American and Canadian law enforcement officials have adopted a common definition for “gang.” The definition of gang was drafted in a 2005 joint meeting of Police Chiefs, identifies a youth gang as, “Three or more persons, formerly or informally organized, engaged in a pattern of criminal behaviour creating an atmosphere of fear and intimidation within any community; who may have a common name or identifying sign or symbol which may constitute a criminal organization as defined in the Criminal Code of Canada.”
In Canada’s major cities, gang offenses typically are prosecuted under the laws governing “participation in a criminal organization.”
Supplementing the Police Chiefs’ definition, the Montréal Police Service’s description stresses anti-social and delinquent behaviours that distinguish youth gangs from other criminal enterprises. Montreal Police identify a gang as, “An organized group of adolescents and/or young adults who rely on group intimidation and violence, and commit criminal acts in order to gain power and recognition and/or control certain areas of unlawful activity.”
Consistent with Montreal’s stress on the value of power and recognition, officials in northern Minnesota and northwestern Ontario stress that gang members flagrantly display their criminal affiliation by wearing gang colours, getting tattoos of common gang symbols, flashing a variety of gang signs—their own specialized hand signals, and sometimes with “signature” modi operandi in their commission of violent crimes.
In its extremely handy Gang factsheet, Deal.Org, part of the National Youth Services branch of the Royal Canadian Mounted Police Crime Prevention Services, notes that gangs differ dramatically in size, structure, sophistication, and age. In general, though, gangs identify with and seek to control their neighborhoods, and they commit violent crimes to establish their hegemony over both territory and all criminal activity inside their territory. In many cases, gang members employ gratuitous violence to discourage and deter would-be competitors. Deal.Org also describes how youth gangs are responsible for the vast majority of graffiti and vandalism in their territories, and graffiti serves to establish strict, inviolable boundaries for the gang’s operations. Most youth gangs are linked to larger criminal enterprises in order to import and distribute drugs, smuggle and sell weapons, and conduct human trafficking to expand their sex trade. The Royal Canadian Mounted Police say that organized crime groups often employ youth gangs as debt collectors, car thieves, and “enforcers.” Just as importantly, Public Safety Canada adds, “Once thought just to be in larger cities like Toronto, Vancouver or Montreal, youth gangs are now found in more rural areas as well.”
Because most people associate gang activity with depressed American inner cities, the statistics often surprise them. In its ground-breaking report, “Youth Gangs in Canada: What Do We Know?”, Public Safety Canada summarized results of nationwide law enforcement surveys, estimating that…
- Canada has 434 youth gangs with roughly 7,000 members nationally.
- Ontario has the highest number of youth gangs and youth gang members in absolute terms, with 216 youth gangs and 3,320 youth gang members. Saskatchewan is second (28 youth gangs and 1,315 members), followed by British Columbia (102 youth gangs and 1,027 members) . police in Ontario reported that 38% of gang-related drug trafficking and 15% each of the weapons possession and auto theft/exportation offences were committed in collaboration with organized crime groups.
- For the country as a whole, the vast majority of youth gang members are male (94%).
- Almost half (48%) of all youth gang members are under the age of 18. Most (39%) are between 16 and 18 years old.
- The largest proportion of youth gang members are African Canadian (25%), followed by First Nations (21%) and Caucasian (18%).
- Police agencies and Aboriginal organizations indicate that there is a growing percentage of female gang membership in western Canadian provinces, including British Columbia (12%), Manitoba (10%) and Saskatchewan (9%).
Effective Prevention and Intervention
Detailing “Traits of Gang Members,” Edmonton Police say, “The excitement of gang activity, which often involves violence, danger, and outward expressions of cultural biases, coupled with the acceptance given by fellow gang members, provide the social support and community involvement that are often lacking in the lives of young male gang members.”
According to officials at Public Safety Canada, ”From a prevention perspective, it is vital to understand that youth involvement in crime and violence is linked with the experience of the gang itself… Most youth who join gangs have already been involved in crime, violence and illegal drug use. The prevalence and scope of youth gang involvement varies across the country, but the “gang effect” of increased delinquency, drug use and violence is a common thread.” Researchers also explain, “In the United States, studies of large urban samples show that youth gang members are responsible for a large proportion of all violent adolescent offences. On average, 20% of gang members were responsible for committing about 80% of all serious violent adolescent offences.” Similarly, in Canada, one carefully controlled, reliable study found, “Sixteen percent of alleged young offenders who were classified as chronic offenders were responsible for 58% of all alleged criminal incidents.”
More alarming, the specifics call attention to the problem’s urgency:
- There is a correlation between gang presence in schools and the availability of both guns and drugs in schools.
- 18.7% of boys (ages 14 to 17) in Montréal and 15.1% in Toronto have brought a gun to school.
- School dropouts who get involved in drug selling are at higher risk of being involved in gun-related violence.
Edmonton Police explain gang members’ motivation, detailing how gangs may supplant families and provide friends.
Because of low self-worth and self-esteem, some youth join gangs seeking the status they lack due to unemployment or academic failure at school. If young people do not see themselves as intelligent, leaders, or star athletes, they join other groups where they feel they can excel.
Many youngsters do not have a positive adult role model. Many see domestic violence and alcohol and other drug use in the home. Lack of parental involvement and the absence of rules and family rituals allow older gang members to be viewed as authority figures by young teens and children. Young people join gangs to receive the attention, affirmation, and protection they may feel they are lacking at home. Many street gang members carry on a family tradition established by siblings, parents, grandparents, uncles, aunts, or cousins who they see as role models. Joining a gang provides friends with whom they can share their free time.
Edmonton Police go on to detail social and environmental problems that contribute to gang membership.
Few job opportunities, no positive recreational choices, or lack of effective responses to peer pressure can create a climate favouring gang membership.
Many people are without jobs or a source of income. Becoming a gang member can provide a teen with an opportunity to make large amounts money quickly, because many gangs are involved in the illegal sale of drugs and firearms. The monetary allure of gang membership is difficult to counteract. Gang members share profits from drug trafficking and other illegal activities. To a teen, money translates into social status.
“The wraparound approach”
In its carefully researched, evidence-based, comprehensive and compelling study, “Prevention of Youth Gang Violence: Overview of Strategies and Approaches,” Canada’s National Crime Prevention Centre strongly advocates, “the wraparound approach” to reduction of gang membership and gang-related crime. The report explains, “The wraparound approach has been implemented in the United States and Canada throughout the 1990s, as well as more recently. The wraparound process is an intensive, individualized care management approach designed for children, youth and individuals with serious or complex emotional and/or behavioural problems.
A comprehensive continuum of individualized services and support networks are adapted to meet the unique needs of individuals. This approach differs from traditional interventions in that it is less prescriptive and allows for flexibility in the design of the service delivery model.” Advocates note that the Centre’s plan treats gang participation as a constellation of emotional and behavioural issues which will respond to proper intervention and treatment.
Taking the problem out of the criminal justice system and assigning it to clinicians and educators, the wraparound approach goes to the heart of most gang members’ motivation.
Advocates concede that effective wraparound programs will differ from one area to another, but they insist a common set of six general principles and practices must guide the development and implementation of local interventions:
- A collaborative, community-based interagency team (with professionals from youth justice, education, mental health and social services systems) designs, implements and oversees the project.
- A formal interagency agreement identifies the target population for the initiative: how they will be enrolled in the program; how services will be delivered and paid for; what roles different agencies and individuals will play; and what resources will be committed by various groups.
- Care coordinators are responsible for helping participants create a customized treatment program for guiding youth and their families through the system of care.
- Child and family teams (family members, paid service providers, and community members such as teachers and mentors), who know the youth and his/her complex needs, work in partnership to ensure that the young person’s needs in all life domains are addressed with cultural competence.
- A youth-driven comprehensive plan of care, which is updated continually, identifies the young person’s unique strengths and weaknesses across domains, targets specific goals and outlines action plans. This plan addresses the role of individual team members (young person and family included) in achieving the goals.
- All wraparound programs articulate specific performance measures to assess the outcome of interventions throughout the course of the initiative.
Consistent with the Centre’s insistence on evidence-driven investigations and innovations, the report contains case studies of several wraparound programs that succeeded in a variety of geographic, socio-economic and cultural situations.
How you can help
Crime Stoppers of Northern Minnesota and Northwest Ontario encourage you to report all suspicious activity to police—especially if it shows telltale signs of gang involvement. Moreover, if you have first-hand knowledge of gang activity in your neighborhood, call Crime Stoppers, where representatives always safeguard your anonymity and promptly relay important information to police. Most of all, please support Crime Stoppers’ efforts to combat all kinds of crime in our region.