'It's becoming an epidemic': Sask. ex-gang members say education, compassion key to stopping youth from joining
Published Thursday, March 11, 2021 8:47AM CST
(Photo courtesy Owen Pelletier)
SASKATOON -- Frontline workers and former gang members in Saskatoon say they're noticing younger people getting involved with gangs.
"Unfortunately, I feel like it's becoming an epidemic with our young people joining gangs," former gang member Owen Pelletier said.
Pelletier said he was exposed to gangs when he was locked up at the age of 13.
He said at first he was scared until he realized the others were just like him, suffering the same intergenerational traumas.
"There was no positive mentors or guides in my life at that time, saying ‘come this way man, let me guide you.' There wasn't none of that. It was the gangsters saying ‘come here little homie, have some cash, come hang with us, we got you, we'll show you some love,'" he told CTV News.
Pelletier was involved in a Regina street gang for 12 years and says he struggled with drug and alcohol addictions for 20 years.
He has since turned his life around and now helps mentor other people looking to change.
The Saskatoon Police Service (SPS) said it has seen an increase in the number of cases involving youth gang members using guns while committing offences.
Some of the accused in the death of a 15-year-old boy in Saskatoon in 2019 were involved in gangs. On Wednesday, the three teens plead guilty for their involvement in his shooting death.
Father Andre Poilievre, a frontline worker with Str8 Up, a rehabilitative organization for ex-gang members, said the level of violence is higher.
"Every gang member has a knife or a gun and that wasn't the case 10 years ago, so that violence as we know on the street, it's out of control," he said.
"The age varies. When I first started, the age was between 18 and 30. Now, I know of kids that joined gangs at eight years old."
Father Andre, who is the former lead chaplain at the Saskatoon Correctional Centre, said recruitment often happens inside jails or through friends and family members.
That was the case for Rodney Nataucappo who said he was involved in crime before the age of 14.
"I had to show that I was dedicated and committed to them and by doing that, I had to turn my back on people and even use violence against my own family and friends," he said.
Nataucappo said joining a gang felt like the right move because it seemed like there were no other options.
"You feel defeated, you know, I'm not going to amount to anything, I'm not going to go anywhere in life, this is all I know, and that's the perception that we got to change with a lot of young people, especially those living the street lifestyle," he told CTV News.
SPS said solutions to combat street gang violence need to be multi-faceted and begin with street-level gang enforcement.
Pelletier said there needs to be more resources and compassion towards gang members, including education to help them understand their own traumas and histories.
"A lot of the gangsters get into that lifestyle because they want to hurt people. Why do they want to hurt people? Because they're hurting inside and they want people to feel that pain as well."