibility for their actions.

“I think if you really want to make a difference- stop being a victim. As First Nations we’ve been victimized for years. And it’s inter-generational trauma- we’re still blaming the residential school era, but at the end of the day it’s about teaching our people to make better choices. They don’t have to be victims.”

Domestic violence cases are high in Maskwacis, however Hollender said it’s not unusual given those rates tend to be higher in almost every jurisdiction in Canada.

Graduation levels are also on the rise, said Hollender. He said it tends to have a ripple effect on the moral of the community.

Overall the crime statistics have gone down over the last couple of years and continue to hold steady this year.

Spirits in Maskwacis are high and the outlook is hopeful for more positive changes to come.

“It’s very exciting seeing somebody who felt like they had no hope and they had nobody- it’s good to know that they (youth) feel that they can call on us before they do anything negative. They’re now talking about what they want to be. We didn’t hear that before, they didn’t have a plan at the beginning. We’re excited to see where they’re going,” said Montour.

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