Healthy communities key to preventing Indigenous street gang violence

Dr. Robert Henry is the featured speaker at a public meeting in Martensville on Thursday, May 18

The most effective way to reduce street gang violence is by tackling the root causes of poverty and social injustice, according to Dr. Robert Henry, an assistant professor at the University of Calgary.
Henry, who is of Metis ancestry and originally from Prince Albert, is the guest speaker at a public meeting in Martensville hosted by the Valley West Community Justice Committee on Thursday, May 18. Henry will outline the findings and objectives of his research on Indigenous Street Gangs.
In an interview last week, Henry said his goal is to help individuals leave the violence associated with street gangs behind and build healthier, constructive lives in society. In order to do that, he noted, it’s important to know what led those individuals to end up in street gangs.
“I do research with Indigenous street gang members who are trying to leave that lifestyle,” said Henry. “I ask them about their life experiences, their family relationships and memories of school, child welfare and social services. I’m interested in finding out what drove these individuals to become involved in gangs in the first place, because when you start peeling back their narratives, there is a lot of trauma and violence and other factors that come into play.”
Henry said putting gang members in prison is a form of short-term punishment, but it’s not a long-term solution because it reinforces the culture of violence.
“We have to understand as a society that we can’t arrest our way out of this,” he said. “Prison entrenches the gang mentality. We have to find positive ways to prevent violence and intervene to support individuals who are trying to get out of the gang life.”
Henry said there are many misconceptions about Indigenous street gangs, including the notion that once you’re a member, you’re in it for life.
“The majority of individuals are only in a street gang for a relatively short period of time,” he said. “You see people involved in a risky ‘street lifestyle’ for extended periods of time, but there’s a difference between a street lifestyle and being a member of a street gang. Just because you live that lifestyle doesn’t mean you’re automatically in a gang.”
He said gangs have “feeder groups” that cultivate recruits from the younger generation. Youth that fit the mold of what gang leaders are looking for are selected for membership. But, he noted, people are always leaving gangs as well.
“If you’re leaving for reasons that aren’t detrimental to the gang itself, like ratting them out or jumping to another gang, then you can do it,” said Henry. “I’m not trying to say it’s not violent, because it is. But if you’re respected in the gang and you’re leaving because you found a full-time job or you want to be a better father, that’s different.”
Henry said the majority of individuals who end up in Indigenous street gangs are looking for three things: respect, power and money. They have limited opportunities, often experienced tremendous trauma in their lives, and don’t have access to healthy support systems.
“So they turn to unhealthy supports to try to numb their pain,” said Henry. “They find in the gang a sort of family and they gain a sense of self-worth through that association.”
Henry said “restorative justice” initiatives along the lines of the Valley West Community Justice Committee are part of the long-term solution. Restorative justice involves bringing the offender and victim together in face-to-face dialogue in an effort to heal the trauma and damage.
“Restorative justice is about building relationships to create a healthy community,” said Henry. “It has to be based on respect, relevance, reciprocity and responsibility.”