Indians Wear Red: Colonialism, Resistance and Aboriginal Street Gangs—a Fernwood Publishing book released last August—challenges the reader to look at the problem of Aboriginal street gangs in Winnipeg from a different perspective.
Two of the book’s four authors, Lawrence Deane and Larry Morrissette, presented at the department of native studies’ 2014 winter colloquium series last week.
Deane is an associate professor in the faculty of social work at the University of Manitoba, teaching in the Inner City Social Work Program. He has worked in community development for over 20 years in India, China, and Winnipeg.
Morrissette also teaches at the Inner City Social Work Program, as well as at the University of Winnipeg’s urban and inner city studies program, and is the executive director of Ogijiita Pimatiswin Kinamatwin (OPK).
The authors explained that the book was in response to gang members wanting their perspective on gangs and gang violence to be heard. The gang members, seeking new connections and a chance to broaden their opportunities, joined a housing project organized by OPK.
The housing project is “in response to the pressing need for decent housing and neighbourhood renewal” in Winnipeg’s North End, and seeks to contribute to building “an all-inclusive, healthy community.”
A unique program came from the gang members’ involvement in the housing project – one that focused on needs as identified by the gang members. Despite attempts by funding agencies to impose structures and measurable outcomes, Morrissette explained that the program remained flexible, responding to the cultural, employment, housing, and mental health requirements identified by the participants.
The discussion was never about leaving the gang.
Deane explained, “That was never the focus of the gang members. The emphasis was on learning transferable skills, making connections, and broadening their options – basically to not do crime, to try other things.”
After a violent incident between rival gangs, to counter the typical societal narrative, gang members approached the authors wanting their stories to be heard. From these initial interviews in 2009 came the paper, “If You Want to Change the Violence in the Hood, You Need to Change the ‘Hood.’”
At the request of gang members, a larger research project was undertaken.
The result of that project, Indians Wear Red, is based entirely on the experience and insights of these gang members.
The book identifies gang involvement as a response to the devastating conditions resulting from colonialism. A common experience for most individuals interviewed was poverty, drugs, and violence in the home from a very young age.
Morrissette explained that by the age of 12, most gang members had left home and entered the “alternative economy” of the drug world. He said this economy is “the most accessible means for young persons to provide for their basic needs: food, clothing, and shelter.”
In order to survive, Deane explained, they turn their aggression outwards and become “tougher than everything they are facing, whether it be the police, hunger, absence of opportunities, violence – whatever [ . . . ] the consistent story was, ‘you could not let it beat you.’”
The authors described the book as stories of resistance to growing up in these conditions.
“Our question, then, was not ‘how do you deal with gangs,’ but ‘how do you deal with those environments that are so devastating that people have to become this tough to overcome it,’” said Deane.
Morrissette explained that they found “a poverty issue, a drug issue, a violence issue, [and] an issue of colonization, as opposed to a gang issue.”
“Gangs are just a response to these horrendous conditions.”
The reaction of society, Deane explained, “has been to hit them as hard as you can. But these guys are tough, they are not fazed by how society tries to frighten them or suppress them. They say ‘bring it on’ [ . . . ] What we need to do is shift our focus from suppression, to determining how to remove these devastating circumstances so kids do not have to grow up in them.”