Turning the Tide on Youth Gangs

Winnipeg Project Helps At-risk Youth Stay Away from Criminal Gangs

A pilot project in Winnipeg adopted a one-on-one approach to the problem of youth criminal gangs. Launched in 2008 with support from the Justice Canada’s Youth Justice Fund, Turning the Tides provided holistic and cultural support to youth 15-19 years of age at high risk of gang-related activities.

“It’s well known that Winnipeg has an ongoing problem with youth criminal gangs,” says Tammy Christensen, executive director of the Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre, the agency behind Turning the Tides. “At Ndinawe, we attack the problem by working with individual young people.”

During its three-year run, Turning the Tides steered about 60 youth away from gangs through mentorship and targeted supports, such as life-skills training, volunteer work and job placements. At the heart of the project were a series of dedicated individuals such as Darren McIvor, who served as a mentor for 18 months.

“The reasons someone gets involved with a gang vary with each person,” McIvor says. “To help someone stay out of trouble, you have to understand their particular circumstances; a one-size-fits-all approach doesn’t work.”

Many participants face unique combinations of the individual problems common among youth in Winnipeg’s North End, such as poverty, unstable housing, limited family support, substance abuse and a lack of education and job opportunities. Although he was born and raised in the North End, McIvor managed to stay out of trouble thanks to a strong family upbringing - a foundation that many kids in the neighbourhood have never had.

“I grew up with seven older brothers and sisters,” he says. “And they all steered me away from bad influences and kept me on the straight and narrow. I had it relatively easy compared with the kids at Turning the Tides. Many of them didn’t have that kind of support growing up - there was no family to look out for them, some never heard a kind word from an adult. That’s exactly the kind of young person that gangs try to recruit - someone who’s desperate to fit in somewhere and have a sense of belonging.”

Turning the Tides matched youth with mentors - typically people who grew up in the neighbourhood, completed post-secondary programs and were keen to work with youth. Darren McIvor initially worked as an employment counsellor for Turning the Tides before one of the program’s three mentor positions opened up.

As a mentor, McIvor would find youth work placements and volunteer opportunities, such as shoveling a neighbourhood rink, cutting the grass at a senior’s home or helping to move furniture.

“Usually, it’s a matter of teaching them to be accountable,” McIvor says. “They learn to show up on time and complete whatever task they’ve signed up for. Gradually, they’d become more dependable and I’d give them more to do.”

Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre

Turning the Tides was one of many programs created by the Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre. The Centre is part of the community’s response to the rise of crime involving youth as both victims and perpetrators. The problem made headlines in 1993 following a police investigation into a prostitution and pornography ring. The investigation revealed that the criminals targeted and victimized teenaged Aboriginal girls who had nowhere to turn for support. With funding from several sources, a 16-bed residence for youth was created and named Ndinawemaganag Endaawaad (“our relatives’ home” in Cree).

Since then, Ndinawe has grown into an integrated, independent service agency, focusing on shelter, culture, recreation, education, outreach and support for youth in Winnipeg’s north end. Most participants in Ndinawe programs are Aboriginal - not surprising, given that approximately 80 percent of the neighbourhood’s population is Aboriginal.

The Ndinawe Youth Resource Centre operates a long list of programs; there are clubs for cooking, art and Aboriginal drumming, along with free sports leagues, employment services and clothing exchanges. Ndinawe’s outreach program involves counsellors connecting with youth on the street and providing support and information.

Young people play a central role in the organization; a Youth Board oversees Ndinawe’s program offering, for instance. According to Tammy Christensen, this is part of what sets Ndinawe apart from other agencies.

“We want young people to take ownership of our programs,” she says. “Our role is to provide the services and programs that they need in ways that they can easily access. We’re not a 9-to-5 operation.”

Youth-centric Approach

Turning the Tides also followed this youth-centric approach. Other programs subject newcomers to significant amounts of administrative paperwork; Turning the Tides delayed the paperwork until after the mentor and newcomer established a trusting relationship.

Ndinawe receives short-term funding from a variety of sources, including the United Way, private donors and all levels of government. The organization also develops and nurtures a long list of partnerships with businesses and community groups. Turning the Tides relied on a total of more than 70 partners: radio stations and grocery stores provided employment and placement opportunities, for instance, while high schools and community agencies provided facilities for recreational activities.

“Ultimately, we want to connect kids with resources in their community,” says Tammy Christensen. “They won’t be in our programs forever, so it’s important that they learn what’s out there for them.”

One of the partners that Turning the Tides mentor Darren McIvor relied on was the Ma Mawi Wi Chi Itata Centre, an Aboriginal community-service organization.

“One of Ma Mawi’s programs matches older kids with younger kids,” says McIvor. “Similar to Big Brothers and Big Sisters. Some of my Turning the Tides participants volunteered as youth helpers. Giving them a little responsibility like that helped them develop self-esteem.”

McIvor, now a father of two young boys, witnessed how Turning the Tides inspired a big change in participants.

“Many of the youth I worked with learned to stay away from gangs and drugs. Instead, they put their efforts into schoolwork and volunteering in the community. They set an example that I hope others will follow.”

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