A Courageous Stand Against Youth Gangs

Winnipeg Program Helps Aboriginal Youth Avoid Involvement with Criminal Gangs

A project underway in Winnipeg aims to address the ongoing problem of criminal gangs, particularly those comprised of Aboriginal youth. Known as Circle of Courage, the project enables dozens of young people to avoid the influences of gang culture.

Although he’s only 14 years old, Adrian (not his real name) has seen many of his friends fall under the spell of gang culture.

“I stopped hanging around with some of my friends when they started to sell drugs for gangs,” says Adrian. “I think some of them were involved in a recent murder of a member of another gang.”

Adrian faces many of the factors that Circle of Courage aims to address: difficulties at home and a lack of opportunities for healthy extra-curricular activities. His father was deported from Canada when he was just a toddler; his mother struggles to make ends meet in a family with six children. Some of Adrian’s friends introduced him to drugs at age 12; shortly thereafter, he began to steal. After a run-in with the police, Adrian joined Circle of Courage and started on a new path.

“I go everyday after school and we get to do all kinds of fun stuff,” says Adrian. “We go rock-climbing, watch movies, learn native drumming, make crafts, there’s always something going on.”

Circle of Courage is run by Ka Ni Kanichihk - “those who lead” in Cree - a non-profit corporation and United Way agency in Winnipeg. One of its many programs, Circle of Courage is designed for young Aboriginal men aged 12 to 17 who are either already involved in, or at risk of joining, criminal gangs. Launched in 2008 with support for the Department of Justice Canada’s Youth Justice Fund, the program provides skills development and cultural programming, along with education and counselling, to about 15 youth per year.

“Much of what we do is give them the structure that they’ve never had,” says Bonnie Peigan, Circle of Courage’s Team Leader. Originally from Saskatchewan, Peigan grew up in Winnipeg and has devoted most of her career to street-level work with children and teenagers. She considers it an honour to help participants navigate the many challenges that come with growing up Aboriginal in the city.

Poverty and Lack of Opportunity

Research conducted by the Winnipeg Foundation, an independent community agency, helps describe the challenges. In 2004, the Foundation published a profile of Winnipeg’s Centennial neighbourhood, where Circle of Courage operates. The profile found that nearly half of all residents were Aboriginal, two-thirds of all households had annual incomes of less than $20,000 and that the neighbourhood had one of the highest unemployment rates in the city. Research conducted by the province and the Government of Canada suggests that school-attendance rates in Manitoba among Aboriginal youth are the worst in Canada.

Leslie Spillett is Executive Director of Ka Ni Kanichihk. A Cree from Northern Manitoba, Spillett attended a residential school and earned a college degree before moving to Winnipeg in 1977. She says there’s a pressing need for programs like Circle of Courage.

“The residential-school system just about destroyed Aboriginal cultures and the links from one generation to the next,” she says.

The circumstances have produced a rash of criminal gangs in Winnipeg - more than 30 by the mid-1990s, according to some research. Most members are young Aboriginal males; the gangs are responsible for a variety of crimes, including drug trafficking, robbery, assault and murder. For a brief time in the mid-2000s, Winnipeg had the highest per-capita homicide rate among Canada’s major cities.

An Effective Response Based on Aboriginal Culture

Ka Na Kanichihk developed Circle of Courage in an effort to deter Aboriginal youth from joining gangs. The organization bought and renovated a duplex in Centennial, in partnership with Manitoba housing, to accommodate the program. Ka Na Kanichihk also hired a coordinator and two coach facilitators. Circle of Courage runs every weekday from 1:00 – 8:00 p.m. and combines recreational activities, volunteer work and pre-employment training with cultural reclamation programming. Participants are expected to attend daily. There are also occasional weekend camping trips and outings to events such as regional pow-wows.

Circle of Courage aims to instil self-awareness, confidence and a sense of belonging in participants through a progressive, incremental approach centred on Aboriginal traditions. Ka Ni Kanichihk operates from the belief that preserving and rehabilitating indigenous cultures within an urban Aboriginal environment will undermine negative, unhealthy influences.

Circle of Courage also relies heavily on mentors such as Curly Mousseau, an Aboriginal man who grew up alongside nine brothers on an impoverished reserve. He spent four of his teenaged years on the streets of Winnipeg, surviving on his wits and petty theft before learning to make and sell Aboriginal crafts. Mousseau started at Circle of Courage as a cultural volunteer before accepting a full-time paid position with the program in 2008.

“I teach them the right way to live,” Mousseau says. “It’s not easy in such a dangerous neighbourhood - we’ve been shot at here before.”

Mousseau shares his experiences with participants and explains that reconnecting with his Aboriginal traditions gives him the strength and confidence to succeed. He teaches the youth about fasting, pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges and Aboriginal spirits, clans and colours.

“They have to learn who their true friends are,” Mousseau says. “I ask them why nobody from the gang ever visits members who are in jail. We have to learn to support one another through thick and thin.”

Many Circle of Courage graduates have returned to the program to serve as volunteer mentors. The program also relies on an extensive network of partners: agencies such as YMCA and Boys and Girls Club, along with private businesses.

Lessons Learned

Ka Ni Kanichihk adjusted Circle of Courage in response to specific challenges. Because travelling to the program site involved crossing the territories of several gangs, some participants struggled to attend. To address the issue, Circle of Courage bought a van and hired Curly Mousseau to taxi youth to and from the program. When it became evident that participants had poor literacy and numeracy skills, the program recruited two post-secondary students as tutors.

To graduate from the program, participants must complete several hundred hours of Aboriginal training and skills training. More than 80 youth graduated during the program’s first three years.

“It’s a great program,” says Adrian. “Curly’s pretty strict but he really cares for us. I’d like to become a mentor here some day.”

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