A couple of weeks ago I wrote a story about a former Aboriginal Winnipeg street gang member named TM.
The story ran in the Winnipeg Free Press last weekend after an editor contacted me and asked if I would mind if they ran the story in the Sunday Xtra.
Of course I didn’t mind.
It was a feel good story and a rare one at that. Winnipeger’s are far more conditioned to hear stories about Aboriginal street gang members participating in horrific crimes, getting shot or being sentenced to life in prison.
When TM read the story he sent me a text message expressing his appreciation.
“Hey there I just read the article! It was awesome, you’re a great story-teller. Karma lately is exposing a different path for me. I haven’t been involved in street issues for a very long time. Your article reminded me of some of the struggles I’ve had to overcome. So thank you for that! There are so many elements to changing not just dropping that rag. Thx again, it was a great article.”
I could tell from the text message my article had touched TM. It undoubtedly provided him with the validation that his struggle to stay on a righteous path was worth the effort. I don’t imagine TM has had the benefit of much positive reinforcement in his life, no less from an ex-member of Law Enforcement.
The story only gets better.
After reading the story Floyd Wiebe, Director of GAP (Gang Awareness for Parents), contacted me and asked if I thought TM would be interested in participating in a speaking engagement for a GAP presentation at a West End Community Forum.
When I reached out to TM I was surprised at how quickly he seized the opportunity.
The event was to take place at the Winnipeg Central Mosque at 715 Ellice Ave. The presentation was going to be an informational session facilitated by the Islamic Social Services Association in partnership with the Winnipeg Foundation. I knew this was going to be a giant step for TM and I wanted to be there to show him I supported him and his efforts to stay on a good path.
When I arrived at the Mosque I met with Floyd, TM and Nathan Thomas, another ex-gang member with an equally remarkable story. As I reached out to shake TM’s hand I could see he was somewhat nervous but I also sensed he was eager to participate and share his story.
Before the presentation started I had an opportunity to learn a bit more about TM, after all, it’d been over thirteen (13) years since we’d met. In speaking with TM I’d learn the gang related murder of his best friend Adrian Bruyere was a life changing event for him. Not long after the physical and emotional wounds started to heal he realized he wanted to “drop the rag” and get out of the gang life.
In order to do so he was going to have to be “beat out,” a common street gang ritual that involves taking a beating from your fellow gang members. TM’s “beat out” was especially vicious as the rabid pack of gangsters punched, kicked and stomped him to the extent he was nearly killed. The metal plate in his head and the scars on his face are a testament to the harsh realities of a street gang exit.
For TM reconnecting with his Aboriginal culture was key to turning the page on his former life. Part of his evolution involved taking a traditional name. He is now known as “Niigani Nabbe.” In translation, the name Niigani means “leading the way,” while Naabe, from the word Anishinaabe, means “male.” When you put it all together its interpreted as, “Man who leads the way.” And so the evolution began….
The GAP presentation was well attended with approximately thirty to forty inquisitive people from the Muslim community represented in the audience.
As Floyd started working through the presentation he continually invited Nathan and Niigani to share their stories and wisdom.
Nathan was an “original gangster” and started gang banging when he was ten (10) years old. Nathan ran wild in the streets with no parental influences other than his grandmother and grandfather. Tragically, the only modicum of family he had would be gone forever when his grandmother murdered his grandfather. Life for Nathan was all about crime, drugs and money.
“When I should’ve been graduating from high-school I was graduating into the Federal Penitentiary,” he told the riveted crowd. “What saved my life was my culture, for the very first time in my life I felt at home.”
That was five years ago.
Nathan Thomas now has a full-time job, pays taxes and speaks at community events and forums in partnership with Floyd Wiebe.
The majority of his former gang brothers are deceased.
The stories, insight and message shared by Niigani and Nathan were appreciated by the community members who attended.
After the event concluded I shook Niigani’s hand and asked him how he felt.
“I really enjoyed it, it’s a very positive thing,” he said.
As we said goodbye I challenged Niigani to “Be the difference.”
A challenge he seems ready to take.
It’s all about Options & Opportunity!