Street Gangs In Canada Essay

Kathleen Buddle

An Aboriginal Youth Gang Narconomy

Kathleen Buddle | University of Manitoba

Native gangs in Winnipeg may function as one of the few avenues for entrepreneurship, authority, and for the production of non-hegemonic gender identities available to groups barred by race and class from other forms of capitalism or political and cultural power. Native gang narconomies, however, are entangled with the destabilizing effects of state-legitimated political economies. Attending to the ways that different sorts of colonial violence have become “folded” into present day institutions of order complicates our understanding of the ways Indigenous outlaws are socially produced from above and below.

Representations of lawlessness are an important structuring device both in the production of knowledge about youth street gangs in Canada and in the creation of a “moral” civil society. Many anthropological studies focus on the role the law played in the socio-cultural transformations of colonialism, examining how the law served as a core mode of domination and, from time to time, created a space for resistance by colonized peoples. These studies also reveal however, the ways in which the law also determined the discourse within which resistance was possible (Moore 1986, Stoler 1991, Taussig 1987, Wilmsen 1989). One of the uses of law in colonial situations was to construct boundaries, social and sexual, between colonized and dominant groups. Canadian law today continues to define personhood and works to fix and police the boundaries between groups, particularly those based on race, class, and gender (Coombe 2005, Valverde 2003, Mawani 2000). Juridical categories and disciplinary and regulative protocols work to legitimate the rule of those in power and to produce a historical narrative that presents class structure and power relations as both commonsensical and inevitable. The power relations underpinning the deviant positionality through which the state produces criminal subjects of Native youth, however, are effectively obscured. Without a voice in the new constitutions and national legislation in which the questions of the rights of youth are being taken up, and without a place in a society that is implicated in global economic structures shaping long-term employment prospects, for “disorderly” Native youth, the production, consumption and trafficking of illicit goods provides a means to extort the very sort of security that the state denies to them. Native street gangs in Winnipeg assert mastery over their own domains by codifying and regulating subversive narratives and practices that have emerged out of the pragmatics of material and emotional survival strategies on the street. Engaging in something more complicated than mere law-breaking, street gangs selectively appropriate and combine principles of the rule of law and of the street and both licit and illicit market operations in ways that challenge conventional demarcations of “legitimate” order and commerce, contest spaces of inequality, disturb practices of exclusion, and displace normative notions of marginality.

Prohibition and Civilization

Both Indigenous peoples and youth have historically been targeted for a variety of race-specific and age-specific substance prohibitions owing to presumptions about their “boundary issues.” Prohibitive efforts to legislate morality including, but not limited to, race-targeting alcohol-prohibition laws, have approached Native peoples and Canadian youth as morally vulnerable and unable to “govern their own passions.” Aboriginal women and Native youth fare particularly poorly in the face of such Canadian “lawfare” (Comaroff and Comaroff 2006, Gill 2002, Razack 2000).


While the great majority of inner city Native youth avoid involving themselves in gang activities, they must nonetheless be able to read the signs and to negotiate the violence—structural and physical—that pervades their social spaces.

The “cultural slippage” between an individual perceived to be unable to govern his or her own drinking and the image of “the Indian” construed by provincial lawmakers is evinced in the prohibition era (varying by province, mostly from 1901-1920s), when poor alcoholic whites were turned into symbolic “Indians:” problem drinkers’ names were entered on the interdiction registry, known informally as “The Indian List” (Valverde 2004:566). The Ontario Liquor Board maintained this archive of individuals who were forbidden to buy or possess alcohol from the 1930s to 1990. The only legal precedent for this crime shaping were the race-specific liquor provisions applying exclusively to Aboriginal people in the Indian Act, which were rooted in missionary discourses about the Indian as a subject in need of “civilization” (ibid). The various incarnations of the Indian Act up until 1960 and the JuvenileDelinquency Act of 1908 through to the present day Youth Offenders Act are based in this cultural and legal framework. The legislation presumes that wards of the government and children are prone to excesses of consumption and expression and must be reigned in.  Alleged to possess deficient knowledge and assessment capability for risk and consequence, these groups are “protected” by laws designed to proscribe harm-likely acts and improvident economic practices. The laws simultaneously cultivate dependency and admonish self-rule.

Nineteenth century Indian Act statutes governing Aboriginal peoples’ movements and property were informed by notions of Aboriginal people as child-like and predisposed to consume too much in the “wrong” kinds of spaces and to spend too much on the wrong kinds of goods and time. Deemed more likely to privilege affiliations with Native nations, Aboriginal peoples—like peer-group privileging Canadian youth—were presumed to be unwilling to cleave from their collectives and to take up the “responsibilities” of full or mature citizenship. The residue of colonial proscriptions persists in present-day juridical practices in which youth and Native peoples alike are assumed to be irresolutely penetrable—in the sense of being suggestible to influence and susceptible to promiscuity. As a consequence, both are treated as vulnerable to stronger forces such as pimps, drugs, alcohol, peer-pressure, “superstitions,” swindlers of various sorts, and so on. They are, according to the force of laws designed to “protect” and restrict them, simultaneously, susceptible to over-stimulation and senselessness (Keith 1997). Supervision and segregation have become the instruments that agents of the state employ to regulate their morality—to reduce boundary transgressions or “disorder” and to restore zones of civility.

Race, Gender and Incarceration

Manitoba Warriors

A closer look at reckless government spending, however, draws attention to the questionable resource allocation of the Canadian state. According to criminologist Justin Piché, present-day provincial governments in Canada have earmarked nearly $3.4 billion to build 22 new prisons and 17 additions to existing prisons. Moreover, stricter federal sentencing measures proposed under Bill C-10, which is currently before the House of Commons (HOC), will dramatically and disproportionately affect the rates of Aboriginal incarceration, and of Aboriginal women in particular. This controversial legislation, comprised of several bills previously rejected by the HOC, advances among other things, more stringent eligibility restrictions for conditional sentences, new mandatory minimum sentences for drug-related offences under two years in length, and changes to how the courts respond to youth in conflict with the law (Piché 2011).

The Aboriginal Justice Inquiry of Manitoba report shows that Aboriginal “women move to urban center to escape family or community problems. Men on the other had, cite employment as the reason for moving” (Hamilton & Sinclair 1991:485). When they arrive in urban areas, Aboriginal women must endure multiple challenges including loneliness, racism, language and educational barriers, an unending barrage of administrative punitions as well as a lack of job opportunities. The report notes that, “what they were forced to run to is often as bad as what they had to run from” (ibid).

The crimes for which Native women are most often arrested and incarcerated are suggestive of the oppressive conditions under which they live as women and as Aboriginal people (Richie 2001; Ross 1998). Such crimes include nonviolent and minor property crimes such as prostitution, larceny, shoplifting, check or credit card fraud, forgery and counterfeiting, and drug possession (Chesney-Lind, Sheldon, and Joe 1996; Watterson 1996). The growth in the number of incarcerated women between 1990 and 2000 is composed largely of drug offenders (Ferraro and Moe 2003, Totten 2000).

Aboriginal women are triply burdened in the Canadian legal context. They are infantilized and subjected the indignities of racism and sexism in the Canadian legal system. The Native Women’s Association of Canada’s report, Arresting the Legacy: From Residential Schools to Prisons, shows that Aboriginal women make up 87 per cent and 83 per cent of the Saskatchewan's and Manitoba's provincial jails, respectively. Between 1997 and 2007, the rate of incarceration of Aboriginal women increased by 151 per cent. The report claims that most Aboriginal women in federal prisons have been subjected to sexual or physical abuse, are impoverished, and suffer mental illness:

Despite that, the vast majority of aboriginal women are not in jail for committing violent acts themselves, a few highly publicized cases mask the fact that aboriginal women who are criminalized do not pose significant threats to public safety, but rather suffer from systemic discrimination, including and leading to: poverty, inadequate educational and employment opportunities, homelessness, addictions and mental health issues. (NWAC, nd: 5)

Since 1973, overall crime rates in Canada have decreased, according to Statistics Canada's latest report, released July 21, 2011. The rising rate of incarceration for Aboriginal girls from 2009 to 2010, however, dramatically contrasts with every other indicator of decline.

Native girls and women are also increasingly becoming involved in gangs, making up approximately half of the work force in Winnipeg’s Native gangland. In the past, as with Native boys, girls were positioned almost exclusively on the lowest rungs of the enterprise. Younger boys and girls continue to serve as expendable drug and weapons mules. While some Native women and girls who are well connected through upper-ranking male family members are currently able to rise through the gang ranks, more become the mules, prostitutes, or sexual service providers for male gang members. As gang affiliates, among other duties, they move drugs into prisons, store stolen goods, and provide supports by way of “cash, crib and cars” for men.

Making Place

Youth offences are often attributed to cultural practices that allegedly “underdevelop” youth, such as “bad mothering” and substance or domestic abuse, rather than to the economic or political problems Aboriginal communities face. This, according to Engle-Merry, is an attractive ideology for proponents of neoliberalism in so far as it blames the havoc wreaked by expansive capitalism on the culture of the “other” (Engle Merry 2003, 64). Government regulatory bodies continue to provide “expert” management of the so-called social ills attributed to these communities, which in turn, continue to face discrimination in mainstream social, political and economic fields.

Most Organized Brothers

Most often comprising recent arrivals to the city and individuals newly released from or currently housed in corrections facilities, Native youth gangs incorporate individuals in transition—from bush to street, from child to adult, from weak to fit. Gangs provide a viable means for negotiating a range of new territories and processes. And, because gangs rely on a complex set of emotional and symbolic ties to internally order their members, they may be especially alluring to those who are without any connections, money, or position. Gangs seem to hail those who yearn for an answer to the demands of place. Currently, Winnipeg Native youth gangs provide participation in the informal economy, offering one solution to poverty and despair (Buddle 2011). Native youth are concerned to construct meaningful categories and to carve out domains of significance in the city in ways, and using skills, that are highly valued by and often understood only within the youth subcultures from which they emerge. Native youth gangs in Winnipeg, for example, stealthily mark the boundaries of their respective stomping grounds though both subtle and not-so-subtle tactics of intimidation and threats, but also through ridicule, rumor-mongering, and by feeding misinformation to law enforcement officials, strategically “ratting out” other gangs so as to be able to take over their drug trade areas.

Most Organized Brothers (MOB), for example, is a Winnipeg-based youth gang linked on and off with the larger, older, and more organizationally sophisticated Manitoba Warriors. Using their knowledge of the limits of the legal system to their advantage, most of the members who are under the legal age of adulthood make themselves useful to larger gangs by occupying the frontlines in the drug trade. They seldom do time when caught and are loyal to the adult gangs they service. Opposing gangs such as Indian Posse and Native Syndicate engage in solidarity-building by othering MOB, referring to them as Monkeys on Bikes, referencing popular YouTube videos that feature actual monkeys riding bikes. They mock what they perceive to be a wannabe-biker mentality and MOB’s low status within the broader gang hierarchy. MOB is affiliated with other youth gangs such as Central and Loyalty, Honour, Silence who also answer to the Manitoba Warriors. Among the youth gangs currently operating in Winnipeg, the strongest antipathies exist between Native and black gangs such as Mad Cowz and African Mafia, which are comprised mainly of newly arriving immigrants from Somalia and the Sudan.

Gang youth mark their belonging through the clothes they wear, the gestures they make, and the alliances they forge. Gang involvement, however, is only ever partly about drug use and sales; it is part of a larger more complicated pattern of cultural production through ethnic marking. It is one of the few available avenues that marginalized youth have for making themselves. Youth gangs provide opportunities for entrepreneurship, authority, and for the production of non-hegemonic gender identities (Monsell-Davis 1986) for groups barred by race and class from other forms of capitalism (Jankowski 1991) or political and cultural power.

Indian Posse

On the scorecard of history, which registers only the accomplishments of the victors, young, poor and uneducated Native men do not count. Native girls and women matter even less (Butler 1993). What separates gang youth, however, despite the many who admonish them for having “lost their histories and cultures,” is a refusal to be registered among the defeated. In fact, what inspires many angry young men to join gangs and girls to affiliate with them is this abject defiance of defeat—a refusal to play the victim of the system, the family, or of history. Native gang youth simultaneously accommodate and resist by discursively and performatively shaping their own versions of law and lawlessness, countering normative renditions of legitimate order with subversive narratives and practices, often protecting themselves from predation, by performing it (Taussig 1993), or by rejecting chance and selecting their own circumstances for performing as prey.

In order to illuminate gang members’ strategies for subverting their subject positions, one must take into account those aspects of everyday being the gang itself archives, including for example, the ways members represent a complex written system through multiple media—including hand signing, graffiti, and tattoos—to respond to each other, to multiple marginalities, and to cultural erasure. Gang violence, as Sanders (1994) rejoins, is a much a “struggle over literacy” as it is over territory for in writing, society embeds ultimate control over knowledge systems. By developing their own embodied languages, tagging local businesses, and forging street-based illicit economies, gang youth take writing into their hands and bodies and turn exclusivity around on those who would usually practice it.

Elaborating on the ways that gang violence makes, unmakes, and remakes social worlds (Das et al 2001) and attending to the ways that different sorts of colonial violence have become “folded” into present day institutions of order (Deleuze 1988) complicates our understanding of the ways Indigenous outlaws are socially produced from above and below (Carter 1990, Dyck 1986, Miller 1996, Tobias 1991).  While Canadians abhor the unruliness that Native gangs seem to extol and position members as criminals and as threats to security and civility, Aboriginal communities tend to position gangs as culture traitors—as a source of internal resistance to unity. The general consensus in the urban Aboriginal community of Winnipeg is that in distributing new and ever more dangerous drugs and exploiting Native women and youth, Native gangs—doing the dirty work for larger Native and non-Native criminal organizations—carry forth the project of socio-cultural decay that colonizers began long ago. This is balanced by the sentiment that youth carry the residue of the residential schools and are redeemable via treatment rather than punishment.

Those cultural activists who have made great personal sacrifices in the battle for Aboriginal rights may share with gangs an interest in the repudiation of the Canadian legal system and an interest in supporting cross-border trade as a treaty right. Their paths diverge, however, regarding the production and marketing of local products. Cultural activists insist that products must be consistent with core cultural values. Even former gang members are disturbed by the growing use of meth and coke by current high-ranking gang members. This would indicate that the political sensibilities and desires for self-governance motivating the founding members of the larger Native gangs in the late 1980s have all but dissolved in the current climate. Former members who have transformed themselves into pro-youth workers consistently point out that few gang members ultimately find in gangs the answers they so desperately seek to their existential and material dilemmas.

Native Syndicate

In registering as mere “noise” (cf. Rancière 1999: 29) and without voice or social, economic, or political power in or outside Aboriginal circles, gangs continue to provide a transitional space and a discursive place for those Native youth who are unable to articulate their agency through conventional or community-sanctioned registers. Like the Mexican gang youth whose lives Zatz and Portillo (2000) document, Manitoba Native youth sometimes see themselves as agents of anti-colonialism (Alfred 2008), point to the police as troublemaking interlopers, and charge the media with failing to cover the economic problems that pervade poor, non-white neighborhoods. Looking askance at statutes that protect only the wealthy, moreover, gang members may conceive of their activities as valid forms of material redistribution and legitimate means of emotional redress.

The widespread use of drugs within gangs today signals that more is at work than straightforward profit-seeking. The gang members with whom I work continually concede that they use drugs to numb their pain. Drug use, while not particularly constructive, is one means of making it from today to tomorrow when placelessness becomes untenable, and futurelessness becomes unlivable. As the urban underclass is left to fend increasingly for itself, the “creative destruction” that gang involvement avails, offers one means to challenge conventional demarcations of “legitimate” commerce, to contest spaces of inequality, to disturb practices of exclusion, and to displace normative notions of marginality.

Increasingly, Native youth “age out” of gangs as they mature. In their late 20s, many have served prison time and do not wish to return. Some begin families and undertake addiction counseling, entering a recovery phase. Despite the desire for transcendence of the gang life, there remain few employment opportunities for individuals with criminal records who lack both educational credentials and the accumulated knowledge of “learning to labor” that their Euro-Canadian counterparts often possess.

The local drug economy has transformed, moreover, such that it is entirely feasible to operate as an independent producer by purchasing large quantities from Asian and more established Native gangs who possess the networks and organizational capacity required to transport drugs, tobacco, and other profit-generating goods across international borders. Drug sales have become normative in the inner-city urban Aboriginal subculture of Winnipeg, such that it is not uncommon for non-gang affiliated Native youth to describe a post-secondary educational financial strategy that is based on weekly drug sales. The caps on Federal Native education funding and the virtual impossibility of accessing the student loan system, make the drug economy, despite the violence of the narco-culture that attends it, a pragmatic and rational prospect. The situation is not likely to change moreover, until the political focus shifts from supply reduction to demand reduction.

Posse Killers

Historically, the Canadian state has sought to police morality and to circumscribe likely boundary digressions through legislation, governing youth and Native persons through supervision, suppression, and segregation. The penal management of inequality and bureaucratic disciplining of racialized neighborhoods, structures virtually every aspect of urban Aboriginal peoples’ lives. Race- and class-targeted legislation continues to works to structure Canada’s relations with its others and to remind Native subjects of their “proper” stations and functions. Legal scholar, Rosemary Coombe asserts that, “legitimate” social movements are governed by a cultural politics of place denoting cultural and ecological attachments to territory. These are accommodated by neoliberal orders because these forms of difference can be formulated in commodity terms (2005: 37). “The Indian” in Canada’s remote north who lives off the land is a useful tourist motif and a marketable form of distinction. Native peoples in Winnipeg’s North End, on the other hand, assert rights based on forms of cultural difference that are difficult to articulate with the conceptual framework of modernity. Urban Indians in the Canadian ideoscape are very much matter “out of place.” Identified as having failed to live up to formulaic renditions of “traditionalism,” urban residents are structurally ambiguous and defy the morality of properly construed (marketable) cultural difference, and defacing the logic of the commodity (ibid).

“Legitimate” Indians occupy the remote spaces of the public imagination, far from actual material encounters with the so-called “rightful” occupants of the city. Pictured in the contemporary presses as having fallen from a redemptive traditionalism. Blamed for failing to possess the very capabilities that the residential school complex robbed them of—namely their languages and cultures—urban Aboriginal peoples are denied meaningful civic participation both in Canadian and First Nations polities. They are the no-accounts. Efforts to reduce the demand for drugs must necessarily address the symbolic criminalization of all urban migrants. The escape-seeking which fuels the demand for drugs is likely to diminish when the categories informing the symbolic construction and material management of “problem” populations are recalculated, taking into account Indigenous values.

Kathleen Buddle is an assistant professor specializing in media anthropology and urban Aboriginal issues at the University of Manitoba. Her publications concern the history and contemporary development of Native media in Canada; Aboriginal cultural politics; Native youth gangs; gender and activism; and Indigenous social movements. She has produced several documentary shorts.

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Who Joins Youth Gangs in Canada? Snapshop on Three Key Populations of Interest

It is important to note that a precise measure of youth gang involvement and the occurrence of youth gang activityFootnote6 in Canada is not currently available, namely as a result of a lack of national data collection processes and a general reluctance on the part of individuals to voluntarily reveal gang membership. As noted by Sinclair and Grekul (2012), a weakness in the literature on youth gangs is the information that we use to assess the rate of youth gang involvement in Canada. The majority of reports and academic papers cite one single source for youth gang statistics, the Results of the 2002 Police Survey of Youth Gangs (Chettleburgh, 2003). Findings from this national survey are based on police perceptions of gang and member numbers in some regional jurisdictions and stratified estimates in others. Now 15 years old, it is uncertain if the data continue to reflect the current youth gang situation in Canada. While some recent studies have attempted to provide a systematic assessment of the extent of the youth gang phenomenon at the provincial/territorial level, no other national survey on youth gang involvement has been completed to date. Further, relying on voluntary disclosure of involvement is problematic in some circumstances. Gang affiliation and membership are frequently hidden particularly if gang surveillance and suppression activities increase in communities or if confirmation of membership jeopardizes young people's safety. This can lead to a general reluctance on the part of youth to discuss their involvement in the presence of anyone with authority.

In general, research suggests that youth gang membership cuts across many ethnic, geographic, demographic and socioeconomic contexts. However, there tends to be a relationship between gender, race, ethnicity and class structure that factors into the formation of particular gangs. Three populations that are receiving increased interest by gang scholars and researchers in Canada over the last number of years are Aboriginal youth, immigrant youth, and young women. These three groups will be the focus of the rest of this section.

Aboriginal YouthFootnote7

Historically the topic of Aboriginal gangs has largely been absent from Canadian gang research, although the number of government-initiated studies and academic works have been increasing over the last 15 years. The presence of Aboriginal gangs in urban, reserve or rural, and prison settings is now well documented. While resources related specifically to Aboriginal youth are still relatively limited, we continue to work to build our knowledge and understanding of this population through theoretical and empirical research and evaluation studies.Footnote8

It is believed that membership in Aboriginal youth gangs is rapidly increasing in the Prairie Provinces and particularly within the cities of Winnipeg, Regina, Saskatoon and Edmonton (Preston, Carr-Stewart, & Bruno, 2012). Aboriginal youth gangs are also moving into northern Canada, namely in Iqaluit and Yellowknife. This is concerning given that the proportion of First Nations, Métis and Inuit peoples is continuing to increase rapidly compared to other groups in Canadian society, with an average age that is much younger than the rest of the population (Statistics Canada, 2011). Further, overrepresentation of this population in the criminal justice system has been well documented (Correctional Services Program, 2016; Grekul & LaBoucane-Benson, 2008), as have the high rates of violent offending and victimization within Aboriginal communities (Boyce, 2016; Brzozowski, Taylor-Butts, & Johnson, 2006).

Although Aboriginal gangs have existed for decades, in general they have not reached the level of sophistication characteristic of other organized crime groups. Despite their number and their noticeable presence in prison populations, Aboriginal gangs are still often given the status of street gangs and 'wannabe' groups, known for their violence, their structure based on African-American gangs (e.g., tattoos, hand symbols, chains of command), and their conflict with other groups. They are relatively fluid, gaining or declining in strength and number as membership changes and in response to enforcement strategies (Grekul & LaBoucane-Benson, 2008). Members are typically individuals who are on the margins of the legitimate and illegitimate opportunity structures in Canadian society. They tend to be less educated and more economically disadvantaged in comparison to other criminal organization members (Deane, Bracken, & Morrissette, 2007; Goodwill, 2016). Aboriginal gangs tend to be intergenerational and although there is some indication that most individuals in gangs are over the age of 18, participants in Canadian research studies and program evaluations reported their engagement in gang activities as early as age eight (Badger & Albright, 2003; Comack, Deane, Morrissette, & Silver, 2013; Prairie Research Associates, 2011; Totten & Dunn, 2012).

Some studies (e.g., Kelly & Caputo, 2005) indicate that Aboriginal gangs are used by more organized criminal business organizations to carry out 'street work'. Aboriginal youth are assigned to the more disorganized, less profitable criminal opportunities including drug trafficking, assaults, and break-and-enters. Finally, Aboriginal gang violence is different than that exhibited by other youth gangs in Canada. Rates of internalized violence, including suicide, drug overdose, and self-injurious behaviours are far higher than externalized forms of criminal violence. Many acts of physical violence in Aboriginal gangs are motivated by revenge, retaliation and reputation, and the result is that young Aboriginal men are harming other young Aboriginal men (Totten, 2009, 2013).

Population Specific Risk Factors

Canadian research has examined specific risk factors for Aboriginal youth gang members. First and foremost gang involvement has precursors that can be traced back to the historical and cultural losses, social and political inequalities, and economic barriers faced by many Aboriginal people for multiple generations (e.g., racism, marginalization, colonialization, loss of culture, loss of land, poverty, intergenerational violence, unemployment, and issues of poor health). These multiple levels of marginality create social and geographic conditions favourable to gang formation and involvement among Aboriginal youth. As a whole these youth are more prone to youth gang involvement than their non-Aboriginal counterparts (Preston, Carr-Stewart, & Bruno, 2012; Sinclair & Grekul, 2012).

Individual risk factors such as stressful experiences, early life hardships and negative emotions coming from marginality in other life domains have been shown to increase the odds of gang involvement for Aboriginal youth (Goodwill, 2016). Further, anger has been associated with gang initiation, while depressive symptoms and hyperactivity/impulsivity have been associated with gang membership (Hautala, Sittner, & Whitbeck, 2016). In addition, several studies have found delinquency to be a significant factor for gang membership among Aboriginal youth (Freng, Davis, McCord, & Roussell, 2012). Moreover, Aboriginal adolescents tend to begin substance use at earlier ages than other racial and ethnic groups, and substance use has been found to be a significant factor for gang involvement among this group (Hautala, Sittner, & Whitbeck, 2016).

Peer influences are one of the most consistent and robust predictors of gang involvement. Associating with peers who are gang involved (including hanging around, delinquency, looking up to other gang members, proving one's worth to the gang) has been found to be a precursor to later gang membership among Aboriginal youth (Goodwill, 2016; Hautala, Sittner, & Whitbeck, 2016). School is another key domain which may aggravate the risk of gang involvement. Research has shown that Aboriginal youth who join gangs have little connection to school. Weak school attachment and low school bonding have been found to be correlates of gang initiation and early conduct problems in grade school can increase the odds of later gang membership (Hautala, Sittner, & Whitbeck, 2016).

Finally, the family is a key risk domain with family gang involvement providing a strong pull factor and other family problems including poor parental monitoring and parental neglect/abuse providing important push factors that increase the appeal of gangs (Grant & Feimer, 2007; Grekul & LaBoucane-Benson, 2008). Further, involvement in the Aboriginal child welfare system is a risk factor for gang involvement and criminality that is quite firmly established in the literature. The path from child welfare to gang involvement is intensified through the displacement of Aboriginal children that can lead to vulnerability, abuse and harm, trust and attachment problems, as well as an array of mental health issues. Gang members themselves state that their peers who have been raised in care make good targets for recruitment because gangs promise to act as family substitutes (Grekul & LaBoucane-Benson, 2008; Sinclair & Grekul, 2012).

Pathways to Gang Involvement and Desistance

For Aboriginal youth, the risk factors for gang involvement are compounded by the wider historical, structural and cultural issues noted previously. Aboriginal youth may be among the most marginalized in a subpopulation of marginalization (i.e., at-risk youth and gang-involved youth more generally). With few options available to address these concerns, the strong motivational factor leading into gang life is survival and the opportunity it provides for protection, identity, belonging, financial support and access to alcohol and drugs (Goodwill, 2016; Goodwill & Ishiyama, 2015; Grekul & LaBoucane-Benson, 2008).

Totten (2009, 2013) suggests that a pathways approach, supported by evidence from several Canadian studies, is useful in identifying the primary mechanisms through which Aboriginal youth find themselves involved in gang activity. There are five main pathways which can overlap to form compounding challenges for some Aboriginal youth:

  • The process of cyclical violence through which survivors of child maltreatment and neglect become perpetrators and victims in adolescence. When Aboriginal children suffer these forms of harm, they are at high risk for involvement in delinquency, crime, violence and gangs during their adolescent years.
  • Experiencing multiple out-of-home placements in child welfare and correctional facilities. These facilities are prime recruiting grounds for gang members, and a significant number of gang members report that they only became gang involved following placement in such facilities.
  • The lifelong impact of brain and mental health disorders that result from prolonged childhood trauma, and of the accompanying developmental impairments and emotional vulnerability. Many Aboriginal gang members who engage in violence have a state of 'terminal' thinking that leads them to focus on survival only; their sense of security, safety and trust never properly develop.
  • Social exclusion and devaluation related to social class, race, sexual orientation and gender. The loss of cultural identity, combined with social and economic marginalization, fuels gang violence.
  • Development of hyper-masculinities and sexualized femininities. Violence is used to construct masculinity, and sexuality to construct femininity.

Research on leaving the gang has shown that Aboriginal gang members may place considerable weight on their own decision-making processes and abilities with respect to leaving the gang and, while the decision might be related to a variety of factors, specific life events have not been identified. So, poor treatment within the gang, tiring of the gang life and wanting to avoid incarceration, as well as the positive influence of parents, partners or children, building social bonds particularly within one's Aboriginal culture, avoiding alcohol and drugs, and a period of contemplation away from crime may be associated with gang leaving, but these factors do not always guarantee a decision to exit. Further, stable employment is often a factor, as the ability to support oneself is considered a key to successfully leaving the gang (Goodwill & Ishiyama, 2015; Grekul & LaBoucane-Benson, 2008).

For Aboriginal youth coming from marginalized backgrounds whose lives are characterized by social isolation and disadvantage, the presence of stereotypes may complicate the process of desistance. Partly desistance involves moving away from one's former identity as a gang member and beginning to form a new identity. For Aboriginal youth, this involves the further change of seeing oneself as no longer conforming to a negative stereotype. It involves moving from a position of being excluded from social opportunities to seeing oneself as deserving to be included. Building associations and developing trust with prosocial others are major challenges (Deane, Bracken, & Morrissette, 2007).

Guidance for Prevention and Intervention

Many of the risk factors for gang involvement among Aboriginal youth are similar to those found in the general youth gang population, which suggests that pre-existing gang prevention and intervention strategies can work with these youth. Yet the conditions which shape risk among Aboriginal youth likely come from different social, political and historical processes, making the risk factors identified similar in function, but different in context (Whitbeck, Sittner Hartshorn, & Walls, 2014). This has important implications for how we design and implement gang prevention and intervention programs for Aboriginal youth, and particularly for those residing in rural and/or remote areas (Hautala, Sittner, & Whitbeck, 2016).

The presence of structural inequality and collective trauma require continuous understanding and form an important component when working with Aboriginal youth involved in gangs (Goodwill, 2016). Gang prevention and intervention practices should include the ability to assess the intergenerational effects of gangs and institutions that typically over represent Aboriginal peoples, and be inclusive of the goals of Aboriginal collectives working to reverse this (Grekul & LaBoucane-Benson, 2008). Further, the task is to limit the exclusion of Aboriginal families from timely, relevant and accessible services to continuously and effectively address what has already happened and prevent the transmission of trauma trans-generationally (Goodwill & Ishiyama, 2015). Gang issues should be regarded in the context of family experiences and treated in a multi-systematic therapeutic framework. Professionals skilled in trauma repair, addiction treatment, and assisting troubled families have important roles within coordinated and sustained healing resources within communities affected by gangs (Hautala, Sittner, & Whitbeck, 2016; Preston, Carr-Stewart, & Bruno, 2012).

Prevention and intervention programs that focus on Aboriginal youth are limited in number, but several promising programs exist that are premised upon cultural appropriateness and relevance, and these appear to be relatively successful in helping at-risk and gang-involved youth (Sinclair & Grekul, 2012).Footnote9 Any effort must be culturally adapted to fit the developmental context in which Aboriginal youth are involved to embrace their unique world view and to benefit from local community and cultural strengths (Whitbeck, Sittner Hartshorn, & Walls, 2014). This also limits the possibility of accepting what Klein and Maxson (2006) refer to as 'conventional wisdoms' and assuming that what we learn about successful gang programming in one location can be applied to other locations.

New strategies and approaches, as well as collaboration and problem-solving partnerships must be culturally competent; this goes beyond 'cultural awareness' (knowledge about a group) and 'cultural sensitivity' (some level of experience with a group). For example, the Medicine Wheel is an important symbol in Aboriginal teachings; it is a circular, holistic approach as opposed to the linear approach used in many Western settings (Totten, 2009, 2013). Further, in Aboriginal cultures, the concept of healing is a central theme which has broad application. It generally refers to an ongoing process, the practice and journey of 'living well' or of seeking 'the good life' (Hart, 1999). A powerful means of healing used throughout the Aboriginal community is the recovery of cultural and spiritual traditions. The practice of pipe ceremonies, sweat lodges, the sun dance and naming ceremonies, all provide a personal encounter with one's cultural ancestry (Deane, Bracken, & Morrissette, 2007).

Immigrant YouthFootnote10

There has been growing public concern expressed over the 'immigrant youth gang' in the last number of years. Wortley and Tanner (2006) noted that an assumption is often made that youth gang activity in Canada may be increasing because of recent immigration from certain 'gang-prone' nations, meaning that serious youth gang activity is being imported from other countries into Canada. However, given that there is a lack of statistical information on crime with respect to immigrant status, race and ethnicity, it is not possible to establish the prevalence and patterns of changes in criminal gang involvement of youth from immigrant families (Ngo, 2010). To date, a limited number of Canadian studies have examined the issue of immigrant youth and gangs.Footnote11 Continued dialogue on the connections between immigration, crime and gang involvement are needed in Canada in order to guide the development of responsive policies, programs and services for this population.Footnote12

Some newcomers can face a number of barriers to integration into Canadian society. First generation immigrant youth can experience linguistic, acculturative, psychological and economic challenges. They may experience barriers to equitable opportunities in Canada, and encounter a wide range of obstacles and challenges in accessing services and support in the social services, education, health and justice arenas. Although second generation Canadian youth born into immigrant families, as a group, tend to do well economically, those from a visible minority background may experience significant inequalities in their educational attainment and participation in the labour market. Second generation Canadian youth may also experience sociocultural challenges with respect to competing cultural expectations, cultural identity and intercultural interactions (Ngo, 2010; Sersli, Salazar, & Lozano, 2010).

Gangs typically form in communities where an accumulation of different forms of disadvantage (e.g., economic disadvantage, lack of opportunities, family disruption, racial discrimination) come together. Both the emergence and sustainability of gangs and gang membership rely on the extent to which these disadvantages are more prevalent in communities (Pyrooz, Fox, & Decker, 2010). These groups experience what Vigil (2002) called 'multiple marginality', where breakdowns of social and economic factors lead to a 'street socialization' takeover. Multiple marginality acts and reacts within populations to drive youth into the streets and immigration or migration adaption is a central part of this process. As youth undergo street socialization they may form a street subculture, namely a gang.

Commonly these gangs are organized with the specific intent of committing criminal activity for the purpose of financial gain. They are hierarchally structured with an established leadership and chain of command, and are selectively open to expanding their membership. Most gangs have initiation rituals based on violence and subject new members to screening and personal testing to confirm their solidness and loyalty. Most immigrant youth are involved in either an ethnically-based gang, or in a multicultural gang. Those associated with the latter have indicated that while their criminal gang was open to individuals of diverse ethnic backgrounds, only those from certain ethnic groups would be given a leadership role (Ngo, 2010). It should be noted however that when we assume that all ethnic gangs are alike, we lose sight of the uniqueness of groups that, while sharing criminal involvement, arise out of different contexts and conditions, are often organized differently, and vary in function and form (Grekul & LaBoucane-Benson, 2008).

Population Specific Risk Factors

The findings of several Canadian qualitative studiesFootnote13 demonstrate that the individual, school, family and community risk factors for gang involvement that appear to have a negative influence on immigrant youth are often interrelated, leaving some youth with what seem to be insurmountable challenges. At the individual level, the families of immigrant youth are often vulnerable in various ways prior to immigrating to Canada, or youth are impacted by their parents' histories prior to immigration. This vulnerability often comes from poverty, extreme violence, and brutality in their home countries. Once in Canada, the vulnerability of individual youth may be further aggravated by mental health issues and psychological damage resulting from instances of discrimination and victimization (Ngo, 2010). At the school level, lack of engagement has been identified as a risk factor for gang involvement (Chettleburgh, 2007), and there may be multiple underlying issues. Immigrant youth may struggle in educational pursuits, including lack of English proficiency, learning disabilities, and disrupted school experiences. Further challenges enhancing these barriers may include lack of academic support at home, fear of authority figures, and inappropriate grade placement (Kanu, 2008). At the family level, different rates of acculturation and conflict between home culture and dominant culture contributes to a growing detachment from parents and can lead to additional family stress and sustained family conflict due to different cultural expectations (Kanu, 2008; Rossiter & Rossiter, 2009). Further, low parental supervision and lack of parental modeling due to the physical or emotional absence of one or both parents (e.g., as a result of concern with economic survival) is common (Wortley & Tanner, 2006). Other risk factors include familial substance abuse or mental health issues, negative influences from older siblings, and familial criminality (Ngo, 2010). Finally at the community level, living in impoverished, high-crime neighbourhoods which experience violence and drug dealing as a regular part of daily life presents particular risks to immigrant youth. A lack of integration means that immigrant youth who live in these neighbourhoods may not have access to the same resources and programming as youth in other neighbourhoods (Sersli, Salazar, & Lozano, 2010).

Many of the risk factors for gang involvement are indicative of the sustained marginalization often faced by newcomer youth and their families (Rossiter & Rossiter, 2009). Although immigration status is not a direct cause of gang involvement, association with gangs may provide social support, acceptance and a sense of social status and respect that youth do not receive at home, at school or in their community. Youth who feel particularly stigmatized, isolated or excluded from mainstream society may come to believe that they are systematically excluded from legitimate opportunities. Social alienation and perceptions of social injustice may be important factors in explaining why some youth reject conventional social activities and decide to join gangs. Furthermore, these youth may see gang involvement as an expression of resistance to their perceptions of social inequality and oppression (Wortley & Tanner, 2006).

Pathways to Gang Involvement and Desistance

The breakdown of identities and the lack of a sense of belonging for immigrant youth may occur when their negative experiences at home, school and in the community outweigh their corresponding positive experiences. This happens when young people are confronted with both a wide range and severity of negative life experiences over an extended period, and can be aggravated by pre-migration vulnerabilities, as well as by socioeconomic conditions at home and in the community. The breakdown of identities can result in negative self-concept, as well as in disempowering views of ethnic and Canadian identities. As individuals, the youth may internalize identities of the victim, the deprived, the unwanted, the incapable, the follower, the frustrated and/or the delinquent. As citizens they may struggle with their identity as Canadians and may refer to themselves as immigrants or ethnic minorities regardless of their length of time in Canada. They may feel pressure to distance or abandon their cultural practices and may struggle with internalized racism. There may also be a discrepancy between the longing of youth to belong, and the difficult realities of their social isolation and exclusion. Youth may express a need to belong to supportive social networks, yet they may not feel strong connections with others at home, school or in the community (Ngo, 2010).

The breakdown of identities and the lack of a sense of belonging can create a void in social identity and connections, which can push immigrant youth to seek or be open to membership in alternative social networks. They can develop friendships with other socially disconnected individuals, who can introduce them to alternative groups, such as an established social clique, or together with other youth form their own social clique. Through these high-risk groups, immigrant youth can receive social validation and support, and participate in delinquent behaviours. Over time, these social cliques can evolve into more entrenched criminal gangs. In a few cases, the youth can be introduced to established gangs by their family members. Through group interactions and activities, youth can enjoy human bonding, group identity, protection, social status, thrills and financial rewards (Ngo, 2010).

For immigrant youth, the decision to leave the gang may involve a traumatic turning point, such as the death of bystanders or close friends and peer betrayal, as well as the tipping points of cognitive maturity and religious awakening. With self-determination and strong support from family members, immigrant youth may gradually distance and disconnect themselves from other gang members, and start a new life. In order to reintegrate into their family and communities, they may rely on family and social support. They can put effort into continuing their education and obtaining/maintaining legitimate employment. They can reconnect with the community through participation in community activities and services. In their ethnic communities, they may find spiritual grounding in religion and community mentorship (Ngo, 2010).

Guidance for Prevention and Intervention

In order to support high-risk and gang-involved youth from immigrant families, a shared vision of collaboration among stakeholders from diverse sectors is needed to promote the development of positive identities and to achieve a healthy sense of belonging at home, at school and in the community. Ngo (2010) recommends certain principles to guide the development of programs and services for this population:

  • Integration of empowering identity development – initiatives should outline clear strategies to promote positive self-concept, Canadian identity and ethnic identity.
  • Promote equity – stakeholders should address equity in resource allocation and availability of services, support and opportunities that in turn ensure equitable outcomes of wellbeing and success of youth from immigrant families.
  • Multi-stakeholder involvement, coordination and collaboration – multiple individuals and organizations working together can increase resource and professional expertise, and ensure both specialized support for specific needs and development of the youth.
  • Multiple approaches to youth services – in response to the complex life experiences and needs of high-risk and gang-involved youth from immigrant families, stakeholders should be attentive to the multiple layers of needs and corresponding initiatives required to address the complex issue.
  • Timelines and responsiveness – initiatives should be swift and respond to the needs of at-risk and gang-involved youth who are dealing with competing social pressures, demands and influences.

With respect to prevention, strategies for family-based support should address issues related to resettlement, academic and literacy capacity, family interaction, wellbeing and the influence of parents and siblings, family outreach and mentorship, and socioeconomic support. School-based strategies should deal with academic programming, social opportunities and programs, character building and identity development, mentorship, school transitions, outreach to and psychosocial support for socially alienated students, preventive education and support, and effective school practices. In addition, community-based strategies should promote culturally specific programming for immigrant youth, access for youth from immigrant families to general youth services, mentorship, community education and support, community and neighbourhood development, social action to address neighbourhood inequities, cultural competence, and organizational capacity to work with behaviourally challenging youth (Ngo, 2010; Sersli, Salazar, & Lozano, 2010; Wortley & Tanner, 2006).

With respect to gang exit and reintegration of gang-involved youth into the community, strategies for family-based support should ensure family safety, involvement of family members, and support to strengthen families. School-based strategies should deal with school safety, psychosocial, academic and financial support, and educational opportunities for returning youth. Community-based strategies should focus on outreach, support with separation from gangs, availability of post-gang support, community connection and participation, and leadership opportunities for formerly gang-involved youth to make positive contributions to the community (Ngo, 2010; Sersli, Salazar, & Lozano, 2010; Wortley & Tanner, 2006).

Young Women

Historically, young women have remained relatively 'invisible' in the gang literature for a variety of reasons, including: a primary research focus on male gang activity; offending, violence and gang membership being regarded as male behaviour; and limited police attention paid to female gang membership (Khan, Brice, Saunders, & Plumtree, 2013; O'Neal, Decker, Moule, & Pyrooz, 2016; Scott & Ruddell, 2011). Further, given the limited amount of research conducted on gangs in Canada in general, a specific focus on females and their experiences in gangs is even less frequent.Footnote14 However, in recent years, advances have been made in examining this population.

Unlike in the United States, where an increasing number of young women are joining and forming gangs, Canada is thought to have relatively few female gang members, and most of them are assumed to remain in the exterior circle (Dorais & Corriveau, 2009). The rate of female gang involvement is assumed to be approximately 10 times lower in Canada than it is in the United States. In 2002, it was estimated that 6% of gang members were thought to be female, ranging from a low of 3% in Ontario to a high of 12% in British Columbia (Chettleburgh, 2003). However, because women are less likely to be arrested by police, it is possible that these figures are underestimated. According to Chettleburgh (2003), the true number may be closer to a third of all gang members. Further, Totten (2008) suggests that the number of female gang members is higher now, as sources indicate that female gang involvement in Canada has been on the rise.

Early research studies described young women as adopting fairly stereotypical gender-specific marginal roles in the gang (e.g., sex objects, girlfriends, groupies, gun/drug holders, alibis, bait) rather than adopting equal responsibilities to male gang members (Lauderdale & Burman, 2009). On occasion, alternative descriptions developed of 'tomboys' (females who demonstrated their physical abilities and proved they could hang out and fight alongside males) or 'gang girls' (loud, crude groups of young women who not only cursed and were sexually active, but who took no pride in how they dressed) (Archer & Grascia, 2006; Tobin, 2008). However, over the last number of years, research studies have observed variety in the positions young women adopt, and this is illustrated by how female gang members have more recently begun to develop more central and independent roles within the gang including drug dealing, recruiting and enforcing (e.g., calling in drug debts) (Nimmo, 2001). Some young women are respected as being tough individuals and are seen as an asset to the gang.

Just as the research available indicates that there is no one type of female gang member, there are multiple types of gangs involving females. The 'auxiliary gang' is a support system for a main male gang. This female auxiliary gang has its own leadership structure and takes on a feminine version of a male gang (i.e., 'Kings' and 'Queens') and such groups are actively involved in gang activities for their own gain and potentially in relation with their male counterparts. The 'co-ed gang' has both male and female gang members, there is no gender separation within the organization, and status within the gang is based on respect gained by the individual. Finally, there is the rare 'independent gang', a completely female gang that is not connected to any male or co-ed gang. It is the least common type of female gang although research is beginning to show that some auxiliary gangs may evolve into independent gangs (Tobin, 2008). Further, there may be some variation in the treatment of female gang members based on the type of gang in which they are involved. Nimmo (2001) for example, observed that less organized gangs offered more power and status to women associates or members. Lauderdale and Burman (2009) observed that a woman's position within a gang is flexible and usually determined by gang leaders.

Population Specific Risk Factors

Although there is growing understanding of risk factors for gang membership, our knowledge on gender-specific risk factors is still limited, as not much youth gang research has thoroughly compared young women and young men. Keeping this limitation in mind, some tentative conclusions can be drawn from research to date. Many risk factors appear to be shared by males and females, including: early problem behaviour; beliefs supporting deviance; lack of prosocial bonds; association and commitment to delinquent peers; low social support; low supervision and parental social control; perceptions of school disorder; poor academic achievement; living in poverty; and high levels of gang activity and/or drug dealing in the community (see Bell, 2009; Esbensen et al., 2010; Peterson & Morgan, 2014).

There are also several risk factors for gang involvement which appear to have a different impact on youth based on gender. Young women are more likely to come from disadvantaged backgrounds, have experiences of marginalization, and have multiple family problems, including a history of physical, sexual and emotional abuse in the home, witness physical violence and substance abuse in the home, and have a family member who is gang involved or who has been incarcerated (Grekul & LaRoque, 2011; Nimmo, 2001). Further, in the school domain, school commitment, attachment or expectations, and limited educational opportunities are more influential for females' than males' gang involvement (Esbensen et al., 2010; Peterson, 2012).

Pathways to Gang Involvement and Desistance

There is no one reason why young women join gangs and not all individuals join for the same reasons. Similar to the general motivations discussed previously, there are various push and pull factors that may influence the decision to become involved with a gang. Young women have described their gang joining in terms of finding respect and identity during an already difficult adolescent period, and pushing back against societally prescribed roles and stereotypes. Through their gang membership, they may reject such values as passivity and subordinance to males (Peterson, 2012).

Bell (2009) and Miller (2001) have drawn attention to the relationship between exposure to violence and victimization as factors that enhance the appeal of gangs. Some young women are pushed into gangs as a result of a history of physical, sexual abuse and/or emotional abuse. A desire for the protection and sense of belonging offered by gangs may be a consequence of growing up in dysfunctional and abusive families, and low levels of parental involvement or attachment, as well as family disadvantage and poverty. Young women are likely to describe experiences of membership in terms of providing an alternative family structure (Archer & Grascia, 2006; Nimmo, 2001; Totten, 2008).

Peer relationships are also often linked to female gang involvement. Young women have reported becoming involved through peer pressure; either being intimidated or 'beat in' to gang membership or sexually 'groomed' by more sophisticated members (Archer & Grascia, 2006), often by boyfriends and male relatives (Tobin, 2008). Young women may also join gangs because they are looking for a social life, for fun and excitement (Eghigian & Kirby, 2006). Like their male counterparts, some seek excitement through crime and substance abuse (Archer & Grascia, 2006; Totten, 2008). Female gang members have also described their neighbourhoods as lacking resources and activities, and so the gang provides an important 'social outlet', addressing boredom and frustration (Joe & Chesney-Lind, 1995).

Regardless of the increasing presence of women in gangs and the shift in their roles, there is still overwhelming evidence suggesting the exploitation, vulnerability and victimization of women affiliated with gangs (Archer & Grascia, 2006). These young women often have personal histories of victimization and multiple sites of oppression, including those based on gender, race, social class and systemic discrimination, and once they become affiliated with gangs their situations actually get worse (Grekul & LaRocque, 2011). Rather than being a safe haven, a source of protection, and a substitute family, as it usually promises to be, the gang becomes abuser, pimp and crime boss (Dorais & Corriveau, 2009) where gang-involved women are more likely than other women to be involved in sexually risky or harmful behaviour, including gang fighting, drug use and sales, and weapons carrying (Khan et al., 2013).

Victimization in gangs at the hands of fellow gang members is not uncommon (Abbottsford Youth Commission, 2010). Researchers report widespread sexual and physical victimization by boyfriends, and also by other male gang members in the context of the gang (Valdez, 2007). Female forms of victimization also differ from that of males. Totten (2009, 2013) describes the gendered nature of the processes surrounding gang involvement and revolving around hyper-masculinities and sexualized femininities. A gendered hierarchy enables the success of the gang and sexual exploitation is used as a means to achieve monetary success, by providing a service in high demand, while preserving male power and control (Petersen & Howell, 2013).

Further, as a result of constantly being under scrutiny by males, females may act more aggressively to demonstrate courage and/or to gain male respect. A young woman's main 'capital' on the streets is her measure of control and her reputation for handling herself, and those with a strong need for social acceptance by male gang members will do 'whatever it takes' to maintain close ties with male gang members (Petersen & Howell, 2013). This may account for the elevated delinquent activity of young women in the more mixed-gender gangs and some studies have recorded increasing equality in the prevalence of male and female acts of violence (Wang, 2000).

The experiences of young women within the gang and the potential long-term consequences highlight the fact that gang membership represents not just an opportunity for escaping or attempting to reduce various social injuries, but also a mechanism for additional injury (Peterson, 2012). Gang membership increases the odds of women experiencing domestic violence, having and caring for children at a young age, marrying a gang-affiliated partner, and unstable employment (Thornberry, Krohn, Lizotte, Smith, & Tobin, 2003). Moreover, if young women continue gang affiliation into adulthood, they are at a higher risk of becoming incarcerated and reoffending than non gang-involved women (Scott & Ruddell, 2011).

Although research on gang disengagement has advanced in the last decade, little attention has been given to whether, and to what extent, gender may affect the disengagement process (O'Neal et al., 2016). Studies examining why and how females disengage from gangs have generally focused on three areas: motherhood; criminal justice system involvement; and/or experiences of victimization. Each of these may act as a 'hook for change' (Giordano, Cernkovich, & Rudolph, 2002), assisting in the process of leaving the gang.

In general, empirical work examining the impact of motherhood is mixed, leaving questions about its impact on desistance (O'Neal et al., 2016). However, several Canadian studies have found that pregnancy influenced young women's decisions to get out and stay out of the gang. The latter indicated that they did not want their child to be affected or influenced by the gang's 'negative lifestyle' and that they wanted to make their lives better in order to protect them (Aulakh, 2008; Kelly, 2015; Nimmo, 2001).

Coming into contact with the criminal justice system, through incarceration and other sanctions, can also act as a turning point for young women (Nimmo, 2001). The physical separation of the institution can be beneficial for gang-involved women because it can result in an opportunity to contemplate the future, and the gang is no longer the primary support structure (at least temporarily). Overall, research on the effect of incarceration on gang leaving has resulted in mixed findings (Decker, Pyrooz, & Moule, 2014; Pyrooz & Decker, 2011). It is possible that incarceration could result in disengagement from gangs; yet research on this topic is limited and examination of incarcerated female gang members is even less common.

Finally, because of the victimization of females in gangs relative to males, there may be more 'crisis moments' or opportunities for 'hooks for change' to occur (Grekul & LaRocque, 2011). Young women may recognize themselves to be victims of escalating violence and start to identify the negative consequences related to harm due to violence. These concerns can act as one of the reasons they decide to end their affiliations with their gangs and to move on with their lives. Key to this is often either personal experiences as direct victims of violent acts or the witnessing of violent attacks on fellow gang members (Aulakh, 2008; Kelly, 2015; Nimmo, 2001).

Guidance for Prevention and Intervention

While many risk factors and reasons motivating young women to join gangs overlap with those of their male counterparts, there are also key differences. For this reason, prevention and intervention initiatives should include both gender-neutral (with a proven record of improving female as well as male outcomes) and gender-specific approaches and programs. Recent studies have outlined some key elements for effective gender-informed initiatives for young women (Khan et al., 2013; Peterson, 2012; Peterson & Morgan, 2014; Wolf & Gutierrez, 2012):

  • They should be provided in a safe and nurturing environment (including single-sex space) favourable to therapeutic change.
  • They should include content which reflects both the risk factors and the realities of their daily lives: multi-disciplinary, comprehensive, holistic and solutions-focused approach to addressing the multiplicity of young women's risks, strengths and experiences (including physical and sexual health, practical difficulties, life skills, parenting support, experiences of victimization, aspirations, mental health/trauma, educational opportunities, preparation for work, substance reliance).
  • They should promote self-esteem, healthy assertive behaviour and self-reliance to build resilience against future victimization and provide opportunities for empowerment, growth and explorations of identity.
  • They should foster respectful and positive relationships as an important device for promoting change: facilitating association with alternative peer groups; and utilizing mentors, particularly women with similar experiences who can identify with and advise them.
  • They should include work with families (especially the mother-daughter relationship) and engagement of other adults supporting the longer term resilience of these young women with attention to improving interaction and communication, providing structure and accountability, and facilitating opportunities.
  • They should continue to combat the 'gang lore' spreading the ideas that the gang is a safe haven and that one cannot leave without serious consequences to self, family and/or friends.


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[NCPC] National Crime Prevention Centre (2012).

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