In Canada, twenty-two percent of all gang members are Aboriginal. It is estimated that there are between 800 – 1000 active Aboriginal gang members in the Prairie provinces. The largest concentration of gang members in Canada (of all gangs) is in Saskatchewan with 1.34 members per 1,000 population, or approximately 1,315 members.23
Aboriginal youth gangs24 are defined as: visible, hardcore groups that come together for profit-driven criminal activity and violence. They identify themselves through the adoption of a name, common brands/colours of clothing, and tattoos to demonstrate gang membership to rival gangs. Gang-related communication rituals and public display of gang-like attributes are common.25 Membership is fluid, there is a lack of organization and structure, and many of these gangs operate independently in small cells. Status is defined by ability to make large amounts of cash and engage in serious violence. What is known is that Aboriginal gangs tend to be intergenerational and rely on violent entry and exit rituals to protect the gang from outsiders. Aboriginal youth can be categorized on a continuum of gang involvement into one of the following groups: anti-social group; spontaneous criminal activity group; purposive criminal group; crew; and street gang. The degree of organization is defined by: the structure and hierarchical nature of the gang; the gang’s connection to larger, more serious organized crime groups; the sophistication and permanence of the gang; the existence of a specific code of conduct or set of formal rules; initiation practices; and the level of integration, cohesion, and solidarity between the gang’s members.26
Membership commitment can be measured in a hierarchical ranking system within the gang. Often, there is not one person who directs other members, although older members have more influence compared to young members.27 Leaders (also called King Pins, Bosses, Presidents or Captains) actively promote and participate in serious criminal activity. These males are generally in their late twenties – early thirties. Veterans (also called Heavies or Higher-Ups) decide which criminal activities the gang will participate in and are considered to be faithful in their loyalty to the gang. Along with leaders, they are responsible for settling internal conflicts within the gang. Core members(also called Regular Members, Associates or Affiliates) usually have been with the gang since it started, and are experienced, proven members. Most gang leaders require prospective recruits to meet certain criteria and perform serious crimes of violence before they are allowed membership into the gang. These youth want to prove themselves and rise through the ranks; they often earn serious money for gangs. To gain entry, a recruit generally requires sponsorship. It is common for recruits to ‘do minutes’: survive a beating at the hands of some gang members. Strikers (also called Soldiers) are also highly likely to engage in serious acts of violence.
For marginalized, abused and vulnerable youth, there are many positive aspects of gang life. Many Aboriginal gang members talk about having a sense of family and belonging in their gangs, a safe place to hang out with friends, an identity, and a good source of income. For many youth who grow up in communities characterized by high unemployment, entrenched poverty and violence, gang involvement is a rational choice - a legitimate opportunity for employment and protection. Gangs can also provide a shelter for young people who have suffered from racism and the adverse effects of colonization (including having dysfunctional parents who suffered abuse in residential schools) to fight back against social injustice.28
Physical Violence and Murder in the Lives of Aboriginal Girls and Women
Aboriginal girls and women in Canada suffer much higher rates of physical violence, sexual violence and homicide compared to any other group in the country.29Arguably, the rate of extreme violence experienced by these women is amongst the highest in the world. In the vast majority of all incidents, men are the perpetrators. An Ontario study found that 8 out of 10 Aboriginal women in Ontario had personally experienced family violence.30 First Nations women aged 25-44 are five times more likely than other Canadian women of the same age to die of violence31 and are roughly three times more likely to be victims of spousal violence than are those who are non-Aboriginal. In a Statistics Canada study, 54% of Aboriginal women reported experiencing severe and potentially life threatening violence compared to 37% of non-Aboriginal women.32 Rates of woman abuse are even higher in the lives in incarcerated Aboriginal women: ninety percent of all federally sentenced women report having been physically and/or sexually abused.33
In response to the high number of missing and murdered Aboriginal girls and women, NWAC initiated the Sisters In Spirit (SIS) initiative in 2004. SIS is designed to uncover root causes, circumstances and trends of violence that lead to the disappearance and death of Aboriginal women in Canada. As of March 31, 2009, 520 cases of missing or murdered Aboriginal women and girls had been entered into the NWAC database. Key findings include:
67% of the known cases are of murder (defined as homicide or negligence causing death)
The majority of cases occurred in the western provinces: 26% of the incidents occurred in British Columbia,34 17% in Alberta, 14% in Manitoba, and 12% occurred in Saskatchewan
52% of the cases in the database involve women and girls under the age of 30 years
43% of these cases of missing women and girls have occurred during or since 2000
55% of the known cases of murder occurred during or since 2000
Information about family size is known for 30% of the cases: where this information is known the great majority of these women were mothers
52% of the murder cases have been cleared by charges or by suicide (i.e., the perpetrator committed suicide after murdering the woman): 43% of the cases of murder remain open (no one has been charged in the incident).
In addition to the quantitative research findings, NWAC has conducted in-depth interviews with families of missing and murdered Aboriginal women and girls. These interviews were first published in Voices of Our Sisters in Spirit: A Report to Families and Communities, released in November 2008 and updated with additional life stories and new information in the second edition, released in March 2009.