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Behind the Headlines: N. B'ford RCMP tackling Indigenous gangs

'Indigenous street gangs would be the number one [gang in North Battleford,]' said RCMP Inspector Jesse Gilbert.
According to Statistics Canada, in 2018, Saskatchewan had the highest rate of gang-related homicides in Canada with its rate being 50 per cent higher than the national average.

THE BATTLEFORDS - When asked if gang violence — specifically Indigenous street gangs — are an issue in North Battleford, RCMP Inspector for the Battlefords detachment, Jesse Gilbert said it depends on the context. Typically, he noted, the violence among gangs is often just that, between gang members.

“It certainly impacts the people who are living in the areas where that offense [has happened] …  if there was a shooting that affects everyone who’s living around that area. But is the gang violence an impact to everybody in the city? Probably not,” he said, noting that it can raise fear which does impact the community.

What’s very difficult, Gilbert noted — as he had said with measuring the Crime Severity Index — is that their statistics don’t label violent crimes gang or non-gang-related.

“And our major crime [statistics are] the exact same way. If there’s a homicide, because it may occur between two gang members, or shooting might occur between two gang members. But there’s a lot of interpersonal relationships there as well.”

“If there’s a significant other involved that was between two people, then that could cause the violence and not necessarily the gang activity itself. So that’s typically why we don’t collect [gang-violence related statistics] and come out and say, X amount of these offenses are gang related offenses.

Gilbert also clarified the role of other gangs in North Battlefords.

“Indigenous street gangs would be the number one [gang in North Battleford.]”

Gang Task Force deconstructed

If you time travel back to 2019, before Gilbert had left other areas of western Canada and arrived in North Battleford, Gilbert told the News-Optimist that 2019 seemed to be, statistically, the city’s most violent year. This is evidenced by over 66 discharge firearms, he noted.

“There’s some really negative media from that time. And I think at that time, there was a realization between the detachment and the city that something else had to be done, it couldn’t just be left to detachment members to respond to calls when they happen, there had to be some more proactive element to investigating these types of offenses,” he said.

What followed was a purely city-funded Gang Task Force, in which some members from the municipal RCMP positions (which the city pays for) were sectioned into the force tasked solely in trying to dismantle crimes related to gang violence before they result in a call to the RCMP.

“Their mandate is to proactively go after … anything related to gang activity. So, drugs are a big … [or] stolen vehicles, the firearms are a huge one for us. Because obviously, that’s one of the higher more risky offenses.

“So that’s one of their mandates is just to be more proactive, don’t wait until something happens to try to intervene.”

The work of the Gang Task Force is evidenced in success that Gilbert shared with the News-Optimist on April 3. Successes ranging from the 13 search warrant executions in 2022 that collected over $100,000, 179,200 illegal cigarettes, and kilograms of illicit drugs and cutting agents worth approximately $1.2 million.

In 2023, Gang Task Force investigations have led to more than 60 people being charged, the recovery of 20 stolen vehicles, and executing 12 search warrants along with again seizing drugs and cash.

Even the RCMP’s successful reduction in vehicle thefts — down 27 per cent in five years — which he said are connected a lot to gang activity is overshadowed by the annual release of the Crime Severity Index (CSI) and crimes like shootings and homicides that get more media coverage.

“We will never really know what it is we’re preventing,” he said, noting despite the successes noted above, that firearm [offences] has ticked up again in recent years, though not up to 2019 levels.

“Had [the gun, drug, and vehicles seizures] not have happened, could the numbers be significantly worse than they are right now? I personally believe that they’ve prevented some [violence] but I can’t say based on statistics that they have, because I don’t know, I can’t tell you that that gun seized in that vehicle or that house would have been used in an offense.

“You can see maybe the numbers are staying steady. But could they have been higher? Could they have been lower? And then if one of those programs are removed. If you do see a spike, then potentially that was related to the program, that [is] not in place.

“But I mean … it’s the preventative stuff [that is] really, really hard to measure.”

The reduction in violent crime since 2019 could also not be about the Gang Task Force, with a few prolific offenders leaving the community for a period of time, coupled with productive work and enforcement.

“We could never say ‘100 per cent of [a reduction] is related to policing. There’s always going to be other factors involved.”

But in the end, it seems it will take more than the RCMP to solve gang violence in the Battlefords.

Can the RCMP police people out street gangs?

One of the biggest challenges in dealing with gang violence is trying to solve the issues that lead people to join gangs.

“There’s not a lot of people who kind of grow up and say, ‘that is my goal, I want to be in a gang.’ Gangs offer something to people who are missing something,” he said.

If a gang is providing [housing, food, money, etc.] then those basic necessities override any other feelings that you might have about the gang, Gilbert added.

“So, if you’re going to target it only with enforcement, you’re never going to address the people who lack that stuff, you’re always going to have people feeding back in to that lifestyle, because you have people with those needs that have to be addressed.

“And even with enforcement, I mean, people can go away for a certain amount of time. Correctional centers are not great environments for eliminating gang activity. A lot of people say … they came out with better connections after being in jail. So even sending people away isn’t the way to resolve it.

“It’s a Bandaid in a way.”

People are struggling to buy groceries, afford housing, and don’t have access to mental health services, he said, noting that without solving those problems, gang violence will continue. Referring to volunteer agencies that provide meals, try to get kids off the streets, or ex-gang members who open programs, he said there are a lot of examples of successful initiatives.

“Policing is great. But at the end of the day, a lot of times policing comes in at the end. And if we’re only dealing with a person, once they’ve gotten into the gang, once they become entrenched, and once they … do a drive by shooting, then we’ve missed that entire opportunity to divert them.

“If you’re catching them, at that end, it becomes even harder to get them off that path. So, we kind of need a combination of the preventative stuff, the intervention stuff when people are at risk, and then the enforcement piece.”