The timing for the Booth University College Gangs & Hope Community Forum couldn’t have been better. A mere eighteen (18) days ago, Winnipeg resident Nigel Dixon was gunned down by gang members a mere two or three blocks from the College.
As a recent attendee at the GAIN (Gang Action Interagency Network) Gang Exit Strategy Conference, I was interested to attend the Forum to see if these two groups had similar or diverging interests.
Before the forum started, I decided to take a walk in the neighborhood to check out areas that were previously sealed off behind police tape. What I found was more of same evidence I’d seen the day of the brazen killing. Street gang tags everywhere, strong evidence indicative of struggles to control “turf,” a community infested by street gangs, a neighborhood at war.
The kind of neighborhood where the question, “Who you down with?” can get you killed.
The Forum was hosted by Dr James Cresswell, assistant professor at Booth UC who organized the event. The format included a five (5) person panel discussion regarding a host of topics that included a question period from forum attendees. The panel consisted of an eclectic group of guests that included:
- Justin Parry – WPS Gang Expert
- Mike McIntyre – WFP Crime Reporter
- Cecil Rosner – CBC Managing Editor
- Mark Young – Salvation Army Executive Director
- Sherrie Steiner – PHD Sociology
The moderator selected for the panel was Donald Benham Director of Winnipeg Harvest.
The areas for discussion centered on three (3) themes, Focus on Mercy, Focus on Hope and Focus on Justice. After reviewing the proposed questions it was clear they’d been created by people who live in the world of academia. That made it somewhat awkward for WPS Gang Expert Justin Parry who readily admitted he was a foot soldier and not a philosopher or academic. Nonetheless, Parry did an admirable job representing the Police Service.
As the panel discussions progressed it became clear that any hard-core conservatives in the crowd would be grinding their teeth at the mere suggestion the word “mercy” would be used in defining a street gang strategy. It didn’t get any better for the “Tough on Crime” crowd when Crime Reporter McIntyre remarked, “Is there any rational belief that hardened gang members care about enhanced punishment.”
It was evident the controversial restorative justice theme was popular in the room. Salvation Army’s Mark Young followed by sharing his thoughts; “There has to be a holistic approach to this. We should be working together and not focusing on one particular aspect.” Words of wisdom from a man whose spent more than twenty (20) years in the healing industry.
When it came to Sherrie Steiner’s turn to chime in things took a decided turn back to the world of academia; “We’re at an increased time of social Darwinism with cutbacks in social services,” she said. A quick glance around the room and it was clear she lost the majority of us with that one. She would come back down to street level when she said, “Winnipeg is the only major City in Canada that doesn’t have a free tattoo removal clinic.” Hard not to get her point on that issue, if people want to leave gangs I could see the logic behind a Community program to aid efforts to remove gang tats. Unfortunately, Steiner lost me once again with her assertion that exiting gangs isn’t an extremely dangerous undertaking. “I don’t believe people don’t leave gangs because it’s dangerous, they don’t leave gangs because they have nowhere to go,” she stressed.
Try telling ex-Indian Posse gang member, now paraplegic, Sid Letandre that trying to exit a street gang isn’t an exercise fraught with danger. When a street gang demonstrates they’re prepared to kill their “brothers” to prevent defections, they’re sending a strong message. It would be naive to think associates, strikers and card-carrying members don’t get that message.
Ultimately, CBC Managing Editor Cecil Rosner zeroed in on one of the central gang and crime issues in the City of Winnipeg. The over representation of Aboriginals in street gangs and Canadian prison populations.
As I scanned the room it became apparent there was little representation from the over represented groups. (Aboriginal & African) Even though these groups were significantly represented at the GAIN Gang Exit Strategy Forum, I still thought they should have been part of this conversation. It seems to me, engaging the affected Community has to be a vital part of any anti gang strategy.
The Forum closed with the Panel answering a variety of questions posed by a number of attendees.
So was the Gangs & Hope Community Forum a success?
That depends on what measuring stick you want to use.
According to Booth UC Director of Communications Tish Best, the goal of the Forum was to engage the community and start a conversation.
One thing was clear, the one hundred (100) or so people from the Community who attended the Forum were not only engaged in the conversation, they also appeared to tremendously appreciate the opportunity to be heard.
When it comes to crime and gangs in Winnipeg, we have to find a way to keep the conversation going.
GANGS & HOPE COMMUNITY FORUM
APPROACH ONE – Focus on Mercy
- How do we balance nurturing positive relations with the current government with preparing to interact with a future government on this issue?
- Whose voices should our organization most closely represent; those of victims or those concerned with prosecuting offenders?
- Does a charity approach that emphasizes meeting immediate needs allow us to truly address the root cause of gang involvement?
- Should we do more in terms of considering mercy for gang members?
APPROACH TWO – Focus on Hope
- What is the correct balance between speaking with a bold voice and maintaining institutional harmony?
- Could we also be effective in calling for significant legal changes based on our connections with others in communities around the world that are already experiencing the impact of these alternative approaches?
- Does this position fully encompass our guiding values, including justice, human dignity, and right relationships?
APPROACH THREE – Focus on Justice
- How do we focus on gangs without deviating from our strong programming strengths?
- To what degree are Canadians really responsible for organized crime?
- Should we focus on Justice in terms of social justices, reducing poverty and inequality and thus addressing the root causes of crime?
- How do we balance speaking hard truths while also encouraging the financial generosity of Canadians?