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Breaking the gang chains

"Someone told me it's hard to soar like an eagle when you're hangin' with chickens. We're all eagles here. So don't hang with no chickens.
Members of STR8 UP, a program helping individuals exit gangs and gang lifestyles, spoke to an audience at Sakewew High School about their experiences.

"Someone told me it's hard to soar like an eagle when you're hangin' with chickens. We're all eagles here. So don't hang with no chickens."

This was the message given to the crowd of students gathered at Sakewew High School last Wednesday during a gang awareness presentation.

Former gang members, drug addicts and criminals stood in front of the audience to do what is likely one of the bravest, most difficult things they've done, apart from the decision to leave their former lifestyles - they opened up and shared their stories.

"It's a no-B.S. approach to telling people about gangs," said Ray Fox, who, as director of Battlefords Tribal Council - Justice, was one of the event organizers.

"They have no reason to stand here and lie to anyone, and I think the kids kind of zero in on that," said Fox.

The stories were anything but bedtime stories; they were stories of pain, anger, fear, depression and, a feeling common to all, the need to belong.

"It was everything you wanted in the beginning: respect, love," said Faith of joining a gang.

She talked about how the divorce of her parents affected her. At nine years of age, Faith was thrust into an adult's role, having to care for her younger siblings and even talk her mother out of committing suicide.

"Looking for love in all the wrong places," Faith said she went from being a promising basketball player to using and selling drugs.

Fast forward a few years and Faith's children are taken from her. She finds out the gang has her back, at least until she decides to make the right choice.

"A lot of times it's you and that's it," said Faith. "You won't get backed up if you want to change."

The turning point for her came during a high-speed chase. The man driving was wanted by police and wouldn't slow down, even when the police stopped chasing them.

Faith remembers asking God, "Can you help me?" just before they smashed into a minivan.

Upon emerging relatively unscathed, besides a few cuts and bruises, Faith made the decision to change her life.

"The road I was on, I should be six feet under, but I'm here today," she said.

Faith now has her children back, and is devoted to making sure her children don't make the same mistake.

"Seeing the smiles on their faces, it's worth it," she said.

Wayne wasn't so lucky. At the age of 53, he has spent only four months of his adult life a free man and is currently serving a life sentence.

"I'll never be free," he said.

Wayne's parents were alcoholics and he spent most of his teens in and out of juvenile detention.

"Life kind of has a way of sneaking up on you," he said.

Another, David, was able to turn his life around while he was still relatively young, and is now pursuing his musical dreams, touring Canada and the United States with his band.

"If I could say anything to you, it's be around the right people," he said. "You guys all have potential, so I want to encourage you to go for it."

David considers himself lucky to have left his gang unscathed, telling the audience a friend of his had a potato sack put over his head and both knees smashed with a sledgehammer. Today, he has steel rods in his legs, but the outcome is still something to be thankful for, as the original plan was to hit him in the head.

Others, including a former Sakewew student, shared their stories as a warning to the young people in the crowd, those facing similar circumstances and decisions themselves.

Each person in the presenting group is now part of a new gang called STR8 UP.

The STR8 UP program was developed by the John Howard Society of Saskatchewan, together with a Saskatoon priest, Father André Poiliévre, to help individuals leave gang life.

Fr. Poiliévre received the Order of Canada in 2008 for his decades of work helping youth leave gangs and recover from addictions.

When Fr. Poiliévre entered his 70s, he realized he would not be able to continue his work for much longer and contacted the John Howard Society, hoping they would be able to build upon his achievements.

Stan Tuinukuafe, co-ordinator for the STR8 UP program, said there are five requirements to joining the STR8 UP gang.

The first is dropping the colours of their former gang, and the second is dealing with their addicitions.

"This is the most challenging part," said Tuinukuafe, explaining how they do so is up to them, whether that means going to church, to Alcoholics Anonymous, or to sweats.

"They have to drop the street attitude," he said, adding the next two conditions are to be honest and to be humble.

Finally, they have to agree to stay in STR8 UP for four years.

"It's a process, it takes time," said Tuinukuafe. "If you're sticking needles in your arm in the morning and stabbing people at night, you're not going to change overnight," he said.

Once former gang members are a part of STR8 UP, there are three rules to follow: be a loving parent, be a faithful partner and be a responsible citizen.

Tuinukuafe explained all three rules involve relationships, and the last involves the relationship people have with the estimated 6.9 billion people in the world. He said aspects of that relationship can include what might seem like trivial things, such as not littering, not hating police officers or social workers, or making a difference in a stranger's life, perhaps by giving such presentations and hopefully preventing another young person from making the same mistakes.

Tuinukuafe said one of the hardest parts of leaving a former lifestyle is "breaking away from unhealthy relationships," adding it's important to develop one's spirituality.

"It's important that we have a relationship with someone greater than us," said Tuinukuafe, whether it's God, Buddha, or even Zeus.

He also explored the reasons people join gangs by looking at the cycle of life, starting with infancy. Tuinukuafe said when people are young, they are like sponges absorbing everything.

When they are older, they start to give, but they are only able to give what they've received.

"If I have 10 dollars, can I give you 10 dollars?" he asked the audience. "Yes, if I want to. But if I don't have anything I can't give you anything, can I?"

He added that many people turn to drugs as a way to deal with the pain, therefore the first step in recovery is to identify the source of pain, deal with it and move on.

Tuinukuafe used a circus elephant as a metaphor, asking the audience to consider why a big, strong elephant allows itself to be tethered with a thin rope attached to a small stake in the ground.

He explained the elephants are tethered with a chain attached to a cement block when they are young.

"It pulls and pulls and pulls and eventually gives up," he said, adding the cement block represents the abuse and the lies youth are told, and the rope is their addiction, which they have the strength to break if they could just believe in themselves.

"It's not true that you can't graduate," said Tuinukuafe. "It's not true that you can't amount to something."

Upon the conclusion of the presentation, the audience was given the opportunity to meet and shake the hands of the speakers.

A number of community organization representatives attended the presentation, as well as many elders, whom Fox said could be identified "by the grey hairs mostly, but also by the wisdom in their eyes."

The STR8 UP group is available for presentations. To book one, call Tuinukuafe at 306-280-4705.