INTERNATIONAL CHILD AND YOUTH CARE NETWORK
26 APRIL 2002
Montrealers are all too familiar with with biker gangs. But what about the smaller street gangs that thrive in many parts of the city? What can be done to stop them from growing?
Street gangs less of a threat: teens
It's late afternoon at Maison d'Haiti and the heat of an unseasonably warm spring day is doing nothing to calm what has become an animated discussion. The topic is street gangs, and a group of teenagers has gathered to set a reporter straight.
"The situation has changed. The gangs are a lot more quiet, they're making less waves. Yeah, there's still a problem, but it's not like 'terror in the streets' - you have to talk about reality," says a tall, lanky teenager in baggy jeans and an oversized football jersey.
"Talk about the problem, but describe it for what it is," added someone sitting farther down the table.
The teens in the former school housing the Haitian community group don't deny there's a problem with street gangs in St. Michel, their neighbourhood.
"Most people aren't affected directly any more by what's going on, the streets are safe here," a young woman interjects. "It doesn't mean there isn't a problem, it just means it's harder to identify."
Another problem: these youngsters are feeling singled out because their community is home to several high-profile gangs. They're feeling targeted because of the perception that street gangs are a problem that affects only the black community.
That view is patently wrong, they say, noting a trend police have also observed: while many gangs might have started as ethnically based groups, questions of race and cultural affinity have taken a back seat to making a buck.
Stereotypes are as easy as they are unfair.
"Not every kid who wears a baseball hat on sideways or a bandanna is a gang guy. People shouldn't judge us," said another teenager, a leather Gilligan hat pulled low over his eyes.
These young men and women don't want their names published. That's partly because they're suspicious about the way the media treat street gangs and because every one of them is an outreach worker who deals either with gang members or their relations on a daily basis.
Their work is counseling youths to stay away from the street gangs that prey on them. They have no easy answers, except to offer hope.
"Give people opportunities and they won't want anything to do with gangs. Give them the belief they can earn a good living, that they can dream of becoming anything they want and actually get there," said a young woman with a fiery gaze.
* * *
Between 1990 and 2001, police say, there were 92 gang-related killings in Montreal. Add in other gang-related crimes - attempted murders, assaults, robberies and kidnappings - and the numbers run into the hundreds or even thousands. And that doesn't take into account the large number of violent acts that go unreported because gang members prefer to take care of their own problems without calling police.
So far this year, two murders have been tied to city street gangs.
In the past week or so, police have broken up a brawl between warring factions near an east-end métro station and arrested several people for drug and weapons offences in a downtown club that's considered a gang hangout. Also, a police officer was assaulted.
If fighting bikers is the Montreal police's top priority, dealing with street gangs has climbed the charts and is now second.
The city's police force advocates a carrot-and-stick approach: work on rehabilitating young offenders, crack down hard on habitual criminals.
There are anti-gang units in each of the four Montreal police operational centres and a pair of full-time investigators with the organized-crime squad, as well as liaison officers in each of the city's high schools. Altogether, about 100 people spend at least part of their working day fighting street gangs.
Still, the feeling is that isn't enough.
"It's frustrating sometimes, because we have all the know-how and information and we can't always act on it," said Det.-Sgt. Jean-Claude Gauthier of the Montreal police criminal-intelligence section.
Resources aside, Gauthier said, it takes more than the police to fight street gangs: "Families need to get involved with their children, community associations, social agencies, neighbourhoods themselves. It's not strictly a policing issue."
Det.-Sgt. Serge Morin, who has been investigating gangs for more than 15 years, said vigilance is key.
"It's easy to not admit there's a problem. But we have to work these gangs. We have to keep our eye on them," Morin said. "We need to follow them, intervene when we can with young people to show them there's a better choice."
Morin, a 30-year police veteran, looks more like a kindly uncle than an iron-willed crimebuster. When he talks about gang members, he often refers to them as "my boys."
It's not affection exactly, more like a grudging acceptance of everyday facts by a veteran cop who still manages to wake up every morning with an optimistic outlook.
"I guess I'm just a 'professeur manqué.' You have to be willing to educate people about the alternatives in life."
* * *
Chuck D, leader of the seminal rap group Public Enemy, once said that rap music was inner-city America's CNN.
Given that hip-hop has become the currency of the street in Montreal as well, it follows that music and rap culture have had profound effects here.
Which is why some local artists have turned their talents to diverting kids away from street gangs.
Don Karnage grew up in Montreal North and is about to release his second rap album. With the release comes a concert tour that will take him to different cities where he'll speak to students at their schools.
"The important thing is to remind people they have choices. I'm not about ramming things down people's throat; kids are going to do what they want to do.
"I just think it's important that they think about the choices they make, that they understand those choices have consequences," he said.
Karnage, 25, who went to school in an area controlled by the Bo-Gars gang, has several acquaintances who chose the gangster life.
"No one was there to talk to me about (gangs), so if I can talk about it to others, great. I think music is important, and to some degree it can serve as an influence, so why not try to make it a good influence?"
L'Instigatt, the stage name of rapper Paul Audigé, grew up in St. Michel, home to the Crack Down Posse, a street gang that has waged a decade-long turf war with the Bo-Gars.
Now Audigé is putting together a compilation CD featuring rap artists from Montreal North and St. Michel. "We want to promote unity and show that people can come together to make something great even if they live in parts of town that others would never think of going to," he said. The CD, called 67, is named after the bus route that runs through both neighbourhoods.
Like Karnage, Audigé doesn't glorify the gangster lifestyle in his songs.
"I think there's a lot of rap that tends to be negative: guns, drugs, bitch this, bitch that," he said.
"I think we owe it to ourselves as musicians to talk about the real issues that concern people, not get involved in romanticizing this whole gangster life," he said.
Audigé also counsels young people and is working to encourage up-and-coming rap artists through La Consienza, his fledgling record label.
The hope is to give teenagers a creative outlet - in this case, music - without being preachy.
"If we can channel people away from drugs and crime into music, all the better."
* * *
The Centres Jeunesse de Montréal take in teenagers who are referred to them by child-protection services and youth court. They offer them counseling and can place them in group homes.
Criminologist François Lafaille, who runs their anti-gang program, said social agencies are changing their methods as they learn more about gang life.
For example, it used to be that teenage prostitutes - many of whom work for street gangs - were placed in isolation when they were taken into custody by youth protection.
"I think the theory was to make the kids confront their feelings and emotions. In more recent years, we've come to treat those people more like sexual-assault victims.
"We don't put them in a room by themselves any more," Lafaille said. "We're more sensitive in our counseling methods."
But in the end, Lafaille said, the solution lies in changing the way we think about street gangs.
"We have to demystify this whole issue. We're generally talking about teenagers and young adults here, many of whom are victims," he said. "We need to take away people's fear; everyone's in a gang when you really think about it - teachers, cops, journalists, lawyers, whatever."
Lafaille said the only way for people to keep gangs from growing is "to just talk to each other."
"Parents need to be able to talk to police, police to social agencies, social agencies to kids, kids to schools. That's where it all starts. There's no miracle solution."
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